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Emory receives $1.2 million grant to help shape future of scholarly publishing

Sarah McKee, who joined Emory's Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry this month as senior associate director of publishing, will focus on rolling out ventures that publish humanities monographs as digital publications. Emory Photo/Video

Emory College of Arts and Sciences has launched a $1.2 million effort that positions it to be a national leader in the future of scholarly publishing. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is funding the multiyear initiative to support long-form, open-access publications in the humanities in partnership with university presses.

The idea to explore new models for humanities publishing was born out of a working group of faculty and administrators headed by Michael A. Elliott, interim Emory College dean and Asa Griggs Candler Professor of English.

“Emory is a good place for this because we have faculty that are adventurous in their disciplinary interests and already thinking of addressing multiple audiences,” Elliott says. “It will be rigorous scholarship, available to everyone.”

Led by the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, the endeavor will bring together efforts in Emory College, Emory Libraries, the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence and the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship.

At the helm is Sarah McKee, most recently managing editor of the New Georgia Encyclopedia. She arrived this month as the Fox Center's senior associate director of publishing, tasked with rolling out ventures that publish humanities monographs as digital publications.

The project will run through 2020 and calls for Emory to share the cost and benefit of publishing new long-form works.

“It’s experimental, and that’s what is so interesting to me,” McKee says. “No one knows the right model, so we get to be on the cutting edge of the options.”

Changing roles for university presses

The push to support humanities publishing comes at a time of rapid change in the landscape of monograph publishing.

As library budgets shrink, university presses are publishing fewer works. That in turn makes the books that are published more expensive, further limiting the audience.

At the same time, digital options have exploded in journalism, music and other media. Academic publishers were trying to catch up with what was happening when the Mellon Foundation invited proposals to explore what model would work best for long-form scholarship in disciplines as wide-ranging as literature, history and geography.

In 2014, Emory received a $56,500 Mellon grant that facilitated research, visits from press editors, and conversations about what sort of collaboration and cross-disciplinary efforts would support Emory faculty creating digital monographs in the humanities. 

The working group grew out of those discussions. The latest grant is the second phase of work, exploring the possibilities of publishing monographs online — complete with the multimedia features such as videos and interactive maps.

McKee will work with Allison Adams, associate director for research and scholarship in the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, to help faculty navigate the ideas and process for writing a book. Both also are able to connect with publishers, especially those primed for digital options.

Once a university press has accepted a manuscript, Emory will give funds to the press to help support free digital distribution.

The end result could essentially be traditional monographs with websites that supplement the book. Or, it could be an online monograph with digital enhancements, such as sound files. Or, it could be a standalone digital work, one that could never be done in print alone.

At every step, the Emory model calls for faculty members to be more involved in the publication and also opens up works to broad new audiences, beyond academia.

“The air is just electric with all of these pieces that are in orbit out there to make this work,” Adams says. “Digital scholarship strongly overlaps with public scholarship. We could see tremendous engagement by lay consumers.”

Reaching new audiences

One of the most cited examples of digital publishing success is last year’s pilot project from Stanford University Press's Interactive Scholarly Works digital initiative, “Enchanting the Desert.”

The digital-born project by University of Oklahoma geographer Nicholas Bauch is an interactive examination of the Grand Canyon that combines Bauch’s written research, photos and spatial mapping. There is also a special note for “enthusiasts,” such as the commercial photographer whose slideshow is the basis for the project.

The prospect of Emory faculty producing scholarship that is freely available to anyone with an Internet connection has appeal in several different ways, says Lisa Macklin, the director of scholarly communications for Emory Libraries.

Macklin, an attorney and librarian, is developing a model publishing contract for these types of digital publications with the support of another grant from Mellon. She says most academics write to be read. Reaching beyond the usual academic audiences who buy university press books is just one potential benefit. 

For some faculty, it is a chance to include multimedia features that simply can’t be included in print. Still others, especially those studying topics in other parts of the world, see it as a way to provide access in developing countries.

“It’s a way to give back and reach new audiences,” Macklin says. “New knowledge has greater power the more it’s shared.”

In her first weeks at Emory, McKee already has begun to lay the groundwork for faculty outreach and started research on archival options for digital publications, work the Libraries also will support.

Ahead, she will connect with publishers to see what projects they want, and work to match them with Emory College professors. As with traditional publishing, it could be some time before works — which will still be peer-reviewed — are out.

“We are positioning Emory in the universe of digital publishing to tackle this one question, how to best publish long-form humanities scholarship,” McKee says. “We hope, in the process, to find a model that will work beyond Emory.”

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