Dr. Martens pointed us at this article at LibraryJournal.com: At SPARC Digital Repository Meeting, Shulenberger Calls Out AAUP, ACS. Towards the end of the article the author (Andrew Albanese) notes, “Libraries, with stretched budgets, have bought fewer monographs, and the consolidation in the bookselling market has left university presses increasingly alone to fend for their survival. It’s time, Shulenberger, urged, for all campus units, to find ways to pull in the same direction, for everyone’s common benefit.”

This makes me think that academically-oriented online collections in general, and institutional repositories in particular, need to be reconceptualized in terms of what they do and how their functions interact with and/or replace those of earlier methods of sharing information.

There are many reasons why information is shared in an academic context, but two stand out. First, because that is in a sense the entire purpose of the academy: to create and disseminate knowledge. Second, because the way that higher education is structured, the professoriate is judged primarily on the basis of such creation and its dissemination through publication.

Publication in journals or monographs is not the only way in which information can be disseminated, however. The advantages of publication have traditionally been threefold. Publication enabled information to reach more people more quickly than did personal communication (before academic journals existed, the sharing of knowledge was largely informal, and carried out through direct communication until and unless the author published a book). This advantage is now far less relevant, since it is easy to put information on the internet. Publication also fixed the information in a standard, findable, permanent form; and that is an advantage not yet always extant in online formats, though the use of repositories should improve permanency and findability. Finally, publication involves a certain amount of gatekeeping; no publisher can publish everything submitted, since there are questions of cost and also of suitability. Thus the existence of peer review, which in theory ensures that published academic works are of high quality. This is something that repositories do not assist with at the present time, since their purpose is to archive rather than to review.

It would be entirely possible to add some sort of review function to a repository, however. It need not be required for all items, but could be an option. A university press could use the same group of reviewers now called upon to evaluate submitted manuscripts (books, articles, or both) to evaluate items deposited in an institutional repository. If of suitable quality, those items could be designated as “peer reviewed” and be considered the equivalent of a formal publication, with the imprimatur of the press; authors could also have the opportunity to revise the work if reviewers felt it was not up to standard.

Substituting peer-reviewed items in digital repositories for traditional university press-published journals and monographs seems to me to be a potential way to continue disseminating new knowledge, retain quality standards, and yet not continue to need to subsidize money-losing presses. If the digitized items in the repository could also be converted into printable formats, using the Espresso Book Machine or similar technology, then it’s hard to see what losses there would be in such a shift.

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