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February 28th, 2008 at 10:22 am

Letter from Jim Jordan about Gutenberg-e

The recent Chronicle of Higher Education article about Gutenberg-e got a number of facts wrong, which is not surprising given the fact that Columbia University Press was not contacted before the article was published.

First, it is wrong in fact and in spirit to conclude that the Press has radically restructured the Project from a subscription only to an open access model. Rather the Press recognized some months ago that with so few subscriptions purchased for its online version of these electronic works, usage would continue to be disappointing, and promotion would continue to be made all the more difficult. So the Press insisted that the project explore a working relationship with the ACLS e-history project as a service to our authors and their works. ACLS has an installed user base nearly 10 times the size of the former Gutenberg-e site which the Press managed in collaboration with the Columbia Libraries.

The Press’s efforts on behalf of Gutenberg-e authors has consistently been to improve the visibility of these publications, to seek reviews in the media, and to connect them as much as possible to a larger body of work which students and scholars have already found useful. So to be clear, the Press did not migrate the project to Open Access abandoning a subscription model. Rather we have moved it to a more mature and widely used subscription platform. A significant disappointment for me is that there was so little support within the library community to promote and support the project as a service to scholarship. Certainly the modest subscription costs for these projects were a barrier to no one. Personally, I remain skeptical of the long term value of open access publishing to support the kind of rich and deep scholarly publishing our industry has developed over many years. Open access shifts the costs, but does not eliminate them. To the extent that it also shifts the expertise, it is a threat to all of us who care about publishing scholarship.

The Open Access model for Gutenberg-e resides at the Columbia Libraries and was created subsequently. We wish it every success. It is important to realize that its success will be largely influenced by the tremendous resources already expended to create these projects in the first place, the efforts of the Press to promote the print books now being derived from the online editions and the projects on both sites, efforts to reach out to editors and acquire academic reviews, and the efforts of the ACLS site and staff, for whose help we are genuinely grateful.

All should be wary of any conclusions being made from this very unusual and highly costly experiment about the superiority of open access publishing. It may suggest interesting user feedback from the two sites but it cannot provide reliable information about which kind of publishing is likely to be more sustainable. One of the conclusions stated in the Chronicle article is that this experiment has taught us that electronic monographs cannot be published properly at break even without significant revenues generated or significant ongoing foundation support. While that is undoubtedly true, I humbly suggest that many outsiders observing this project evolve even in those early days were well aware of that conclusion before the project began. This project has not proven any business proposition: it has provided an editorial venue, at great cost, for the development of electronic monographic content that libraries and reviewers have welcomed to date without much enthusiasm. None of which is any reflection on the work of the young scholars who brought these interesting works to fruition.

We are grateful to Mellon for its support on this project, and to our partners, The Columbia Libraries and the American Historical Association for helping us achieve the goals we all share.

James D. Jordan
President and Director
Columbia University Press

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