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Future scholarship needs better distribution and common formats

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | November 21, 2009

I recently deposited a royalty check for a book published in 2001 (four generations of books ago for me). That check included more income from digital distribution than from print sales, a pleasant surprise that was enough to pay for dinner out.

When I received my mailing about the Google Books settlement, I had to decide: did I want more people to possibly see my work; or would I hold out to cover part of my costs of research and writing?

My investment in my ideas won out. I agreed to the most aggressive open distribution of all my titles.

As a scholar, I already have seen the way that digital publication renews access to my ideas; I hear from people in countries where I would likely never have found an audience from print, who know about my work because of digital publications.

For my interests in getting my ideas out, the biggest problem has been the lack of a widely shared format for digital publications. Google Books currently provides the best approximation. But we need to follow up our endorsement of the use of Google Books with debate about, and development of, a more ideal system so that academic publishing doesn’t get stuck again being dependent on the demands of for-profit companies.

So instead of fighting Google now (and cutting off access to my own ideas) I want to see us get on with the next step. Scholarly research agrees: the future of digital scholarship will be impeded if we don’t see the following features emerge, and academic authors need to advocate for a future like this:

  • Interoperability: The eBook industry (…) should be able to exchange eBooks independent of software and hardware.”
  • “Extensibility: An eBook standard should be able to be extended to include new functionalities such as multimedia and user interaction”
  • “Applicability : An eBook format should be easily applicable to various kinds of related fields such as database system and wireless Internet.”
  • “Openness: An eBook standard should be independent of a particular vendor. That is, it must be an open standard that is freely accessible.
  • Typographical Richness: “The format must have adequate internal structural resolution and presentation richness to allow very high typographic quality presentation”.
  • Adaptability: “The format must allow end-users some latitude of control over the presentation parameters for personal needs and reading preferences, such as font size and other typographic settings. (…) A corollary of this requirement is that the format must be fully reflowable (…) in response to differing presentation hardware and end-user settings.”
  • International: “The format must be capable of representing any language and glyph set in use today. The format is not universal unless it is truly international.”

(From Digital Libraries and the Need for a Universal Digital Publication Format
Terje Hillesund, Jon E. Noring,
vol. 9, no. 2, Summer 2006 accessed here.)