Publishers Consider a Digital World

Dean Smith, director of Project MUSE at Johns Hopkins, speaks about ethical pricing models at GW's Ethics and Publishing Conference.
July 15, 2011

CPS ethics and publishing conference tackles tricky issues facing a rapidly changing field.

by Laura Donnelly-Smith

The publishing industry is facing a digital dilemma. In a world where it’s possible to make content available electronically at a fraction of the cost of printing hard copies, publishers are struggling with how to balance wide access to their content with the bottom line.

“It’s a moral balancing act,” said Richard Brown, director of Georgetown University Press and president of the American Association of University Professors. “Do we provide material to a lot of people or do we keep our employees in jobs?”

Mr. Brown was speaking at the fourth annual Ethics and Publishing Conference, presented on July 11 by GW’s Master of Professional Studies in Publishing program and the College of Professional Studies. The conference posed questions about the ethical issues publishers must consider as their field reaches a crossroads, spurred by the digital innovations of the last decade.

Arnie Grossblatt, a GW associate professor in the College of Professional Studies and director of the publishing program, said the conference serves dual purposes: providing ethics training for GW publishing students, and offering professional development and continuing education for members of the publishing community. Of about 90 attendees to the free conference, two-thirds were publishing professionals while one-third was students from the CPS program, participating as part of their class’s capstone project.

“There are a lot of forums for discussing ethics in journalism, but there’s no other venue that we’re aware of for talking about ethics in publishing,” Dr. Grossblatt said. “We’re unique in talking about editorial policy, implications for copyright on education and culture, preservation of content and books for the poor. We touch on a lot of things.”

While the 2011 conference focused on the theme of publishers’ responsibilities for ensuring access to content, sessions also included topics like digital preservation practices, the role of bookstores and fair use and copyright.

But permeating nearly every session was the understanding that digital issues are changing the field, and publishers must be ready to work with—rather than resist—the changes.

“Digital issues complicate everything publishers do,” Dr. Grossblatt said. “The switch from print to digital is happening so fast that we haven’t had a chance to rethink it. Our copyright regulations are based on 19th-century publishing models, and they’re really stretched in a 21st-century world.”

Conference attendees discussed a legal ruling involving Google Books, in which a deal reached between Google and a group of publishers was rejected by a federal court in March. The example of Google Books, which was seeking to digitize vast amounts of printed texts, illustrates the fact that no one in the publishing world knows exactly how to proceed when digitizing existing content.

“No one knows whether it’s fair use to scan books, or whether they’re committing wholesale copyright infringement,” Dr. Grossblatt explained. “Imagine the cultural payoff if we had all books online. It would be amazing. But there are severe legal and financial issues to work out. That Google settlement is now in disarray—we don’t know what will happen. But it will be very important.”

Dean Smith, director of Project MUSE at Johns Hopkins University, presented a session called “Mission and Margin: The Ethics of Fair Pricing in a World of Digital Content.” Project MUSE is a collaboration between libraries and scholarly publishers, providing affordable full-text online access to academic journals.

The setup of the publishing model generates a number of problems, he said: Libraries often have to pay multiple times for the same content; universities fund research and content development, and then must pay to access it in journals; corporate entities, which have much bigger budgets, pay the same as academic institutions for content. Mr. Smith discussed a process publishers can use to ethically determine how to price their content, in which they review existing models, interview customers and analyze the impact of various models before making a decision. His advice to conference attendees was to “embrace chaos, be open to change and be willing to experiment.”

Mark Schreiber, vice president of operations at Higher Education Publishers, Inc., and a 2010 graduate of GW’s publishing master’s program, attended the conference to gain practical solutions he could take back to his company. Mr. Schreiber said HEP, Inc., which publishes hard-copy higher education directories, is beginning to experiment with digital delivery of some products.

“The nice thing about this conference is that it’s ethics-directed, but it’s real-time, too,” he said. “When it comes to open access of material, does it do what it’s supposed to do? What are the unforeseen consequences? This conference really gives you food for thought.”

GW’s master of professional studies in publishing program is aimed at both working professionals and those aspiring to work in publishing. Classes meet in the evenings at the Alexandria Graduate Education Center, and coursework covers editorial acquisitions, production and design, copyright law in print and cyberspace, marketing, distribution, management and business. A graduate certificate in academic publishing is also available for students with publishing experience.

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