Gutenberg-E Publishing Goes Open Access: Is It a Success?

The Gutenberg-e books, begun in 1999 incollaboration with the American Historical Association, is going opensource. It's a great resource--but none of the predictions about howeasy and cheap it would be and all the problems of scholarly publishingit would solve have come true. It's important to think (yet again!)about why.


The place to read about this is in an excellent article by Jennifer Howard, "Landmark Digital History Monograph Project Goes Open Access," in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb 26, 2008. Here's the url: And Jennifer Howard and the CHE have graciously given a free link, for one month, to HASTAC readers. Here's the free link to the CHE essay:


But for those who do not subscribe to the Chronicle or who want to step back and see a bigger picture here, let me reiterate some points I've been making (ad nauseum, it seems) since the inception of the project. First, it is and always has been a great and intrinsically interesting project, to publish born-digital books in history. Especially for those books with lots of images or with data bases that complement a text, this is an invaluable resource. I'm a fan, always have been, and am pleased it's open access. In fact, as I argued (probably back in 1999, in fact), open access is THE most important feature of these online books. The subscription basis was always at intellectual odds with the product itself. It's genuine public service (and I repeat that it is a huge service) is a fantastic new format that is especially useful for images or interactive data bases and access by any and all. Now we have a complete package. Great news!


Now the turn: How in the world did anyone ever think it would be cheaper to publish history monographs online than through conventional publishing? How did anyone think it could be easier than conventional publishing, or that scholars would be able to design their own projects--and would do as good a job as professional designers? I would say New Technology Utopianism (I'm coining that term) could only make cost and ease the rationale for this project. The CHE piece says, "Cost, unsurprisingly, proved to be one of the bigger obstacles to the success of the original Gutenberg-e model." Unsurprisingly? Go back and look. There was a whole cadre of folks who, at the beginning, argued about how cheap this would be. As if platforms don't change and need constant upgrading. As if archivally-based books don't need special attention to archival requirements. (I think the phrase I used about ten years ago is that "Online publications can't possibly be cheaper when our metric for preservation is not years but centuries. Paper lasts and is far cheaper in the long run.")


That there was such NTU (New Technology Utopianism) is not surprising since it happens over and over in the history of new technology. The reason is that hand in hand with NTU is OTN (Old Technology Nostalgia). That is, people make predictions for the New Technology based on a false memory of what the Old Technology is. Because Old Technology is what we are used to, we stop seeing all the parts of the process, how difficult it is, what relationships and supports are hidden within it, where the costs really go, what they pay for, and what are the validating institutional considerations that are, ultimately, what support its existence. The mantra: you cannot talk about "technology" without considering all the social, historical, economic, and institutional circumstances in which it rests, from which it derives and to which it contributes. Too much blather about New Technologies acts as if it is just pipes and content. But it is also about other foundational practices too. Both for Old Technolgy and for New, the "stuff" of the enterprise is every bit as much human and institutional as it is mechanical or technological.


I think I've written about a hundred talks and essays on this subject so I'll keep this brief and just make a few pointed remarks here. Big point: Scholarly publishing isn't just about printing and binding. It is also about the whole complex process of scholarly refereeing. It is about careful copy editing, style sheets, professionalism and standardization of forms. It is about conventions of the page (that one must know even to break them). NTU often just assumes all that is easy rather than something that has evolved carefully over time. And it often assumes all that can just be imported to a new form. Not true. An interactive data base is nothing like a printed page. Nothing about the status of data or its presentation or its mechanisms or its refereeing resembles a narrative or an argument-driven paper text. And it shouldn't. Why simply do on line what we can already do extremely well in print? It's a different form, a different genre, and we are fools if we don't explore its potentials. But once we realize the possibilities for multimedia, multimodal, interactive online communication, we are not talking about scholarly books in the same way. We are talking about a new genre, with new requirements, and new kinds of labor and expense.


From the beginning the rationale for the Gutenberg-e books confused publishing apples and technological oranges. Take this blog for example. It's a blog. I type as fast as I can and it goes out every day and a certain number of people read it. I know there are typos but, if I worked as hard to produce a final product for this blog in the way I do for a printed manuscript, I would be able to blog maybe once a month. Footnotes? Care? Careful presentation of supporting data? Citation? Not in this blog, not for me. I can be flippant here, fast, fleet of foot, commenting on whatever happens to be "ripped from the headlines" on a given day (as in this piece in CHE which appeared this morning.) It's not scholarly publishing. I repeat: it is a blog. It has its own conventions.


But Gutenberg-e publishing wants it all: all the conventions of excellent peer reviewing as in conventional scholarly publishing, plus images and many other searchable features. And the claim, over and over, was that it would be cheaper and easier. Not!


Even this blog isn't free. It is supported on the HASTAC site and a lot of institutional dollars from Duke University as well as from grants (thank you, yet again, MacArthur Foundation) support this site and all of the unseen individuals who design it, maintain it, protect it, support it. And although I often write about ideas here, I wouldn't begin to say this is "scholarly publishing." (See previous paragraph about genre: It's a blog!)


Gutenberg-e publishing is an amalgam: part refereed scholarly publication, part online database. Expensive. And if a historian could fiddle with it and design it herself/himself, it would be a pretty unusual historian/designer (or a pretty dingy publication). Once there is a standard of professionalism involved, you need professionals who are committed to the standards of that field, including the standards of an online data base. This site, for example, meets 2008 standards for access, has 2008 Drupal-powered code, and all manner of other features which this blogger knows about but cannot begin to actually create. I don't keep up with online media standards. I do keep up with analysis and controversies about online media. That's what collaboration is about, working with the best people who know things you don't, working with certain common goals and shared practices, to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. It is rarely easier to collaborate than to work alone. It is rarely cheaper. But the product is often bigger, better, more expansive, more multi-faceted. Gutenberg-e aspired to those standards. And required designers, code writers, information scientists, IP experts, and also historians. Not cheap. Not easy. We have to respect that. Just as we respect all the designers, copy editors, proofreaders, and others who make our scholarly paper publications meet our highest standards.


And if we want it all--all the standards of scholarly publishing's professionalism and all the dexterity of online publishing--then the result will cost far more, not far less. Open access at least allows more people to enjoy the fruits of the prodigious labors of all of those who made Gutenberg-e books. But the whole issue of sustainability should also make us go back and rethink (yet again!) the assumptions--utopic and nostalgic--that made it so easy to miscalculate the cost and ease of the Gutenberg-e project. If Gutenberg-e project is considered as an experiment in a new mode of publishing, it's a success. But let's not forget all the trumpeting about how cheap and easy online publishing would be, how it would "solve the crisis in scholarly publishing." Not. Ironically, the failure of Gutenberg-e's economic sustainability is what is allowing it to go open access. It simply didn't make enough money on a subscription model to pay for itself. This is a cautionary and a celebratory tale. Both. And always has been.


The historian's adage: those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. Can we try to avoid this mistake for other new technologies? Can we think about what they offer without enlisting them to solve every "problem" with the existing world? Can we get rid of both New Technology Utopianism and Old Technology Nostalgia and think more fluidly about costs and benefits, what works in one circumstance but may not in others?


Punchline (and for all you reductionists out there, please take this seeming paradox seriously; it occurs again and again): The failure of Gutenberg-e publishing's economic model may yet yield its biggest triumph: open scholarly access.

Cathy Davidson

Correction to CHE essay from Columbia UPress

Clarification on the Gutenberg-e business model

Letter from Jim Jordan about Gutenberg-e, Columbia University Press blog, February 28, 2008. Jim Jordan is the President and Director of Columbia University Press. Excerpt:

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

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....

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

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....

All should be wary of any
conclusions being made from this very unusual and highly costly
experiment about the superiority of open access publishing....

Update. Jim Jordan clarifies further in a post on LibLicense, March 6, 2008.

Permanent link to this post Posted by
Peter Suber at 2/28/2008 08:54:00 PM.


I agree, it would have to be

I agree, it would have to be cheaper to publish history monographs using managed print services than online. I don't know how people could expect the scholars to design their own projects.