Slow publishing

Slow publishing

We’ve just launched a new digital version of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, the largest and most comprehensive Latin dictionary in the world – and I’m very proud we have. A project that started at around the same time that Antonio Gaudi was first laying the foundations of the Sagrada Família, the lexicon also remains a work in progress after 125 years. The team of over 20 scholars behind the project estimate a completion date of 2050 – but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

A highly complex dictionary written in Latin for Latin scholars, you might consider the work as the epitome of niche, arcane scholarship. But for me, it represents something vitally important that we, as publishers must never forget. In a relentlessly commercial world, we must support works of great academic value and respect the scholarship that has gone in to producing them over the decades. The lexicon serves as an inspiring symbol of the dedication of generations of scholars. It’s something we should treasure.

Commercial realities bite

But let’s be realistic too, De Gruyter is a business with a 270-year history and a responsibility to our authors, readers and staff. I don’t pretend that achieving a balance between profit and ‘slow’ scholarship is easy. It’s an issue we, and I suspect all, academic publishers are wrestling with right now. In the blue corner there’s hard commercial realities. In the red corner, scholarly research that is fascinating and momentous – but often only to extremely small readerships and niche audiences. This wrestling match has always been tough but recently, external factors have thrown some big obstacles into the ring.

The pandemic has hastened large budget cuts for many university libraries that will impact purchasing decisions. In many countries, government funding priorities have changed too. And whenever there are budget cuts, humanities disciplines are usually affected first, because they do not produce anything that can be easily bought and sold. As a publisher with a particular strength in the humanities, we can’t cross our fingers and hope budgets increase or hope that society will suddenly realize the imminent value of Latin linguistics. We must understand our customers’ pressures and accept this new reality. Also, we know from our own insight research that the pandemic has changed how scholars work, study and research – perhaps permanently. Many of these new developments will stay and as a publisher, we need to decide how best we can help all authors and readers to work better online – not just those with the space and privilege to do so.

Outside academia, people’s expectations have changed about how they buy and access content – publishers must incorporate these new realities into their plans. We cannot ignore that Netflix and Spotify’s “all you can eat” streaming models dominate. Simple low-cost subscription is the norm. Today, researchers construct elaborate online workarounds to access scholarly content. They don’t start their research on publisher’s websites. They start with Google Scholar and Research Gate and often end up on SciHub. They go directly to the author if needs be. We might find some of these developments unpalatable – but it is happening. How publishers respond will influence a generation of researchers.

The opportunity of technology

However, while the challenges are many, there are opportunities on the horizon too – but only if publishers embrace change and adapt. New technologies in particular offer academic publishers like us the chance to get to know our readers better. This in turn, will enable us to innovate with new formats and support more scholarship. We can examine how we can free up scholarly content currently locked up in archives, behind firewalls or in multi-edition book and journal formats that don’t always suit the mobile-first age. 

Plus, there are exciting possibilities to experiment with non-traditional audio-visual formats – packaging scholarly content in a way that builds the brand of the author and their work. Books and journals are time-tested mediums of scholarly communication with many advantages. But today, there’s no need to be limited by these two formats anymore. New generations of authors want to find new audiences and share their work more widely – let’s help them.

A partnership approach

As publishers, we must also become more willing to be collaborative in our approach and work through partnerships. Often, relations in publishing can be combative and transactional but our work worldwide building alliances between small publishers struggling with their own future online proves this doesn’t need to be the case.

We need to find and forge alternative funding models with partners. I’d like to start a conversation around how we could innovate in this area – working closely with those partners that represent our authors to generate creative solutions that widen readership. If not, monographs in particular risk sliding into unsupported obscurity. Working together, we can support scholarship and make it sustainable for all.

A commitment to scholarship

The bedrock of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae is a cavernous archive of 10 million “slips” stored in the library of the former royal palace in Munich, where the dictionary is based. Arranged alphabetically and kept in long, thin boxes, the slip archive is a treasure trove detailing every instance a Latin word has ever shown up in history.

Over the decades, the scholars working on the lexicon have had to protect the archive from dangers such as wars and civil unrest. It’s our responsibility to the institutions which make the lexicon possible, and the generations of authors who have worked on the project and others like it, to protect their scholarship and commitment. We will do this by remaining steadfast to our values but also by innovating with new business models, new partnerships and new technologies to make high value scholarly content available to all.

Tom Clark, is v.p. of global publishing at De Gruyter. Find out more about how the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae is created here.