MIT Press celebrated the creation of the Knowledge Futures Group on June 21 at a gathering of 50 people at the press headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. A joint initiative between the press and the MIT Media Lab, the group is intended to spearhead collaborative technology projects that will allow for easier and more widespread publishing and dissemination of digital scholarly and academic works.
The formation and naming of the group is a formal step for a previously loosely affiliated group of researchers, publishing professionals, and academics, many of whom have been at work on their respective projects for years.
“We’ve created this space for pure experimentation,” said MIT Press director Amy Brand, “and we’re able, in our core publishing, to take advantage of some of the things that are happening there.”
In the weeks prior to the group’s naming, one such project was completed. Entitled Frankenbook, the book is an interactive digital version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, designed to allow reading communities to annotate, comment on, and share the text with one another.
The book stemmed directly from an existing relationship between the press and Arizona State University’s Ed Finn, who edited a print version of Frankenstein for MIT in 2017. The 2017 book contained annotations intended for science, engineering, and mathematics readers. Beginning in January, Finn worked with the press to incorporate elements of the existing text into Frankenbook in time for the 200th anniversary of the publication of the original work. Brand sees the finished product as a potential resource for educators and students.
Frankenbook is published on an open source platform called PubPub, which is also part of the Knowledge Futures Group. The platform originally grew out of media lab research scientist Travis Rich’s interest in providing research communities with ways to more quickly share texts and comments than what was possible with traditional peer review process in academic and scholarly publishing.
As PubPub has evolved, Rich said it has become an avenue for the MIT Press to envision new ways of disseminating works more directly to scholarly communities, lessening the need for distribution partners who sometimes determine what content can be made available by the press. With PubPub, the press has less of a need “to rely on proprietary tools to tell them what to publish and instead they can dictate what their own publishing world can look like,” Rich said.
The PubPub program currently has 64 subscribers and 5,000 users. It has been used in Mexico City to gain public comment on a constitution for the federal district’s statehood, in Vermont to describe never-before-seen behavior of bard owls, and by theologians in Germany.
As part of KFG’s mission to create new technology, the press’s leadership felt it was necessary to gain an accurate understanding of what open source technologies are currently in use. In early June, the press received an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Grant to conduct what they term an “environmental scan” of all the existing code and open source platforms in use by scholarly and academic publishers. The scan will be conducted by researchers at Simon Fraser University.
The effort will be overseen by MIT Press’s director of strategic initiatives, Terry Ehling. “This will really function as a gap analysis,” said Ehling. “What we want to do is come up with a report, a profile of each of these systems; the good, the bad, and the ugly. What are the advantages, what are the disadvantages, and what’s the roadmap. Then we will throw it out there and let the community decide what it wants to do, both as users and as developers.”
Brand is excited to see what comes next. “There’s a lot happening in the university press world,” she said. “We realized through this Frankenbook project that we could actually create a more generally available scholarly book platform.” With so many projects converging, she sees a path toward executing a broader strategy to, “provide content to educators and students under my own terms.”