So let us begin the process of reimagining the funding of scholarly publishing by taking a hard look at the current situation, as well as several recent studies thereof. As John Thompson explores in Books in the Digital Age, the contemporary university press exists in a somewhat nebulous position with respect to its institution:
Many of the American university presses have traditionally received financial assistance from their host institutions in various forms, ranging from annual operating grants to cover deficits to rent-free accommodation, free employee benefits and interest-free overdraft facilities…. However, not all American university presses receive direct financial assistance from their host institutions. Some are expected to break even, and in recent decades many of the university presses have experienced growing pressure to reduce their dependence on their host institutions. (Thompson 88-89)
University presses are thus both part of and distinct from their institutions, bearing the university’s name and yet merely “hosted” by it, as can be seen in Thompson’s description; the press’s employees, receiving benefits from the university, are somehow imagined not to be university employees. The press in this model becomes an independent company run on the university campus, operating on a not-for-profit basis and yet, by and large, structured as a revenue center, required to recover its costs via sales. And, in fact, the universities that are still able to subsidize the presses they host do so in a fairly miniscule fashion; as of 2004 the average subsidy received by a university press from its host institution represented less than 8% of its annual budget (Givler).[5.1] For this reason, it’s likely that many administrators and press directors alike are thinking about the financial future of scholarly publishing as a problem of income, asking how we can make publishing pay, rather than how we can pay for publishing. Thompson himself suggests that “in relation to the revenue generated in current market conditions, the American university presses are overproducing and underpricing their scholarly monographs. They are able to do this provided that their host institutions are willing to subsidize the press and/or provided that they are able to generate surpluses in their other publishing activities, which they can use to create an internal subsidy for their monograph programme” (184). Lurking behind this understanding of the production and pricing of scholarly texts, however, is the assumption that the function of the university press is and should be marketplace-driven. If this is the case, Thompson is correct: the business model of scholarly publishing is entirely wrong.
There are certainly reasons to focus on sales in scholarly publishing. It’s of course possible for the enterprise of book publishing, and even of scholarly publishing, to be financially lucrative, as might be suggested by the examples of commercial publishers like Pearson, Wiley, and so forth, or even the models presented by Oxford and Cambridge University Presses. Pearson, the largest international publishing conglomerate, reported overall sales of £4.218 billion (approximately $8.394 billion) and higher education sales of £793 million (approximately $1.578 billion) for the year ending December 2007, resulting in net profits of £634 million ($1.262 billion) overall, and £161 million ($320 million) in its higher education division.[5.2] Wiley likewise reported revenue of $1.674 billion during the year ending April 2008, with a net income of $128.8 million.[5.3] Even university presses can be profitable: Oxford University Press reported sales of £492.3 million during the year ending March 2008, producing a net profit of £77.2 million, while Cambridge’s sales of £179.5 million from the year ending April 2008 resulted in a net surplus of £3.0 million.[5.4] But Pearson’s revenues of course come overwhelmingly from trade publishing and other aspects of their media holdings, and their higher education sales are primarily textbook-derived; Wiley’s book division is heavily subsidized by its journal publishing program. Even Cambridge and Oxford’s more traditional scholarly publishing divisions are made possible by their more profitable trade and textbook divisions. In other words, the lucrative results realized by these publishers are largely attributable to a far more diversified, market-oriented corporate structure than that of the average university press.[5.5]
Most university presses in the United States, however, have as the cornerstone of their missions the publication of the products of scholarly research, for use by scholars in further research, bringing intellectual distinction to their institutions through their contributions to the advancement of knowledge in key academic fields. Were the university press to follow Thompson’s advice and both reduce the quantity of texts it produces and raise the prices of the resulting texts, two consequences would likely follow: first, the press would have a more difficult time fulfilling the scholarly end of its mission, as a greater selectivity in publishing would require increasingly difficult decisions to be made about which few texts would be published, running the risk of such decisions coming increasingly to be based upon the potential for sales. Second, higher prices would require the press to become increasingly reliant on university and research libraries as their primary customers. In fact, the largest market for the products of university presses is already university libraries (Thompson 107), which operate under budgets that are not only finite but that are granted by many of the same institutions that house the presses.[5.6] Thus for the university press to remain oriented toward the dissemination of scholarship in its current form and yet create a truly functional revenue model, one that might parallel that of the commercial scholarly presses, would in effect result in one branch of the academy holding another branch hostage, producing content that libraries must have and then charging extortive rates for it.[5.7]
In fact, the degree to which the largest commercial scholarly publishers have put the bite on universities (by obtaining the products of scholarship, most of which were produced through university, foundation, and government funding, without compensation to authors or their institutions — indeed, at times even demanding payment from them — and then selling those products back to universities via obscenely expensive journal subscriptions) might encourage us to rethink the profit-model of scholarly publishing altogether, to consider whether there’s another option through which universities can reclaim the core of the publishing endeavor from the commercial presses. The commercial presses can’t be beaten at their own game, as the large commercial publishing conglomerates will always be able to conduct such business more efficiently, and more ruthlessly, than the university should want to do. But nor can we simply abandon the business of scholarly publishing to them; as Thompson notes, in times of economic slowdown “commercial logic would tend to override any obligation they might feel to the scholarly community” (98), leaving nothing to stop them from eliminating monograph publishing entirely. We can’t beat them, and we can’t join them; what we can do is change the game entirely.
One clear way of changing the game, dramatically and unequivocally, is a move toward the full embrace of open-access modes of digital publishing. While the notion of open access has generated a great deal of controversy among presses, who given current financial realities declare its proponents naive and its ideals untenable, we need to understand, as John Willinsky has argued, that “open access is not free access… the open access movement is not operating in denial of economic realities. Rather, it is concerned with increasing access to more of the research literature for more people, with that increase measured over what is currently available in print and electronic formats” (Willinsky xii). The call for open-access publishing models has its roots in the ethical desire to break down the barrier between the information “haves” and “have-nots” of the twentieth-century university structure, enabling institutions without substantive endowments, institutions in less-wealthy states, institutions in developing nations, to have access to the most important new developments in scholarly research. Such access is arguably most crucial in medical and other scientific fields, but we must resist the suggestion that the humanities, and particularly fields like media studies, are relative luxuries that do not demand similar openness of distribution; fields such as these continue to represent the central interpretive and analytical skills of our, and our students’, being in the world, and it is therefore no less important for the products of research in these fields to be made as widely available as possible. If part of the core mission of the university — particularly state-funded institutions, but including those private institutions that, as New York University’s motto would have it, consider themselves to serve the public interest — is the production and dissemination of new forms of knowledge, then open-access modes of distribution would seem to be far more in keeping with that mission than would the closed, cost-recovery model.[5.8] Moreover, in troubled economic and political times, as lawmakers and governmental bodies take an increasingly skeptical look at higher education, raising demands for accountability and “results,” open access publishing presents an increased potential for bringing institutional accomplishments to public attention, making clear both what it is we in the academy do and why it’s important that we do it. Open access publishing is thus not merely an altruistic gift to the general public, but is in fact a means of making clear the extent to which the academy’s interests are the public interest.[5.9]
Of course, reducing if not eliminating university press sales revenues through open-access distribution is hardly likely to solve the budgetary crisis the press faces. Some open-access publishing ventures in the sciences — most notably, the Public Library of Science projects — in attempting to circumvent the profit motives of publishers such as Elsevier and Wiley, have managed their costs by passing them back to scholars who, via an “author-pays” model of publishing, are charged as much as $2850 to have an article included in the journal. For better or for worse, this system mostly works in the sciences, in which nearly all research is grant-supported, and in which scholars have long written publishing costs into the budgets for their grants. In the humanities, however, the vast majority of research is not grant-supported, but rather self-funded, and where there are grants available, they are generally too miniscule to allow for the inclusion of publishing costs. And while many commentators on the crisis in scholarly publishing have pointed toward the creation of publication subventions, particularly for first books, as a means of helping presses cope with the rising costs of publication, such a system runs the risk that only the wealthiest institutions would be able to provide such funds. In the end, the costs involved in publishing, whether in the current print-based model or in the digital publishing ventures of the future, cannot be managed by passing them back to authors, or to another branch of the university, without further restricting publishing prospects, especially in the humanities.
Aside from shifting to open access, another means of changing the game might include thinking about new revenue models, under which scholarly presses charge not for the products they produce, but rather for the services they provide. These services might include the print-on-demand production of hard copies of texts made available for free in digital form.[5.10] Other services, however, will focus on the structures through which digital texts are made available, and the modes of engagement that they provide for readers and researchers. Those modes of engagement will likely require publishers to place their emphasis not on the individual text, but rather on the interconnection of texts across their lists; as Thompson suggests, “[t]he best way to maximize the added value of delivering scholarly book content online is to treat individual books as part of a scholarly corpus or database which has scale, selectivity and focus” (369, italics in original). In fact, it’s increasingly likely that in the digital scholarly network of the future, as in networks like that built by Flickr, the content itself will be user-created and freely distributed; the value created by the network will be in the organization of that content and the ways that the scholarly community it draws together are activated in their interactions with it. Means of tagging and bookmarking texts, spaces for discussion of and response to those texts, the ability to link both forward and backward across texts, and the potential for engagement with colleagues via those texts will be key elements of the “value added” of the university press of the future. Developing these technologies, however, and rethinking the location of value in scholarly publishing, will require investments in experimentation, the time to allow those experiments to take root, and the flexibility to learn from their outcomes.
In other words, I am not suggesting that the answer to the financial crisis faced by scholarly presses will be found in the cost reductions produced by moving from print to digital distribution, or even by shifting some of the labor in the publication process from the press to its users. Despite the ways in which publishing via the internet does reduce these kinds of expenditures, it will always require significant investments of paid labor, in the form of programmers, designers, and other technical personnel necessary to keep the network running, as well as in the more traditional forms of publishing labor. As I’ve noted in earlier chapters, the majority of the expense incurred in contemporary print-based university press publishing is derived not from the costs of print itself, or from the distribution and storage of the printed texts, but rather from the labor costs involved in editing, producing, and marketing those texts. The all-digital press might be able to reduce or even eliminate certain lines in its budget, but other lines — the costs of technology, the costs of support for that technology, the costs of design, of programming, and of maintenance for new digital textual forms — will of necessity increase. Though putting things on the Internet may be free, publishing, in the ways that universities should want to do it, cannot be.
But if it’s not going to save us money, one might ask, why should we move into digital publishing in the first place? I hope that by now I’ve managed to make the argument on behalf of the conversational structures that digital publishing broadly conceived can support, but I should also note that there are certain fields — data-driven fields, fields that rely heavily on visualization, and fields, like media studies, in which form increasingly must follow content — in which this mode of digital experimentation is absolutely necessary, and is paving the way for broader experimentation across the academy. But such experimentation often fails to find adequate, sustainable financial support. One might look, for an example of the difficulties facing innovative scholarly publishing projects, to Vectors, which describes itself as a multi-modal journal, working to build a new “digital vernacular” for the scholarship of the future [see screenshot 5.1].
Vectors has received a great deal of positive attention from scholarly commentators,[5.11] and is doing work that directly supports the mission of the institution that houses it, the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at the University of Southern California.[5.12] And yet, like so many other such experimental ventures and digital humanities centers across the country, Vectors is funded almost exclusively with soft money, such that its editors are caught in a near-constant cycle of grant applications and other modes of fundraising to keep the journal moving forward. Moreover, this same battle is being fought by digital publishing projects across the country, which wind up getting funded as one-offs rather than being given the resources to create stable, replicable, ongoing models for the production of new scholarly texts.
Admittedly, Vectors is an expensive project, heavily reliant on the labor of both programmers and designers who work in a team with more traditional humanities-based scholars to produce highly individuated interactive projects. If, however, Vectors were considered to be fully part of the core research mission of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy — in the same way that an experimental laboratory is considered part of the core research mission in the sciences, employing both graduate students and technical professionals working on an ongoing program of research — would it be funded differently?[5.13] Would we begin to understand publishing ventures not as revenue centers nor as idiosyncratic one-off experiments, but rather as part of the infrastructure of the institution, as key an element in its research mission as is, for instance, the library? Because, as Christine Borgman argues, “[p]ublication, as the public report of research, is part of a continuous cycle of reading, writing, discussing, searching, investigating, presenting, submitting, and reviewing,” we must develop an “information infrastructure to support scholarship” (47), in which we recognize that the technologies of publication are as necessary to the work of the scholar as are the technologies of research (contained within the library) and of other modes of communication (such as email). In the humanities, however, “the view still prevails that technology is not a necessary tool for research” (Borgman 222-23), and thus there are all too few programs on the national level that fund technological development and experimentation in the humanities to the degree that such programs are available via the NSF and the NIH for the social and natural sciences. The Office of Digital Humanities within the NEH is attempting to fill that gap, but as only one program within an already underfunded agency, there’s only so much that ODH can accomplish. There is thus pressure on the experiments supported by the NEH (as on the experiments supported by other foundations such as Mellon and MacArthur) to become self-sustaining in short order, in ways that are often antithetical to the projects themselves. Until we really internalize the need for ongoing support for digital humanities laboratories and digital publishing experiments, understanding them as a key element of the infrastructure of the university of the future, we’re unlikely to be able to conduct the kinds of long-term publishing experiments that might help university presses find a workable new model of production.
This shift in understanding, I’d argue, will be crucial for the survival of scholarly publishing into the future, whether that publishing takes place in digital or print-based environments: universities must recognize that their mission extends to include not just the production of new knowledge through the research done by its faculty, but the communication of that new knowledge via university-based publishing systems, systems that must be supported as part of the institution’s infrastructure in order to relieve them of the untenable burden of cost recovery.