Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

the press and the university mission

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The leap from this insistence, that the press’s mission must be reconnected to that of the university more broadly, to the suggestion that fully re-integrating the press into the mission of the institution will require a focus on publishing the work of the host institution’s faculty, isn’t as broad as it may seem. Most university presses, of course, have moved away from that connection to their own faculty’s work, a shift that the Ithaka report hints may be in part responsible for the rupture between many presses and their host institutions:

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Over time, and in pursuit of the largest public service to the global academic community, presses have tended to grow disconnected from the administrations at their host institutions. This is due in part to the fact that they publish works from scholars mostly off their own campuses. The highest percentage of local authors published by a university press that we came across was 25-30 percent, but most were below 10 percent. (Brown et al 17)

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 In large part, the shift away from publishing local authors arises from the list-model of university press publication, in which the primary point of service is not to the institution but rather to “the global academic community” on a field-by-field basis. Even more, however, faculty have internalized this focus on the global rather than the local as an intellectual good, seeking under the current system “to publish their books with the most prestigious press in their field, regardless of affiliation. They actually often prefer to publish their books at presses other than their own, because institutional distance avoids any suggestion of favoritism and provides external validation” (17). This concern with externality in university press publishing, both from the press’s perspective and from the faculty’s, has to do with “excellence” — with ensuring the ostensible impartiality of the publishing process, with publishing the best possible authors, with publishing through the best possible press. Without this distance, the fear on both sides seems to be, the university press will devolve into a vanity publishing outfit, required to publish anything that comes its way, thus conferring no particular prestige on its titles, and bringing no prestige to its institution.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 All of this only obtains, however, if the purpose of the press is to be excellent, rather than to facilitate the conversations that take place among the university’s scholars and between those scholars and their colleagues around the world. Such a role need not cause the press to fall into the trap of becoming an echo chamber, with the university community only speaking to itself; instead, as the listeners in the conversational process are just as important as the speakers, if not more so, the press as a facilitating body would be required to become a nexus of dialogue that crosses institutional boundaries. Let us, for a moment, think about the university library’s role in such a process, as it serves the institution by collecting, cataloging, preserving, and otherwise providing access for its users to the many forms through which such scholarly conversations take place. Though nearly all research libraries have some mechanism for community use of its facilities, even if only in a limited fashion, primary access to the university library’s materials and services are almost always reserved to the members of the institution. The materials the library collects and the services it provides, are directly driven by the needs of its user base; though all libraries aspire toward a model of completeness, any individual library is far less likely to provide access to materials in areas unrepresented within the broader institutional structure. Given the combination of idiosyncratic institutional needs, a slowly shifting user base, and budgetary limitations, libraries have developed cooperative systems, including consortial collection-sharing and interlibrary loan, that allow them to compensate for a lack of completeness by drawing upon the resources of other institutions.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 5 What if the press were reimagined, in parallel with the library, as another point of pivot between the institution and the broader scholarly community — if, as the library brings the world to the university, the press brought the university to the world? What if, rather than serving particular scholarly fields through the current list-based model, the press instead focused its attention on the need to publish the work produced within the university, making it available for dissemination around the world? How would the press’s function in the scholarly communication process shift? Certain parts of its current mission would remain key: the university press has developed over the course of decades expertise in the assessment of fields and of current movements in research, a deep awareness of marketing issues and familiarity with distribution channels, and, of course, a set of core editorial production talents, none of which are replicated in other areas of the campus, and all of which will remain essential to fostering ongoing scholarly conversations. But certain aspects of past editorial practice have fallen a bit by the wayside, and may become much more important again in the future; rather than focusing on the acquisition of completed projects, for instance, the press’s editors may take on a greater development function, working with authors throughout the many stages of a project’s coming into being, helping them find ways to move from a relatively amorphous idea to a fully realized project, helping them shape an emerging text in concert with the technologies it might employ and the field with which it will interact. Moreover, the press will be key in facilitating the feedback mechanism of peer-to-peer review that will help authors revise and improve those texts, and that will help bring authors’ work to the attention of the field. None of these functions would matter if the press were simply to be turned into a vanity publishing outfit; instead, the commitment of the press to working with its scholars in developing their projects will, if anything, bring more “prestige” to the university, as presses that are actively engaged in such work would increasingly draw and retain the best scholars to their institutions.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 We lose a few things in moving the university press away from being a business and toward an existence as a service agency, of course. One of the losses is of negligible concern for all but a select few scholarly authors: royalties. As it stands, few authors of scholarly monographs today earn more than a nominal sum on the sales of their writing; the real remuneration in most cases comes indirectly, in the form of appointments, promotions, raises, speaking engagements, and so forth.[5.22] A radical shift in the business model of the university press such as I’m suggesting will require eliminating royalties; if the press isn’t profiting from the sale of its texts, there’s no income to share with the author. Scholarly authors with genuinely commercially viable texts may thus be inclined to publish with commercial presses, which may still be able to afford to pay authors directly for their work. For most academics, however, the most important result of publishing rests in getting their ideas into circulation within their fields; many would be happy to trade any financial consideration for the kinds of active promotion and distribution that a publishing agency which combined the strengths of the university press and the university library would be able to provide.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 There is another loss, however, one that’s absolutely crucial to the vast majority of academics, who are employed by institutions that do not have presses of their own; these faculty have long relied on the work done at (and thus the subsidy provided by) universities that do have presses in order to publish. The changes I’m proposing here thus have broad implications for every academic institution, and not just for those relatively few institutions that currently house university presses, as shifting the focus of the press’s publishing efforts from the list model to publishing the work of its own faculty will require every institution to take on this publishing mission, to invest in bringing the work of its own faculty into public discourse. As Brown et al point out, this need not mean that every institution will have to found a “press,” per se, but it does mean that every institution must develop a scholarly publishing strategy, to determine what it will be able to do on its own, and “if and when it should combine forces with other institutions” (5). The process of developing such a strategy will no doubt be a bumpy one for many institutions, and for the scholars at them, as existing presses may turn their attention to their own faculties before other institutions are fully ready to take on the task of publishing their faculty’s work. One possibility for facilitating this transition might be for extant university presses to charge press-less institutions for the service of publishing the work of their faculties. Such an arrangement would enable faculty at institutions without presses to get their work into circulation, while creating circumstances that encourage those institutions without publishing strategies to develop them. Another possibility would be for university presses to build consortial press-sharing arrangements, on the model of library collection-sharing services, allowing regional institutions to help in the support of and therefore to use the services of a flagship institution’s press.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 Some precursors to a transition like the one I am suggesting are already beginning at a number of schools through the implementation of institutional repositories, usually under the auspices of the library. Being a library project, such repositories demonstrate clear thinking about access, but the lack of involvement of the press in their development has resulted in some significant drawbacks, preventing the repository from becoming a form of publishing in its own right. These repositories are too often clunky, database-driven, atomistic endeavors, focusing far more on storage than on use; as Brown et al point out, “institutional repositories so far tend to look like ‘attics’ (and often fairly empty ones), with random assortments of content of questionable importance” (16). Involvement from the university press in the design, implementation, and promotion of the institutional repository — reimagined and rebranded as an institutional publishing system — might help transform it from an attic into which random items are shoved (and promptly forgotten) into an active, developing form of publication.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 As the Brown et al report indicates, presses as they currently function have a much stronger sense of audience and of the emerging directions of scholarship in particular disciplines than do libraries, and shifting away from the list model of publishing runs the risk of eroding the press’s current strengths, its channels of distribution, its role in facilitating the advancement of work in particular fields. Some of that work must remain within the press, as the press can work with the library to strategize its relationship to particular fields within the institution. But other parts of it might best be taken on by the membership-driven disciplinary and interdisciplinary organizations that already set the agenda for various fields through their ongoing conferences and other initiatives. On a similar model, some of the weight of bringing together the work being done at the many institutions across the country and around the world will fall on scholarly societies, who might, under such a system, invest less in their own independent publishing ventures and more in collecting and indexing the texts published by university presses across the web, making those texts available to their memberships through virtual collections. In this sense, we might find an increasing hybridization of the functions of journals and the bibliographies that index them; journals may increasingly become focused venues for the republication of texts in particular areas, and databases such as the MLA International Bibliography may serve large-scale versions of the same function, fulfilling a key aspect of the publication process by gathering together not just bibliographic data produced by journals, but also links to a much wider assortment of publishing venues across the web.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 One hopes, of course, that such indexes might be made independent of the commercial scholarly publishers, and might be funded and access granted through membership fees. There is cause for caution here; one might see, for instance, AnthroSource, one disciplinary society’s vision of a portal that would provide its membership access to all of the relevant work in the field, including the society’s many journals, of course, but also archival materials, museums, researcher field notes, and so forth. AnthroSource was developed through a collaboration between the American Anthropological Association and the University of California Press, and the portal did come to include access to all of AAA’s journals, but when the publishing contract between the organizations expired, “in a controversial, quick, and not entirely transparent process, the AAA chose, to the surprise of many in and beyond the association (especially libraries), not to renew its print-publication contract with the University of California Press, and, instead, awarded the new contract to Wiley-Blackwell” (Kelty et al 561). Along with the print publication contract of course went the digital version, which means that a project that was designed to increase the open circulation of work in anthropology was suddenly cached behind a pay wall; even more, Wiley-Blackwell proceeded to double the subscription cost of American Anthropologist. While this transfer of AnthroSource’s ownership to a commercial publisher no doubt brought the AAA some necessary revenue, it would be worth asking whether the benefits of that revenue outweigh the costs of restricted access, not to mention the increased costs to our libraries. As Chris Kelty has suggested in a discussion of this move,

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 publishers and scholarly societies have become large, bureaucratic organizations sedimented in their modes of doing things, sometimes for good reasons (stability, reliability), sometimes for bad (tradition, fear, self-interest). Free Software is a reminder of why these organizations were started in the first place and I think they (and the Open Access movements as well) force us to ask once more, and in detailed ways, what are scholarly societies for? Why did we create them? What do they do for us as scholars and as citizens, and what reasons do they have for existing? (Kelty et al 563)

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 Scholarly organizations, no less than university presses, need to be held responsible by their memberships for increasing rather than preventing the visibility of scholarship, both within and outside the academy.[5.23]

  • See Willinsky: “scholarly publishing runs on a different economic basis than the rest of the publishing world. Researchers and scholars are not paid a penny by journal publishers for original manuscripts presenting the results of perhaps thousands of dollars’ worth of research. Rather, in publishing their work, the authors are banking on a longer-term investment in what might be cast as human rights and vanities” (6); see also Gary Hall: “academics tend not to be too concerned about getting paid a fee for, or receiving royalties from their research publications… the main priority of most academics is to have their research read by as many people as possible, in the hope, not only of receiving greater levels of feedback and recognition for their work, and thus an enhanced reputation, but also of having the biggest possible impact on future research, and perhaps even society. So they are perfectly willing to in effect give their work away for free to anyone who can bring this about” (46).
  • Interestingly, as the discussants in “Anthropology of/in Circulation” note, one of the results of AnthroSource’s move to Wiley-Blackwell and the elimination of the project’s most open, experimental aspects was the rise of a “shadow AnthroSource,” in which a number of scholars turned to working with open digital tools (including blogs, repositories, and the like) as a means of getting around the society, which had become a roadblock to rather than a facilitator of innovation. See Kelty et al 574-75.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/five-the-university/the-press-and-the-university-mission/