Reflections on The University Press Redux

The University Press Redux conference was held in Liverpool on the 16th and 17th of March. Organised by Anthony Cond and Liverpool University Press, it brought together 150 delegates – all with a stake in the future of scholarly publishing – and it was a hugely stimulating and thought-provoking couple of days. Having had a couple of weeks to digest what I took in from the conference, I’ve now put together a few thoughts on the key themes that stood out from my perspective. My perspective being that of someone with a background in academic monograph publishing in the Humanities and Social Sciences…

Here are the themes that stood out for me:

Energy and commitment –

There is a palpable energy, and lots of new ideas, in university publishing. New presses are springing up, with a focus on Open Access, and with close connections to the university library. New conversations are happening between longer-established presses and their home institutions. There seems to be a renewed sense of mission – “how can we best support the publishing needs of the academic community”. We heard that 40% of US university presses got a new director in the past 3 years, bringing new energy and new perspective. In the UK, five new presses have been established in the past 12 months. Established presses are being innovative, and are winning awards (Liverpool University Press, Policy Press).

The importance of reputation, especially for early-career researchers –

Early-career researchers still need to be published by a reputable academic press, and preferably a university press. This is crucial for getting a job. A book published by a university press also remains the gold standard for more established researchers, especially in the UK, where the REF is a dominant presence. Will the new university presses be able to develop a strong reputation for academic excellence? Will they be compromised by their focus on publishing their own faculty rather than from a more globally diverse base? Or should the reputation of the home institution be enough of a guarantee of excellence for their research output, without the need for endorsement from a publisher?

A crisis of readers? –

Researchers need to publish for career development, so there is no shortage of new book projects for publishers to choose from. But library budgets are (as always) under pressure, and libraries are also increasingly moving to patron-driven acquisition rather than buying books “just in case”. Are there more people wanting to publish than are wanting to read?

Discoverability (and sustainability) –

No-one will buy or access books if they don’t know they exist. Publishers with a strong reputation in particular subject areas, and with established sales and communication channels, may have an advantage here. Open Access research is achieving impressive download numbers, but this (so far) is based on a small level of output with a high level of energy (and funds) being devoted to publicity. Will this prove to be sustainable? As the amount of open access research increases, how will people decide what they should be reading? Will there be an ongoing need for gatekeepers, curators and sales people (the role that publishers have played and continue to play)?

Collaboration and outsourcing –

There is a notable increase in collaborative activity; a sense that smaller publishers can punch above their weight and gain mutual advantage by working together. And there is also an increasing number of companies offering specialist services to those who may not have in-house resources. We heard from collaborative organisations: ALPSP, AAUP, AEUP; and from publishing service providers: Ubiquity, IPR Licensing, Turpin Distribution, EBSCO. There are also presses or institutions working together, such as White Rose Press in the UK, and Lever Press in the US.

Who pays? And will there be a limit? –

There is no such thing as free research, and to publish it requires investment. In the traditional publishing model, the press covers the cost of publishing via revenue primarily from sales. The developing Open Access model involves financial investment from institutions, either to support publishing in-house, or to pay Article or Book Processing charges to external publishers or publishing service companies. There is also experimentation with subsidies from library consortia. Will these new models be sustainable? How much research output will OA funders be prepared to subsidise?

Let me know your thoughts via the comments…

Further reading:

University Press Redux: Preserving Heritage, Charting The Future (Alison Mudditt)

The University Press Redux: Balancing traditional university values with a culture of digital innovation (storified)

Pathways Forward: The University Press in the 21st Century (Alastair Horne)

2016 to be ‘tough’ year for CUP Academic (Mandy Hill)

Writing for Survival: Publishing & Precarity in the Lives of Early-Career Researchers (Nadine Muller)