Opportunities for openness through partnership with university presses

I think about openness a lot as my role involves supporting the University’s researchers in publishing their work Open Access (OA). I enjoyed observing the incredulity and outrage of my #OKHE classmates when our lectures covered the commercial publishing sector, having experienced similar feelings when I joined the Library’s Research Services team. The academic publishing market has an annual revenue of over $25 billion. Elsevier, the largest of the commercial publishers, reported profits of £762 million in 2014, with a profit margin of 37% — higher than Apple, Inc. The cost of journal subscriptions had increased thirty times between 1970 and 1997, with the University of Manchester Library paying around £6 million per year to access journal content. “Madness,” opined one PGCHE participant when the research publication process was discussed, highlighting that much research is publicly funded and the crucial peer review process undertaken by academics themselves, with only minimal administrative costs to the publisher.

Why do we continue to publish research in much the same way as we did in the 17th Century, when the digital age means information can be shared and accessed instantly? Why don’t academics just upload their research findings onto their own websites or blogs and circumvent the whole journal procedure completely? Of course, academic investment in the established scholarly communications system, at the level of both the individual and the institution, is valid for reasons of academic rigour and reputation. Anyone can upload anything to their own blog; publication in a respected, peer-reviewed academic journal ensures demonstrates credibility to the reader, and the established form of the academic journal article, containing methodology and data, allows results to be properly scrutinised and experiments replicated. To dismiss this investment would be naïve, but it is clear to librarians that current costs are unsustainable.

There are various interesting alternative Open Access publishing models being explored, including a library pledge model by the Open Library of the Humanities and Knowledge Unlatched, and a membership model from PeerJ. But recently I’ve been most intrigued by the opportunities for fairer academic publishing offered by university presses. My interest was sparked after hearing how The University of Liverpool Library, Press and HSS faculty worked together to publish key textbooks OA, offering significant benefits to course students. My interest deepened through involvement in the Student Open Access Research (SOAR) strategic project between The University of Manchester Library and Manchester University Press (MUP), exploring demand for student publishing.

The first university press was established at Johns Hopkins University in 1878, the practical embodiment of founder Daniel Coit Gilman’s belief in the university’s mission to disseminate knowledge: ‘It is one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures — but far and wide’ (Givler 2002). The original role of the university press was to publish the home institution’s research which, being highly specialised, would not have been considered a viable investment by the commercial publishers of the day. This prizing of the intellectual over the commercial is undiminished: ‘It’s love of books, not profit maximization, that motivates university publishers and editors’ (Mullaney 2013). Presses’ sharing of the values, goals and experiences of their institutions means that their journals exist ‘as the expression of a community rather than a collection of “monetizable” content’ (Pinter and Magoulias 2015). Unfortunately for many financially and technically restricted presses, the digital revolution of the early 1990s was a cause of dismay rather than delight. Fearing inability to continue publication, many presses were persuaded to sell off scientific journals to commercial publishers like Elsevier, who then swiftly raised subscription prices (Mullaney 2013).

Twenty-odd years on, we seem to be witnessing a university press renaissance. University College London researchers founded Ubiquity Press in 2012, providing publishing infrastructure and services to other institutions and making OA a viable option for societies. The universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York have this year come together to found the digital, OA White Rose Press. And I recently took part in a workshop at RLUK 2016 discussing the possibility of Jisc developing adaptable service templates to facilitate establishment of new presses. ‘Whether heritage or upstart,’ writes Mudditt (2016), ‘this resurgence of interest in presses is driven by a dissatisfaction with the current system, and a desire on the part of both authors and their institutions to reassert their role in scholarly communication. And university presses are well-placed to meet these needs by virtue of their proximity and mission.’ It’s no accident, Mudditt adds, that all newly-launched presses have been established with OA models, demonstrating the desire to ‘realign the means of production more closely with the mission of institutions,’ the mission so eloquently articulated by Gilman nearly 140 years ago.

Ideological and practical challenges must be faced. Presses are in the unenviable position of ‘being simultaneously academic idealists and market realists’ (Givler 2002), with most receiving minimal or no institutional funding. Sherman (2014) suggests that press directors are threatened by ‘the rising clout of campus librarians, many of whom are far more enthusiastic about Open Access publishing,’ however Thatcher (2007) suggests that OA does not necessarily pose a threat to press operations. Dr. Frances Pinter, MUP’s CEO, is a strong advocate of OA, who has convincingly argued and demonstrated that ‘Open access, when funding is found, can bring great benefits to a small publisher.’

Some libraries, like Purdue, have successfully taken on publishing activities themselves, but press partnerships seem to me to have most potential. The Library Publishing Coalition sees library and university press publishing as complementary, recognising that ‘each provide[s] unique value for the scholarly community’ (Herther 2014). Libraries can bring innovation and resource to build on presses’ significant experience. Esposito (2013) questions if such a relationship can really be called a partnership and the benefits of such an alliance. However, my involvement in the SOAR project and its follow-up (PuRLS: Publishing and Research Learning for Students) means I see first-hand the benefits of university presses and libraries working together to make openness a reality, for the benefit of the home HE institution and the wider community. The recent University Press Redux conference generated a real buzz around future opportunities for presses, which increasingly appear to be one of our strongest allies in finding ‘a more open and sustainable solution for… important scholarship’ through models that improve, not damage, the ways research is produced and shared (Mudditt 2016).