The Journal of Electronic Publishing has just released an issue devoted to the world of university presses. I can state emphatically, with the objectivity that comes from being one of the issue’s contributors, that it is a great collection of essays. It’s not clear to someone who reads all the essays whether or not the topic is an important one, though. At least that is my impression as I encounter some pieces that seem to wonder if university presses are worth saving, assuming they are lost in the first place. Some of the essays seem to be marked with an air of impatience, even frustration: Why don’t the presses do more? Why don’t they do it more quickly? Why don’t they do what I want them to do? Or, as that other great academic, Professor Higgins, pondered, Why can’t a woman be more like a man?
One might pause to consider that an object in the real world carries with it a set of other things, sometimes called externalities, that make up network effects — things outside the object that tend to reinforce the object’s existence. Thus Amazon, through the launch of the object known as the Kindle, has created a large group of Kindle users, who recommend the device to others — people, that is, who are not themselves part of the Kindle but who externally, as part of the Kindle network, help the Kindle along its road to success. The publisher of an academic book dives into the sea of academic certification, where a book can lead to the advancement, even tenure, of an author, even if the book has few readers outside the author’s own small circle. The book and its network effects can evolve, but on some level, they are inseparable. Nor does any responsible individual want a radical breach. Consider the parent who sends Junior off to college, writing a tuition check for an extortionate amount to make this possible. Does the parent say, “Down with the book, down with the academic certification process, let Junior be taught by people with no recognizable claim to authority?” Well, perhaps there are some parents who do say this, but why then all those tutors and coaches and SAT classes to get Junior into Princeton or Stanford if the authority of the university itself is in question? Perhaps the lady doth protest too much.
It is, I think, inevitable that university presses will evolve, though at a pace more suited to geology than Web 2.0 — and this is because authority structures themselves take time to evolve. With this in mind, I found the piece by Dan Greenstein to be predictive. Greenstein, himself an administrator at the University of California, notes that presses must compete with all other elements of a modern research university and thus must make their case for support along lines congenial to the administration. Thus a press must evolve to become the university’s publisher — not simply the publisher of books and journals, however distinguished, but the publisher of the university‘s books and journals and other content types. Only a press that somehow has accomplished the miracle of actually running at a profit can ignore this argument. If a press is going to be subsidized, as almost all of them are, then they must justify that subsidy in terms the administration understands.
Not all university presses need to be subsidized, however, and this model — the press as benefactor to the parent university — is almost always overlooked in discussions of the plight of university press publishing today. Take the example, perhaps unique, of Oxford University Press, which, in addition to publishing some of the finest books and journals the world has ever seen, operates at a substantial profit, remitting a tidy dividend each year to its parent. Well, we can’t all be Oxford, someone is bound to say, but I’m not so sure; or at least I think it would be nice to give it a try.
I have made this argument before, also in the pages (screens?) of the Journal of Electronic Publishing. My view is that a key (and growing) issue facing research institutions is how to finance the work of research and instruction. One way to do this is to pander to commercial interests: my pharmaceutical company would like you to do just this kind of research and publish it just the way I want you to and only if I want you to. The independence of the researcher? We subscribe to the golden rule around here, namely, he who has the gold makes the rules.
For those who are troubled by this scenario, consider the possibility that universities could sell, actually sell, the tangible expressions of their research much as OUP does today. The buyers would be all those who do not support that particular research effort. The surplus on these sales would go into the university coffers — to help support financial aid, fellowships for graduate students, the maintenance of facilities, etc. It’s this for this reason that strong intellectual property laws are a research university’s best friend — because it is the research universities that are creating all that IP.
This may be a good time for research institutions to think hard about just what their interests are and to work hard to support those interests. They might find that their university press, that little distraction off in a corner somewhere, may sit at the center of a viable economic strategy.