Painting of David striking down Goliath
David and Goliath, Guillaime Courtois (1650 – 1660)

The “game” in the title of this post is journal publishing. University presses are primarily known as book publishers, as well they would be: the combined output of the university press community monograph programs represents a cornerstone of our civilization. But the presses have long been active in journal publishing as well. By my count about half of the American presses publish journals, for a total of around 200. Add Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press to the mix and the total approaches 1,000. That’s about 4% of the total number of research journals, not a negligible number. For comparison’s sake, open access (OA) publications comprise only about 2.3% of the total spending for journals, and we talk about those OA publications endlessly.

The fact is, though, that the university press world has had a mixed record in recent years with journal publishing. Some presses have seen professional societies defect to other publishers, leaving a large hole in their programs. I was serving as an advisor to The University of California Press a few years ago when the American Anthropological Association left to work with John Wiley, effectively cutting California’s journal program in half in one blow. Other journals have moved from other presses as well; the typical path (I have written about this before) is from smaller presses to larger, with the grand imperial embrace of the major commercial publishers always waiting for a journal or clutch of journals to add to their programs. At times the presses compete aggressively among themselves. One member of the press community had strong words for Oxford University Press, which had poached a journal from the program of another university press; she used the epithet that is tossed around so often concerning OUP: a commercial publisher in all but name. I find such moralistic talk to be amusing. This is the marketplace, guys, not an anti-war protest. If you want to stop the “bad guys” from doing bad things, you have to do a better job yourself.

Within the university press world OUP and Cambridge have always had a special status by virtue of their size (OUP is bigger than all other university presses combined), their history, and the breadth of their programs. I understand that Cambridge has added a couple dozen journals to its program this year alone, and I recently saw OUP go eyeball-to-eyeball with the largest commercial publishers to win a contract with a very distinguished scientific society, which had, after many years, decided to stop self-publishing. This makes OUP and Cambridge unique for another reason in the university press world:  they and only they among their fellow presses can compete head-on against the large commercial houses. They have a global footprint for marketing, strong editorial programs, a complete suite of publishing services (manuscript submission system, print and digital production, online hosting, etc., etc.), and they are prepared to make strong financial commitments to the societies that seek to partner with them.

At least so far. What we have not yet seen is an instance, and certainly not a trend, where the large commercial houses flex their muscles and seek to put OUP and Cambridge in their place. There have been some deals where I don’t think OUP or Cambridge–and certainly not the other university presses–would be able to play the game at the highest level; I would point to the recent arrangement between the American Geophysical Union and John Wiley. But that’s pure speculation on my part, as I have no insight at all into the terms of the deal. If Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, or Taylor & Francis decided that the strategic importance of increasing the size of their journal programs trumped all, we would begin to see higher signing bonuses and margin-eroding annual guarantees. That’s how the Yankees were built under George Steinbrenner, how trade publishing works, and how much of college textbook publishing operates. From a business point of view, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera have a lot in common with Cell and The Lancet. Besides, baseball is as nuttily obsessed with statistics as STM publishing.

From the point of view of a professional society seeking a publishing services partner, the university press world falls into three categories:

  • At the top are Oxford and Cambridge, the only viable competitors to the big commercial firms.
  • In the middle are the presses with large journal programs:  Johns Hopkins, Chicago, MIT, California, and Duke.
  • And then there are the presses with smaller programs. The lines between these categories are not uncrossable, but they do demark sets of capabilities.

If a professional society is looking for a partner in the university press world, how will that decision be made? It depends. If the society already has a publishing program in place that is generating a surplus, then it is probable that the society will seek to earn at least as much money with a partner as it did on its own. This skews the situation toward the larger presses, as they are in a stronger marketing position and can generate more revenue (and, not incidentally, are more likely to offer financial guarantees, taking much of the risk away from the client society). But in scholarly communications not everything is done for money. Some societies will seek partners that are felt to share a mission; some will weigh multiple factors, of which money and mission are but two. The field is tilted to the bigger and richer organizations, but a tilt is not in itself determinative.

Societies that do not look to their publishing programs to generate a surplus, on the other hand, may make decisions based on other factors. Personal relationships are a part of this; and when money is not a factor, these relationships can bring a prominent society journal into the embrace of a small university press. Sometimes local geography makes a difference, as when the journal editor is on the faculty of a press’s parent institution. Domain expertise is also important: a press with a deep list in, say, Latin American history or behavioral economics may attract the attention of societies and journals in those areas. There is, in other words, no one way to play the game. If there were, Elsevier would own the entire business and everyone else could hang their head and go home.

Having said this, there is no question that getting access to a library’s collections budget remains a problem for all journal publishers, and the smaller the publisher, the bigger the problem. Rhetoric to the contrary, librarians like to work with Elsevier, John Wiley, Springer, Taylor & Francis, The Nature Publishing Group, and the small number of other publishers in the top tier: they like it because these publishers deliver the most value. If they didn’t, no one would be willing to pay for their products and services. So the small well-meaning publisher is likely to be elbowed out of the way when the big guys belly up to the trough. This situation is not likely to change in the next few years.

So what’s a university press to do?

  • Since not all professional societies like working with large commercial firms (and in every society there are some members who are skeptical about commerce), university presses can and should play the “not-for-profit card,” that is, they should assert that any money they make is invested right back into the scholarly community, something that a for-profit firm, with the requirements of its shareholders in mind, cannot say with a straight face.
  • But a press cannot stop there; simply being the good guy is not enough. A press has to provide high-quality services, including such technical things (yes, boring things–unless they are broken) as metadata management, manuscript submission systems, a robust hosting platform, and impeccable client service. All of these services are available from outside vendors.
  • A university press should not be shy about leaning on its own faculty. In my experience this particular tactic is not pursued nearly enough. An engaged member of the faculty can help to drive decisions. Let’s not forget that scholars sit at the center of scholarly communications.
  • More ambitiously, a university press should seek not only to provide services but also to start and own journals. This takes capital and a long-term view, but it is the only guaranteed way to prevent a journal from slipping away in the night to join the Big Deals of Elsevier and Wiley. Such a strategy is probably not possible without strong support from faculty members, who have a vision of a new journal and want to have a voice in planning its future.

University presses may also consider taking a page from their colleagues in the university library. As Phill Jones pointed out recently on the Kitchen in two excellent posts (which you can find here and here), library publishing is becoming more and more significant. But when you look closely at what libraries are doing, it’s hard to see what experienced publishers could not do better. Anyone can sign a deal for Digital Commons, as libraries do, for repository and hosting software, and presses are in a much stronger position to manage editorial operations. Presses also have more experience in managing publishing activity as a business–with budgets, forecasts, and accountable management–which may ensure the long-term success of a program.

For university presses to get back in the game, they have to come up with a plan that makes them competitive. They must acknowledge where they cannot compete (there are things Elsevier and Springer do very, very well), but also focus on crafting a value proposition that speaks to a particular professional society or perhaps simply the two or three key decision-makers of that society. It may be that the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong; it may simply be a matter of being in the right place at the right time, with a coherent plan in place and an indomitable will to succeed.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


11 Thoughts on "Getting the University Presses Back in the Game"

In the many articles written about university presses and journal publishing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone address what seems to be the most fundamental issue.

Journal publishing is subject-focused not institutional-focused. When it comes to research, a meteorologist at MIT has more in common with meteorologists at other universities than with other departments at MIT. Tenure committees seeking independent evaluation of faculty work will seek external validation from peers, not from friendly or competing academic institutions turned publisher.

So the natural aggregation points for journal publishing are external to universities, such as scholarly societies and commercial publishers.

However, universities can run successful publishing operations (like Oxford and Cambridge) but they are successful only because they operate like commercial publishers and the association with the university is in name only. For example, many university presses feel obligated to adopt “open source” publication technology because they feel it is part of their “mission”, and it’s maintenance conveniently justifies head-count. However, their publishing operations then become perennially disadvantaged. In contrast, successful university presses don’t hesitate to adopt commercial grade technology.

Universities do offer something of a nexus, a concentration point for expertise. Somewhere like Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is likely to have more biological researchers in-house than a commercial publishing house in Manhattan. Other universities are centers of historical or literary research, so there’s a base there that can be used to drive editorial oversight for journals.

That said, the real advantage of the university press is that it allows the academic community to own and control its system for communication of research results. Much of the modern OA movement is based on a dissatisfaction with commercial publishers, and their actions which are naturally geared more toward profit and shareholder satisfaction than toward the benefit of the research community. If researchers want to be able to set a different agenda, then owning and running the journals and books that they rely upon makes better sense.

Additionally, self-ownership allows any profits made to be returned to the research community, or spent on its behalf, rather than going into the bank accounts of shareholders.

However, universities can run successful publishing operations (like Oxford and Cambridge) but they are successful only because they operate like commercial publishers and the association with the university is in name only.

I don’t know how Cambridge works, but I can assure you that the ties between OUP and the University of Oxford run deep.

OUP’s governance structure is written into the University of Oxford statutes. The policy of Oxford University Press is overseen by a group of delegates appointed from the academic staff of the University.

The delegates meet fortnightly during academic term-time under the chairmanship of the Vice-Chancellor. They are actively involved in the publishing programme; all proposals are referred to them for approval and individual delegates maintain a dialogue with editors in their specialist subject areas.

Also this:

For example, many university presses feel obligated to adopt “open source” publication technology because they feel it is part of their “mission”, and it’s maintenance conveniently justifies head-count.

In my experience, presses of all stripes adopt technology based on need and funding. Many university presses are limited to open source and free technologies based more on the amount of funds they have available for investing in such technologies, rather than because of ideology.

Having started a fair number of new journals at a small, commercial academic press, I think you are right in that this is the way to avoid having to battle the titans. But it involves at least 5 years of developing a subscription base, while providing all the services you enumerate and assuming their costs. And there are no guarantees of success. With the stressed budgets of most university presses, it would take a lot of commitment on their part to go this route.

As former director of a publisher of journals at Penn State Press, one of the smaller presses with a journals program, I’d like to add these observations to Joe’s good account of the state of the business. 1) When a journal transitions from a university press to a commercial publisher, the subscription price always increases substantially, sometimes by a factor of tow or three. I know of no exceptions to this rule. 2) Joe does not mention the crucial role of aggregators like Project Muse, which our former journals manager, Sue Lewis, was hired away by Johns Hopkins to help launch (with Michael Jensen). Without Project Muse, most journals from smaller university presses could not have made the transition from print to e-publishing successfully. 3) Journals programs usually earn a surplus, which many presses use to subsidize their losses in monograph publishing. At Penn State this subsidy used to be several hundred thousand dollars. 4) Some presses want to publish only journals that are in the same fields they cover in their book publishing; they do this for reasons of both editorial strategy and marketing economy (books from the press’s list can be advertised in the press’s journals, for instance). This is how we operated at Penn State when I was director. My successor took a different approach and expanded the journals program without (mush) regard to subject matter, and the program is now almost three times the size it was when I oversaw it. Generally, the expansion was done by taking over existing journals, so that the startup costs Mitch cites were avoided.

Thanks for a thoughtful article, Joe. Having spent my entire career on both sides of this fence, there is much here that I resonate with. But having spent the past 4 years running a university press (California) with a sizable journals program, I fear that the proposed solutions might be a little simplistic. We, like many university presses, have seen our program systematically picked over by larger publishers, including OUP and CUP. For us, competing against OUP and CUP is no different to the challenge of competing with SAGE or Wiley – they not only have similar resources, but they enable societies to have their cake and eat it too (money, resources and the cache of publishing with one of the world’s oldest university presses). So to talk of OUP and CUP in the same category as the rest of us obfuscates the true challenges for the majority.

This is not to demean what they or the large commercials offer – one of the reasons they have gobbled up so much of the market is that they are actually very good at the business of journal publishing and deliver strong results for their partners (whatever one may think of their profit margins).

“The field is tilted to the bigger and richer organizations, but a tilt is not in itself determinative.”

Much as I wish this were true, I have seen little evidence to support it. We are able to offer the entire suite of services Joe mentions, but have yet to see a situation in which this – plus our not-for-profit mission – outweighs the checkbook.

When I was interviewed at UC Press 4 years ago, I was asked by many how we could compete with the likes of SAGE for society journals. My response was consistently simple: in most cases, we cannot. If we are to have a future in the journals, we have to develop models that play to our strengths rather than competing head to head. The way forward for university presses in this space is to embrace Joe’s four recommendations, but to implement them through the development of new models that address needs not being met by the large publishers. Our close relationships with faculty on our campuses and beyond, our deep understanding of the disciplines we serve and, I hope, our willingness to embrace change provide a foundation from which to build. But like David, we need to be canny if we are to slay – or should I say compete with – Goliath.

This comment is pretty much a summary of my post. Where is the point of disagreement?

Joe, as I said up front there’s much I agree with. I guess my two points of disagreement are:

1. Evaluating OUP and CUP in the same category as other university presses. I recognize that they have some key distinctions in comparison with large commercials, but as a competitor in the journals market they are no different, and I do not think they provide a model that any other university press can emulate.

2. Your recommendations seem to suggest that we all just need to do a better job as if we hadn’t thought of this. I suspect that many of us have done all of the things you suggest (we certainly have at California), but ultimately none of these (in our experience) has ever beaten the open checkbook. Trying to compete with large presses in the society publishing game is a battle we cannot win in the majority of cases – there are many complex dynamics in the journals market these days and it has in many ways become a business of scale.

The point I’m making is that while we need to embrace the principles you set out, we need to do so in a wholly different way that seeks not simply to up our performance in the current game, but to redefine the game itself.

“Your recommendations seem to suggest that we all just need to do a better job as if we hadn’t thought of this.” I said no such thing. Please read more slowly.

I think Alison is right here in that the large commercial presses have far more money to entice societies than a university press does. And since the societies usually retain ownership of the journals and contracts expire every few years, it is a common practice for a smaller press (univ or otherwise) to build up the journal only to have the larger one buy it away. I’ve seen this often. Which goes back to my comment of starting new journals from the ground up, where it will be owned by the univ press and not subject to being lured away.

I’m skeptical that librarians like to work with the top-tier journal publishers. They are known for offering expensive products and negotiating hard over subscription fees. Smaller journal publishers, on the other hand, are known for offering modest subscription fees for journals that may contain works of scholarship that are just as serious as those found in publications of the top-tier publishers. So it’s also unclear to me that the top-tier publishers really offer more value.

Kevin, I think you’re right in a number of ways – I spend a lot of time talking to librarians and many genuinely want to support smaller publishers. That said, the large commercial houses have been highly successful in bolstering their portfolios with the most highly ranked and prestigious journals to anchor their package deals. While many librarians have talked of walking away from these, few if any have been able to do so which leaves the rest of us fighting over the crumbs from the table in terms of budget.

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