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.