Melbourne Publishing’s potboiler poses questions about role of uni press

If popular books trump scholarly monographs, what’s the point of academic publishers? asks John Ross 

February 11, 2019

The drama at Melbourne University Publishing has the elements of a great potboiler. The impeccably connected publisher, a doyenne of her craft. The chancellor, a top silk supposedly taking umbrage at the book she’d commissioned about his erstwhile client, the city’s polarising former archbishop. The vice-chancellor, fresh off the plane, stamping his authority and in the process trashing the university’s best soft power asset.

Personal power plays aside, the new editorial direction foisted on MUP raises wider questions about university presses. Is it OK for them to produce thought-provoking general interest works that stimulate debate and boost the university’s profile? Why the hell not!? Is it OK for them to plough the profits back into subsidising scholarly books of narrow appeal? Hell yeah.

And is it OK for these popular books to be produced at the expense of those academic monographs? Well…no. Not if you take the view that publishing academic works is the raison d’être of university presses.

A casual appraisal of MUP’s website suggests that around 16 per cent or less of the books on sale from the past 15 years are academic works. On those figures, MUP lost sight of its core purpose. One is minded of Milo Minderbinder, the charming arch-villain in Catch-22, who sets out to boost revenue for his air force unit and ends up accepting a contract to bomb his own squadron.

In essence, MUP appears to have failed in its role of addressing market failure – publishing books that haven’t got a snowflake’s chance in hell of being published anywhere else. “Hooray!” wrote Ian Powell of Glen Waverley, in one of many letters to The Age newspaper welcoming the new editorial direction. “Every chance now that MUP will publish my groundbreaking research on the Mongolian Mouse Moth.”

MUP wasn’t producing hopeless cases like this. Instead, it was publishing the memoirs of high-profile current and former politicians who very likely would have had no trouble being published elsewhere if MUP’s Louise Adler hadn’t been there hoovering up the best pitches like a supermassive black hole.

She was also publishing journalists; many of them former colleagues of mine, and terrific writers. As a journalist myself, I think it’s fantastic that people of my craft get opportunities such as these. But should a university press be handing these opportunities to journalists at the expense of its home-grown academics?

Maybe it’s not at the expense of academics. Maybe the money these mainstream manuscripts make can be used to bankroll the more obscure efforts of Professor Something-or-other. But it’s hard to find evidence that this was happening when you consider the publisher’s modest profit – which, when you take into account the subsidies the university pays to prop up its wholly owned subsidiary, look more like a loss.

The advances to the big-name former politicians, the substantial publicity costs. Who was subsidising whom?

It’s perhaps timely that the MUP controversy has blown up now, when the debate around the publishing of academic papers is heating up. Public consultation on Plan S, Europe’s radical plan to force academic journals to make their articles openly accessible, closed on 8 February.

“Those are different issues,” you might say. “Plan S is about journal articles. MUP is about books.”

But an expert report to the European Commission late last month conflated the two issues. “Universities are in a position to perform all the basic functions of scholarly communication,” it insisted.

Why? Not only because they produce research and network with each other. They also benefit from “strong support systems”, including their presses.

Australian National University Asia Pacific expert James Fox, who helped found ANU Press at the turn of the century, says university presses could assume responsibility for producing academic articles as well as academic books.

“You’d need a relatively small editorial staff to handle that,” he told me. “The technology is in our hands now. The crunch has come. Inevitably, digital open access academic publishing is going to win out.”

Fox says university presses can circulate vastly more academic work through an open access model than through a commercial publishing approach. He says ANU Press books, which are available as free downloads as well as purchased print copies, routinely achieve circulations of more than 10,000 copies a year.

“It’s a different world from the commercial presses which are happy to get 400 or 500 sales,” he says. “Last year we had 3.16 million downloads.” This has been achieved on a university subsidy of about A$400,000 (£219,000) a year, which helped support 4.5 salaries and has not changed since 2002.

Fox says ANU Press’ reach has been boosted significantly since it linked up with the digital library JSTOR, which he predicts will soon exceed direct downloads in providing access to ANU Press titles as access networks “expand exponentially”. 

I’m pretty sure that’s the sort of reach I’d be looking for if I was an academic looking to publish about the Mongolian Mouse Moth.

John Ross is the Asia Pacific editor for Times Higher Education. He is based in Sydney. 

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