What is the point of a university press?

Recent controversy over the future directions of both Stanford and Melbourne university presses have raised questions about the role of in-house publishing arms in a world of commercialisation, impact agendas, alternative facts – and ever-diminishing monograph sales. Anna McKie reports

October 3, 2019
printing press
Source: Otto Dettmer/Getty (edited)

Earlier this year, Stanford University provoked an outpouring of anger from its academics when it announced that it would be cutting the $1.7 million annual subsidy it provides to its in-house press.

Despite boasting the world’s third-largest endowment, $26.5 billion, the university explained that the cut was being made for budgetary reasons, as the press – founded in 1892 and publishing more than 130 books each year across the humanities, natural and social sciences – was operating at a loss at a time that Stanford’s endowment was performing poorly.

But hundreds of academics and students, from both inside and outside the university, decried the move, described in a petition as “severely damaging and likely fatal” to “the oldest press in the western United States, with a long tradition of publishing major works in many areas of inquiry”.

“If we use a purely financial metric to assess the value of academic books, the scholarly mission of the academy will be lost,” the petition went on. “Presses will publish only profitable books, graduate students will write only profitable dissertations, and tenure will be awarded based on scholarship that is profitable. This will skew research and publication in exactly the wrong direction, away from the mission and purpose of a university, which is pursuit of knowledge and truth.”

The vociferousness of the protests forced the administration to restore the subsidy, and the press appears safe for the moment.

But the incident shone a spotlight on an increasingly pressing question in academia and publishing: what exactly is the purpose of a university press? Does it serve its parent institution best by generating revenue? After all, university presses are not the only publishers of academic work. Plenty of academic publishers also do so. The difference is that university presses have their own “lists” of areas or disciplines in which they will publish, mostly related to their parent university’s existing research strengths. But is that really enough to justify a hefty institutional subsidy?

Peter Berkery, the executive director at the global Association of University Presses, concedes that university presses do find themselves “at a bit of a crossroads”, with their role increasingly being questioned. For him, they service their parent institution by demonstrating its high-quality research and enhancing its reputation. But they also serve another two stakeholders. One is the academic body, whose research they promote. The other is wider society, providing a vehicle for university research to be disseminated. “A lot of stuff is changing, but those three pillars have been there since Cambridge [University Press] was set up in the 1500s,” he tells Times Higher Education.

However, according to a European Commission report published earlier this year, universities “have partially and gradually disengaged from their roles as publishers” over the years. The only exceptions, it says, are in the humanities and social sciences, “where university presses still play a visible role”, and the few cases where universities “own robust and long-lived publishing presses that are also competitive in the commercial sphere”. This decline is largely because the original business model for university presses – selling academic books – is largely considered unsustainable. Ten or 15 years ago, an academic book would be expected to sell 1,000 to 1,600 copies in the first five years, according to one publisher, but that figure is now about 200.

The traditional model clings on because as monograph sales have declined, their prices have correspondingly risen. Moreover, compared with what libraries have to pay for journals, they are still relatively cheap, according to Canberra-based publishing consultant Andrew Schuller, a long-serving editorial director of humanities and social sciences in Oxford University Press’ academic division. However, digital operations are eating into more and more of university libraries’ already declining budgets, he adds, meaning that they can afford to buy diminishing quantities of monographs.

The problem, Schuller notes, is that publishing a scholarly monograph remains closely “intertwined with a professional career – and getting tenure – in the humanities and social sciences”. So economics should not necessarily be the last word on whether university presses should be supported by their parent institutions.

This view is endorsed by David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon professor of comparative literature at Stanford. The problem at his university, Palumbo-Liu believes, is that administrators “don’t understand the difference between the purpose of commercial publishing, which is to reach a large audience, and academic publishing, which is meant to reach a smaller audience, [disseminating] well-researched, objective knowledge and interesting ideas that have been tested by the academy”. The decision to end support for Stanford University Press overlooked “the university as a place for the free exchange of ideas. In a world where facts are almost a thing of the past, this is our equivalent of a free press.”

Nor is Palumbo-Liu alone in noting that, at only 0.03 per cent of its $6.3 billion annual budget, Stanford’s subsidy to its press is very small beer, accounting for just a fifth of the salary earned by the university’s American football coach, for instance.

“It really shows how precipitously we’ve fallen from the aim of an education to the mandates of fiscal responsibility,” he says. “These days, people see universities as job preparation centres, so [universities have adopted] ‘industry logic’.”

Berkery concurs. “The biggest issue is money, but seen through the filter of people controlling it, who do not have a robust understanding of the value of a university press,” he says. “What happened in Stanford was part of a broader trend of not understanding the value of humanities study in higher education.”

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Otto Dettmer/Getty

To stay economically viable, most medium or small university presses have diversified their offerings. For example, in Australia, the University of New South Wales Press balances the publication of academic books with a line in trade books, and manages the bookshop on campus. Meanwhile, the University of Queensland Press publishes profitable poetry and fiction – including children’s fiction – alongside its scholarly work.

Kathy Bail, chief executive of UNSW Press, says that in Australia “we all receive recurrent funding of some kind from the institution, but also have to show there is revenue from other sources.”

Something similar is reputedly true for other medium-sized university presses, such as the UK’s Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh university presses. Some US presses have it a little easier. Harvard University Press, for instance, has a large independent endowment and is a non-profit corporation of the university, while University of Chicago Press has a successful book-distribution business. But the biggest money-spinners are the world’s two largest and oldest university presses: Cambridge University Press, with sales of £300 million a year, and the mighty Oxford University Press, which boasts sales of more than £800 million a year. In the latter’s case, that allowed it to give more than £200 million to its parent university in 2017-18, according to the University of Oxford’s financial statement.

David Clark, academic director at Oxford University Press, says the 500-year-old publisher differs from other university presses in that it is engaged in a wider set of activities – most notably, education publishing: “We’re not reliant on one market, which means we can be more resilient, he says. Despite this, he says, the press has had to “learn to evolve continually”. And he adds that its focus remains that of any other university press: to support the university in its ambitions for excellence in research, scholarship and education.

Yet, for some academics, any involvement with trade publishing is not the business of a university press. In January, for instance, Melbourne University Publishing shocked the publishing world by announcing that it would no longer produce the general interest non-fiction books that it had used to supplement its institutional subsidy and that had made the press as familiar to Australians as OUP is to British readers.

The move followed a review into the direction of the publishing house. According to Guardian Australia, the decision had a very particular cause, rooted in tensions between the university and the publisher over the publication of a journalist's book on George Pell, the Australian cardinal convicted last December of child sexual abuse. Pell’s lawyer, Allan Myers, became the university’s chancellor in 2017, the year the book was published, and, according to the newspaper, has dismissed the press’ recent output as “airport trash”.

However, there was also internal pressure from Melbourne academics for the press to concentrate on scholarly titles, the press’ chair, Laurie Muller, told the paper. Muller resigned in the wake of the decision, alongside chief executive, Louise Adler, and a number of fellow directors. He was pessimistic about the future of a press that had seen record profits in 2017 despite 40 per cent of its output being purely scholarly works, with a significant proportion of the rest constituting academic research cast for a wider readership.

The press’ chair, Warren Bebbington, admits that “academic publishing is scarcely a viable business”. But the former University of Adelaide vice-chancellor and now professorial fellow at Melbourne argues that the changes at Melbourne University Publishing merely constitute a “refocus back on [the press’] mission”. In its constitution, its core objective is to produce scholarly works from within the academy, but it had reached the point where academic titles amounted to only about a third of what it was doing, in Bebbington's estimation.

Bebbington confirms that the move prompted “delight” among academics. “The University of Melbourne, like many universities, regards the press as an important cultural ornament to what it does, as well as being an important means of communicating its research finds to the academic community and the general public,” he says. “It’s not fundamentally changing but going back to that.”

This alignment with the parent university is “absolutely critical”, according to UNSW’s Bail. “You always have to be attentive to what’s happening in your own university and showing on a regular basis how you add value to the university community,” she says.

The key purpose of a press, she believes, is to be “a part of the university’s social and community engagement efforts, and contribute to the global impact of the university”. As an Australian university press, UNSW’s commitment to publishing Australian research and defining the Australian experience is particularly important, she says.

One frequently cited way of boosting the impact of university research is open access publishing. However, most of the progress that has been made since the movement began two decades ago has been in journal publishing. For some observers, open access monographs will be the saviour of university presses, allowing them to engage a vastly wider audience with their parent universities' research output. The UK, for instance, plans to make open access a condition of submitting monographs to the research excellence framework after the current one, likely in 2028.

For others, though, such a move sounds the death knell for university presses, destroying what remains of academic publishing’s business model. Under the gold open access model, the cost of publishing is paid by the author. Yet academic monographs cost a lot more to produce than journal papers, while researchers in the humanities and social sciences often have little in the way of research grants to draw on.

Because of this, many of the established university presses have not made open access a priority. For instance, at UNSW, “open access is not part of our model at the moment”, Bail says. “But we’re watching it very closely. If there was demand from a particular discipline then we would look at it – but it would require additional funding.”

Not everyone takes this cautious approach, however. Paul Ayris, UCL’s pro vice-provost for library services, wholeheartedly believes that open access is the future for monographs. In 2015, he pushed for the creation of the UK’s first fully open access university press at UCL, to be a “positively disruptive force…We wanted to share UCL’s research output – and that of other scholars outside UCL – with the wider community, and we thought open access was the best way of doing that.”

The traditional monograph publishing model is “so constricted” that he would be “surprised if it manages to carry on being viable over the next five to 10 years...If your target is to make 200 sales in a global market there is something wrong there.”

Instead, UCL Press measures success by number of downloads. Ayris says the 100 or so books that it has published so far have been downloaded 2 million times, across 232 countries. “Each of these books is getting more downloads than it would have got if you were just using the traditional model of selling paper copies,” he says. “Universities need to relate to society in a better way by making their knowledge and wisdom available to individuals who want to experience reading new subject areas.”

The view that the whole of society can benefit from what a university is doing “can get a bit lost”, but that does not make it any less urgent, Ayris says. The culture won’t change overnight, but, eventually, open access will become embedded in the system, he believes.

In UCL’s case, the university’s recognition of the press’ role in its mission has led it to provide a “generous grant” to fund its staff and infrastructure costs, while some of its activities are subsumed into existing operations at the institution.

“I don’t agree with the statements that open access monograph publishing is difficult,” Ayris says. “There have been challenges, but our experience is that it is quite straightforward if you have a clear workflow and you know what you are trying to achieve.”

Nor need it be very expensive; indeed, UCL Press offers its services to other universities that want to begin open access publishing but don’t want to invest in the entire infrastructure, Ayris says. It has recently signed a contract with Dublin City University, its first with a university outside the UK, to help it establish the Republic of Ireland’s first open access university press.

“My dream is that every university will set up its own, or buy into a shared infrastructure," he says. "Together, we can start to reassert influence over scholarly publication and how material is disseminated. It really serves that public mission that universities talk about.”

A number of other open access university presses that focus on disseminating the work of their parent universities have indeed sprung up in the UK recently. One publishing expert suggested to THE that the main reason is to ensure that the universities’ research is “REF-able” in 2028. But a number of small, independent presses have also been established with less worldly motives. One of these is Open Book Publishers, a not-for-profit operation that was set up in 2008 as a result of what its director and co-founder, Rupert Gatti, depicts as "frustration with the way some of the university presses were behaving”.

The publisher operates similarly to a university press in some ways, carrying out traditional peer review. However, it is “not looking to fill a certain number of books in a certain field, or to turn away books that don’t fit our list”, Gatti explains. It does not charge authors but does ask them to apply for any grants that might be available to offset the publishing costs, since “you have to pay wages” to press staff. To that end, the publisher also sells printed versions of its open access books, and runs a library membership scheme, whereby university libraries pay £300 a year in return for access, for all staff, students and alumni, to the various formatted digital editions of every Open Book Publishers title, as well as a discount on any paper copies ordered.

But Gatti does not recognise the average figure of $30,000 to produce a monograph quoted by a recent survey of 16 variously sized university presses in the US: “That is a very different cost-base [from ours]. And yet there hasn’t been a single press that’s asked us how we do it for so much less. Traditional presses aren’t seriously considering how they change their practices in the digital age yet” – even though “high-cost books that are hardly disseminated are undermining the core purpose of the university”.

Indeed, the existing university presses are poor at innovation across the board, he says. By contrast, “we’ve got musical works that are embedded in what we publish; there’s also video embedded, and works that are linked through archives. There are QR codes in the printed work that you can scan on your mobile phones to link to other content.”

Continued public funding depends on justifying how it is spent, Gatti says – especially in the humanities and social sciences, whose benefits can be harder to see than those of the sciences. “If academia is going to continue having long-form publications as an important part of research, then digital possibilities will have to be embraced,” he predicts.

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Otto Dettmer/Getty

Schuller says that there have been suggestions in the US, Australia and UK that medium-sized presses should come together and seek funding as a group for open access and digitisation, either from the government or a philanthropic institution such as the Mellon Foundation.

“I think most universities would be happy if their press was self-supporting…Not many of them build up reserves, which you need to have if you are going to get into the digital world, which is expensive,” Schuller says. “OUP can do it because it generates a lot of cash, which it invests back in developing IT systems both for operation management and digital publishing. Medium-sized American university presses can’t afford that.”

Nor can medium-sized UK university presses. But nor are academics pushing them to come up with a solution. According to Ivon Asquith, a non-executive director at Edinburgh University Press and, previously, academic director at OUP, there is a “striking lack of interest” in open access among academics from the humanities and social sciences. He also points out that there is little evidence that masses of people are longing to read humanities and social sciences monographs – especially online, as opposed to in print.

The main problem, for Asquith, is the sheer number of books that are currently published: “This is one of the reasons why each title sells fewer copies…people don’t have time to read it,” he says. “Overproduction is also a reason why it’s difficult to get your book into a shop or to get it reviewed. The market is flooded.”

However, he says, the effect of overproduction is to make publishers more important, given the “quality control” that they carry out, signalling to readers which books are worth reading. This is particularly true for university presses, which, according to Schuller, are more self-conscious about being seen to publish books of “scholarly quality” (which is also one reason that their costs are higher, given the screening that this entails).

Ali Shaw, chief executive of University of Bristol Press, agrees. Integrity and high quality are particularly important aspects of her press, she says, especially in today’s post-truth world: “Finding effective ways of addressing the challenges to ‘truth’, expertise and the use of reliable evidence and data are at the top our list,” she says.

Shaw, who has led Policy Press since before it became Bristol's in-house press in 2016, says university presses are also well placed to “help shape academic disciplines, open up new thinking to a broad readership and change perceptions, policies and practice”.

What Shaw would like to see is a recognition from policymakers “that not all publishing or publishers are the same”. For example, open access publishing policies that work well for scientific journals are unlikely to work well for social science books. “We would also like to see an understanding of the positive contribution that university presses make to scholarly communications, be they ‘traditional’ or ‘new’ presses,” she says.

At a time of technological advancement, financial strain and a push for universities to have wider social impact, it is inevitable that the role of university presses is coming in for some scrutiny. If monograph readership continues to diminish, institutional support may leave them as the last traditional publishers standing, as their commercial rivals move out of the scholarly market entirely. But not all may survive, as online alternatives proliferate. 

For the moment, however, Melbourne’s Bebbington points out that the number of traditional university presses has held steady, even as independent academic publishers and smaller open access university presses have begun to proliferate. In that sense, it is very much a buyer’s market.

“It’s a changeable sector but, for academics, they now have an array of outlets for their work,” he says. “It’s a much more varied set of possibilities, and I think that’s a good thing.”

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Reader's comments (11)

An excellent and thought provoking article. As the manager of a small, open access university press, UTS ePRESS, I second Paul Ayris's wonderful vision: “My dream is that every university will set up its own, or buy into a shared infrastructure," he says. "Together, we can start to reassert influence over scholarly publication and how material is disseminated. It really serves that public mission that universities talk about.” After 3 years of research and testing of various publishing technologies we are delighted to be partnering with the wonderful team at Ubiquity Press. They provide not only cutting edge scholarly publishing and global dissemination technology for peer reviewed research, but also a shared vision of the power and value of making that research open and accessible to any curious mind. And kudos to UCL Press: 2 million downloads across 100 titles in only a few years. This alone speaks volumes to the broader social benefit of unlocking publicly funded research! Scott Abbott UTS ePRESS University of Technology Sydney
A very interesting and thought-provoking article. I think I may have discovered an explanation for UCL Press's success: if their publications are being read ‘across 232 countries’ as Paul Ayris claims, it seems they must have found some extraterrestrial markets!
Yes, I thought the same. The UN has 193 members, and even FIFA only has 211. Some creative accounting going on ...?
Rory and ahgpc, thanks for your interest. As with any online resource that relies on Google Analytics to tell us which parts of the world our downloads are coming from, the total number of countries and territories is defined by the country-code top-level domains in which the IP address is located. There are currently 249 such top-level domains, so at 232 and counting we have a little way to go before needing to expand into extraterrestrial markets!
OUP does, of course, have other activities, but it could thus afford to cross-subsidize its academic output, but the prices of its new books are high and, depressingly, the prices of books in its back catalogue are outrageous. The consequences for other university (and public) libraries are disastrous and deleterious for ECRs trying to establish their personal libraries. In effect, Oxford, which has a legal-deposit library, is extracting money from other university (and public) libraries which they can ill afford.
As Director of University of Michigan Press, I don't recognize Ivon Asquith's claim that there is a “striking lack of interest” in open access among academics from the humanities and social sciences or that there is little evidence that masses of people are longing to read humanities and social sciences monographs – especially online, as opposed to in print. We are seeing unprecedented use of our monographs, and are continuously increasing the percentage that are open access -- 15% of our frontlist last year. Our real-time usage map tells the story: https://www.publishing.umich.edu/our-reach
Maybe university presses should explore the 'print on demand' market rather than having to go to the expense of printing, storing and distributing books in the traditional manner. With PoD, you provide an electronic text to a specialist printer who can accept orders either through the press or directly, print a book only when ordered and send it to the customer. The PoD printer sets a cost based on materials, the press or author may add an additional amount as 'profit' to give an overall price for the book. This method gives costings equivalent to large-run publication... and has the added advantage that the book doesn't go out of print unless/until the publisher or author decides to remove it from the catalogue.
All university presses I know use print-on-demand for their books. They've been doing so for years.
Why do people always assume that university presses haven't thought of the obvious (i.e., print on demand)? At SUNY Press, we started doing short-run digital reprints in the late 1990s, and we signed our first agreement for true POD with Lightning Source back in 2002. Our primary domestic distributor, Books International, now has POD capability in its warehouse, and we continue to use Lightning Source as well as Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (formerly CreateSpace) both domestically and internationally. Although we still do small initial print runs (150 or less) for scholarly books (and then move them to POD when those are sold out), and larger initial print runs for titles of more general interest, a large percentage of our backlist is now POD. Last year, in fact, 50% of our units sold were POD, and those that weren't were either printed years ago, under the old model, or are titles that sell hundreds of copies per year and are thus more cost-effective to reprint in bulk.
Good article
To argue that “under the gold open access model, the cost of publishing is paid by the author“, is to grossly oversimplify. The costs are covered by the author, or the author’s institution, or a funder, or a learned society, or a subsidy, or an endowment. There are many ways to publish gold. Also, as an earlier article in THE showed: some academics self-publish (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/self-publishing-why-not). If they can afford to do that, why not publish gold-OA?