ATG Newschannel Original: The Future Of Academic Publishing – Part 1: University Libraries & Presses

by Nancy K. Herther

(This is part 1 of a 2 part series.  Here is the link to Part 2.)

A recently published study by consultants Joseph Esposito and Karen Barch examined the monographic output of university presses from 2009 – 2013 as a way to gauge the current state of academic book publishing. The study, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, was based on survey data from 65 North American university presses, which found an average of 70 monographs published between 2009 and 2011, 64 in 2012, and 55 in 2013. However, the authors clearly noted that this research didn’t result in clearly definitive information or prescriptive analysis that could lead to assumptions about trends or potential futures. Although the authors prepared a more in-depth version for Mellon, the “public report” version (discussed here) represents, in Esposito’s words, “an edited version of the various private reports submitted to Mellon and the presses.”

According to Esposito, the genesis of the study were conversations in the academy in 2013-2014 where it was clear that “at that time only anecdotal information [existed] on how many monographs university presses published and, hence, no obvious way to measure the size and scope of university presses and the certification system they help to support. (‘Do university presses publish too many books? Too few? Do they support some fields more than others?’) In order to get some data to assist in other explorations into the university press world, Mellon asked us (that is, Barch and Esposito) to tabulate the output of university presses; that tabulation lies at the center of this report.”

Coverage of the study at Arts& noted that “for its part, the Mellon Foundation offers funding for digital scholarship in the humanities and has a track record of funding projects intended for online-only publication. The decline may also reflect changing trends in tenure attainment in the humanities, with many universities forgoing monograph publication as a qualification for tenure.” Esposito sees this as a start of a process of self-examination for the academy. “If you look at the data over five years,” Esposito explains, “you see a modest decline. The issue there is that is five years enough time to make a generalization like that?”

A critical article on the study in Inside Higher Education noted that “if the market is in decline, it could be a sign that the university presses that publish those monographs are struggling—and indeed many presses have closed or scaled back their operations in recent years…While many scholarly associations have urged departments to expand beyond the monograph as the measure for tenure worthiness, many junior scholars report little change in attitudes, great pressure to publish monographs and a tough time doing so.”

Stanford University Press director Alan Harvey noted in response to the release of the study that “we now work extremely closely with all our authors to ensure the broadest possible readership for their book. There is no dumbing-down, but instead an editorial effort to aid the author in structuring their argument in a style accessible to an intelligent, inter-disciplinary audience. The result of this is almost certainly that fewer books are being classified as ‘monographs’.”

Donna Shear

Donna Shear, Director of the University of Nebraska Press, told ATG that “each press is so different, it can never be taken as indicative of any trends. Also, the definition of a monograph in the study was rather narrow. For instance, we may have done several edited volumes and those were excluded from the study.” Is the limited time period (2011-2013) an issue? “I don’t think it’s possible to see a trend—our primary monograph output has varied through the years. We try to keep our total book output growing, but sometimes it’s more heavily weighted towards scholarly and sometimes it’s more heavily weighted towards regional and trade books. It just depends on the year, and trying to draw the conclusion that, because primary scholarly monograph output declined, that all university press output declined, is not a valid conclusion. We see the publication of our regional, trade, edited volumes, and creative works as just as important to our mission.”

Johns Hopkins Press director Kathleen Keene, whose press was a part of the study, believes the study has strong value. “The research covered the period 2009-2013, 5 years, and I think it is possible to see a trend in that time. Certainly a longer time period would have presented even better data, but this is still useful. I think it is important to consider that in this 5 year period many academic libraries faced budget cuts which led to reductions in their purchases of books, particularly books that might appear to be less heavily requested. So, some presses saw significant declines in their sales of monographs. While a publishing program could probably not be drastically overhauled in a 5 year period, presses might judge it necessary to try to adapt their monograph publishing to suit the purchasing patterns of libraries.”

Current U Press Situation

 Today, university presses are under greater pressures than perhaps ever before. Declining library budgets, technological changes, and pressures from commercial publishers have created problems for many presses. Recently, the 90-year-old university press at the Duquesne University announced its closing. The school’s provost noted that “in the context of rapid changes in the world of scholarly publishing, Duquesne has been far from alone in having to confront the challenging question of whether it could afford to continue to underwrite the costs of a press. In recent years, the press has been unable to attract sales adequate to cover its costs and the university has committed large sums to subsidizing its operation. In an era of cost containment, this is no longer a viable path.” While some presses are doing well, some are also teetering on the edge, while others have been repositioned under their school’s academic libraries.

Duquesne University Press

Just as the “ivory towers” of learning have been for centuries beyond the interest or target of fiscal analysis or political tinkering, today they face a very different reality. Cambridge University Press, which published its first book more than 400 years ago (in 1584) and is the oldest academic press in the world, has long held the lofty goal—and still works under the mission—to “further the University’s mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.”

However, education has changed and the commercial sector of the market has responded with multimedia elements, interactive instruction, and other innovations made possible by their success in cornering the academic market through acquisition and pricing schemes. Universities are now marshaling their efforts to control the dissemination and future fruits of academic research and learning. Open Access mandates, open textbook and journal projects have emboldened the academy to turn to the future of monographic publishing as well.

New Fiscal Realities

Roger Schonfeld, writing in a recent issue of Nature, notes that “in the face of disruptions to and consolidation of scientific publishing in recent decades, some presses have carved out an important space in scientific book publishing. They have fostered key lists and promising authors in the natural and social sciences for a focused but not exclusively academic audience—unlike the big commercial publishers of popular science books, such as Penguin Random House in New York City, which concentrate on the mass market. And books remain among the most important translational tools for science. They bring a scholarly examination to a public eager to know more about ‘hot-button’ research areas such as climate change, the potential of exoplanets, socio-economic inequality, artificial intelligence and genetics.” In the Humanities, academic books have an even more critical role.

“All academic publishers have begun to make their books available for digital sale, both through Amazon’s Kindle platform and to academic libraries,” Schonfeld continues. “Smaller presses are more likely to sell to libraries through third-party aggregators such as EBSCO, Project MUSE, ProQuest and JSTOR. Several use platforms based on technology from HighWire, Silverchair, and Atypon (acquired this year by publisher Wiley of Hoboken, New Jersey). Others have taken steps to develop or operate their own platforms, supplementing or supplanting these other approaches.”

“A number of states throughout the country have reduced funding to public universities,” notes a recent article in Publishers Weekly. “In trying to cut costs, some university systems are taking a hard look at their presses. While one university is considering shutting down its press, others continue to support theirs—but expect them to rely more on their own resources and less on institutional funding.”


“For a number of years, it has felt as though academic publishing was on the verge of a great transformation,” Ixxus founder Steve Odart wrote recently. “Now, things might finally be happening. There is a real buzz about the potential of scholarly books. You just have to look at this month’s Academic Book Week, which aims to increase awareness, increase accessibility, and start a conversation about academic books, or the speed at which many publishers have embraced the open access business model, to see the level of excitement and experimentation surrounding academic publishing.”

Despite Open Access mandates and other pressures on authors and the academy, the dominance of the commercial titans continues. In a 2015 article in PLOS One titled “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era” the authors wrote that their study, “based on 45 million documents indexed in the Web of Science over the period 1973-2013,” found “that in both natural and medical sciences (NMS) and social sciences and humanities (SSH), Reed-Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, and Taylor & Francis increased their share of the published output, especially since the advent of the digital era (mid-1990s). Combined, the top five most prolific publishers account for more than 50% of all papers published in 2013.”

University of Utah Libraries’ Rick Anderson believes that the problems with university presses can be traced to “the increasing efficiency of the information marketplace. The problem is what it has always been: Too much of what university presses publish is actually desired by too few people. That problem was hidden for decades by the great inefficiency of the marketplace, which required libraries to purchase books in anticipation (very often unrealized) of future demand. As libraries are increasingly freed from the need to purchase books on a speculative basis, library sales inevitably go down. None of this is

to say that the aggressive price-hiking of science journal publishers isn’t hurting U Press sales—I’m sure it is, as libraries redirect budgets away from books to protect journal subscriptions. But I don’t think that’s the fundamental problem for U Presses.”

“The real driver for us,” Tyler Walters, Virginia Tech Dean, University Libraries and Professor tells ATG, “is the need to develop a sustainable approach to academic monograph publishing. We are in a time where there are pressures on university presses to reduce their costs and achieve financial sustainability themselves, as well as being in a long-term trend where academic libraries purchase far fewer monographs.”

Tyler Walters

Role of U Presses—Libraries

In a recent article in Learned Publishing, Cambridge University Press’ Mandy Hill noted that “unlike traditional ‘for profit’ publishers, we were created to support our parent university’s …Interpreting this for the 21st century means looking beyond the traditional roles of publishers. How can we work differently with the library community, who are also going through their own evolution, to meet the changing needs of our shared patrons; how can we support academics wanting to share content; how can we open up access to content so that it really supports better research? We are working actively to find answers to these questions, which will take us a to a stronger, more proactive place in the future.”

“University presses are one of the few centers of expertise regarding scholarly communication to be found on any campus, and their knowledge is broader than any other entity,” Alex Holzman, Douglas Armato and MaryKatherine Callaway noted in a 2012 Inside Higher Education commentary. “Librarians are acutely aware of some dissemination issues, like price, but not so much about cost and business models. Academic computing center staff know the technical aspects of the web and are hands-down the experts on hardware. But in the broadest context of scholarly communication it is presses, charged with recovering on average 80 percent of their operating costs, that have the greatest expertise in all aspects of the big picture.”

“From conducting peer review (a critical step that distinguishes scholarship from other forms of publication),” they continue, “to creating metadata that allow broad discovery of scholarship to experimenting with innovative ways to provide that scholarship to libraries, faculty, and students on a lower cost-per-page basis than commercial scholarly publishing entities, we have been building expertise for years. It is expertise sometimes learned at each individual press, but especially in recent years also from cooperative ventures ranging from common production, marketing, and fundraising efforts to coalitions to expand international markets. That expertise can be used to help the university create the infrastructure it needs to lessen the cost of scholarship purchased from other entities.”

Utah’s Anderson believes that, by itself, the move of many university presses organizationally to reporting through libraries isn’t necessarily a bad omen. “One interesting question, I think, is whether the trend of moving university presses under the organizational umbrella of libraries reflects a declining institutional commitment, or a growing one. Are institutions pawning their presses off on the library, saying basically, ‘We give up trying to make this a going concern; here, library, you take care of it,’ or are they seeing the potential for synergy and revitalization and facilitating an exciting new fusion model of scholarly communication? To some degree I think the answer may be in the eye of the beholder, but I also suspect that the institutional attitude varies from place to place.”

Across the Great Divide Study

A 2016 meeting, called the P2L Summit, brought together 23 teams of university library and press directors with an administrative relationship (typically the press reporting to the library—“P2L”). Organized by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), the Association of American University Presses (AAUP), and the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), the summit was funded by the Mellon Foundation. A report of the meeting noted that “the university press occupies a complementary position on the outer boundaries of a university, attracting and disseminating the work of the global academy. As a public-facing unit that generally operates on a different (and often increasingly problematic) budgetary basis than the library or instructional units, university presses have been challenged to leverage linked information technologies that take a new vision of scholarly communications from imagination to reality, while maintaining standards of scholarly merit vis-à-vis consistently applied peer review and editorial best practices.”

The P2L Summit concluded that “in the area of scholarly communication, new or revived partnerships between the university press and the academic research library are an opportunity to re-imagine functions that have been separated from one another through custom, convenience, professional practices, or standard administrative operation.

The group recommended “a tighter coupling of library initiatives and press intellectual capital can open up new ways of thinking about publishing as a core function of the academic environment. This link is integral to moving from shared one-off projects to scalable solutions.”

Future of University Presses, Books & Reading

Twenty years ago, Thomas Bacher, then head of the Purdue University Press, wrote in Against the Grain that “unlike the commercial publishers who have faced this reality by conglomerating and eliminating duplication and payroll, university presses have not yet come to terms with the crisis….University presses, in particular, must be aware of the transformation in people’s perceptions. Ritualistic reading, reading from cover to cover, of the latest monograph is a trait of the past. Having learned to cut and paste from infancy, the next generation of educated adults will read in bits and pieces, and as a part of their personal multi-tasking. There is a propensity to consider this a ‘bad situation’ for some unsubstantiated academic reason perhaps due, in part, to an educational generation gap that pits the book against the Web. Further, we are seeing a growth in customization at the expense of the assembly line. Coursepacks are not a passing fancy but a permanent (not in length of life) fixture of classroom activities and teaching methods. University presses must adapt to this new environment in which speed of distribution and form of distribution will play a vital role in their success.”

In her article, Mandy Hill foresees an exciting future for academic presses, whatever changes and new realities appear: “Academic publishing is going through a huge transitionary phase that will undoubtedly affect many of us in the industry. But this is a time when we can either be bystanders or active participants, and bystanders risk being left behind and becoming irrelevant. By being active, we take control of our destiny to shape a more forward-looking university press while contributing to the development of scholarly communications.”

“Our world has changed,” she concludes, “and we need to change too. It is not enough to shout about how important academic publishers are; we need to work to remain relevant to the communities we are here to serve. We need to do things that matter to them and that we can do better or more easily than they can do themselves. To get this right, we need to understand our customers and the ecosystem we are working in. It does not happen by osmosis however; we have to actively work at it, including the use of market research and increasingly looking for ways to tap into the wealth of data we now have.”

New efforts, like the Library Publishing Coalition, are working to create new synergies, new roles and partnerships. Nebraska’s Shear reports that “at Nebraska, we don’t report to the library, but my sense from other presses is that it has been uniformly positive.” Their press is independent and their book program has not been impacted by the Open Access model. “We are seeing a trend emerge in humanities journals, but not in the monograph world.”

In President Trump’s newly released fiscal priorities, scholarly and creative areas have been given short shrift—from the National Endowment of the Humanities to PBS to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Perhaps this extreme shift in proposed federal priorities may represent the tipping point needed to forge new relationships and publishing venues, by the academy, for the academy, and with the global community. In Part 2 we will cover the increasingly collaborative efforts of academic institutions across the globe to force change—and not in some evolutionary manner but using technology to perhaps fundamentally change academic publishing forever.


Nancy K. Herther is librarian for Sociology & Anthropology at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.


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