Abandoning an Experiment

Rice U. shuts down its digital university press -- going against recommendations of outside reviewers. With 2 other presses closing, some see growing vulnerability for small outfits.
August 20, 2010

Rice University Press is being shut down next month, ending an experiment in an all-digital model of scholarly publishing. While university officials said that they needed to make a difficult economic decision to end the operation, they acted against the recommendations of an outside review team that had urged Rice to bolster its support for the publishing operations.

Some supporters, in fact, are in discussions about raising private support to continue the press as a scholarly publishing outfit that might not be attached to any single university.

Many supporters of academic publishing had high hopes for the Rice project, which was launched in 2006 with the goal of merging the quality and rigor of scholarly peer review with the convenience and low cost of digital publishing. The demise of the project led to immediate speculation about whether the Rice experience suggested difficulties for the economic model or if other factors may have been decisive.

Several experts suggested that the crucial factor may be size. The Rice operation was small (no more than a handful of books a year). Earlier this week, word spread that the University of Scranton Press was being shut down, and in May Southern Methodist University suspended operations of its press (although a committee is now studying whether it might be revived in a different form). While the Scranton and SMU presses are larger than Rice's, they are both relatively small. While threats of the closure of university presses surface from time to time -- the operations of both Louisiana State University and Utah State University were at risk in 2009, but survived -- closures have been rare.

Death and Rebirth and Death at Rice

Indeed one of the last closures was Rice University Press, which in its more traditional form was killed off in 1996.

A statement from Eugene Levy, who recently concluded a term as provost at Rice (during which he helped finance the revived press and helped decide to end the project), explained the decision this way: "The hope was that, without the burden of having to maintain a print inventory, the press might sustain itself largely on revenues from print-on-demand book sales. Unfortunately, book sales remained very slow, and projections discouraged the anticipation that revenues would, in the foreseeable future, grow to a level that could materially cover even minimal costs of operations. Combined with pressures on the university budget from the broad fiscal crisis of recent years, the university concluded that it could not continue indefinite subsidy of the RUP experiment, as painful budget reductions were being absorbed across the entire university, including in the core of Rice's educational and research mission."

The press used Connexions, a Rice open education resources project, as a platform to publish, and the Rice press books that have appeared will continue to be available there. Connexions is remaining open with its many projects beyond the press.

Levy, the Andrew Hays Buchanan Professor of Astrophysics at Rice, said in an interview that the press was costing $150,000 to $200,000 a year. "This was intended as an experiment," he said.

The results leave him wondering about the ability of small publishing operations, he said. While the hope was to save money by not printing books, he said that there "are base costs that are irreducible" for a publisher "and printing is only one of them." One model many have suggested is for small academic publishers to merge more of their administrative functions or even their entire operations.

Levy said he understood that idea from a financial perspective but was bothered by it. One of the key strengths of scholarly publishing, he said, is the "intellectual pluralism" that is promoted by having many presses.

While Levy portrayed the decision as a necessary one, not everyone agrees. One member of the board of the press, who asked not to be identified because of the need to build support for continuing the press without the university, said that Rice unfairly judged the press as unworthy because it couldn't support itself.

"Sales are not going to be the way presses" develop new models for academic publishing, the board member said. Scholarly presses are receiving far more from universities other than Rice -- and universities should focus on the role of disseminating scholarship, not pure sales. "We're moving to a different era of scholarly communication where it's more accessible to more people, and where we don't have to worry about the commercial viability," the board member said. The reality, the board member added, is that "there is no commercial viability" in academic publishing and that the emphasis on such questions "is killing humanities publishing."

Indeed the outside reviewers who recently finished a study of the press recommended in their report -- a copy of which was obtained by Inside Higher Ed -- that the press move further away from a book-oriented model and become a teaching and research center that explored new forms of scholarly communication. Such a broadening of the press role, the committee said, would attract outside financial support and enhance the university's programs.

Turning the press into a scholarship laboratory, the report said, "challenges and transforms the traditional notion of the university press, which now becomes not a 'press' in any ordinary sense of the word, but rather a node for experimentation, research, and dissemination, linking together the teaching and research core of Rice University, the Rice University Libraries (in the form of the Center for Digital Scholarship), the university’s main research centers (HRC, etc.), within the framework of an outreach structure (RUP with Connexions serving as only one of a number of supports).

"Like a conventional university press, RUP would, through the work of its publisher, continue to seek out and recruit internal and external projects that live up to its mission of modeling the future of scholarship. A traditional peer review process would be applied to the evaluation of these projects, however unconventional their form (a multimedia publication, geo-spatially organized repository, a print/digital hybrid 'augmented' book). But RUP would also serve as the completion and publication site for the most innovative locally produced (via Rice’s research centers and institutes) projects, subject to precisely the same peer review controls."

The report concludes by explicitly rejecting calls to close the press and says instead: "The Lab/Press model promotes the most innovative forms of research on campus and, through the press, interconnects them to the most innovative forms of research being carried out at other universities both nationally and worldwide. No other university press has dared to integrally reinvent itself along the lines of scenario one, so Rice University Press could play a leadership role in this regard both nationally and internationally."

Levy, asked why Rice did not embrace those ideas, said via e-mail that it was key to remember that the "driving reason for the closure decision was fiscal." He said that the outside review was sought "to solicit expert opinion about whether the press might – as some would have it – be on the cusp (or within feasibly near reach) of achieving a sustaining state" and that the committee agreed this was not the case.

The ideas suggested by the outside reviewers would have involved doubling Rice financial support, Levy said, and that was an "untimely" idea. "The fact that the visiting committee decided to put forward another idea for spending the funds was beside the point. There sat, on my then provostial desk, quite a pile of good ideas for spending resources, many of them truly compelling, and a number of which I dearly wish I had been able, responsibly, to fund," he said.

The Overall Press Picture

While Rice has opted not to move ahead with a vision for an expanded press, other universities have decided not to maintain more traditional university presses. Are these decisions connected? Richard Brown, director of Georgetown University Press and president of the Association of American University Presses, said he viewed all of the closures as distressing, but that the cases were quite different. "I hate to see any university press struggling," he said. "But you have to look at them case by case."

He said that Rice's project was "an interesting experiment" and that it may not have found a viable model. "It's clear that we're in a transition period right now," he said. Brown said that it was important to remember also that despite the actions at a few universities, "most are really committed to scholarly publishing."

While much of the discussion about new models in scholarly publishing has focused on medium (digital or print), there is also discussion of new organizational structures. The University of Michigan Press, for example, last year announced not only that it was shifting most monograph publishing to digital formats, but that it was becoming part of the university's library system.

Brown said that a library could be "a safe harbor," particularly for smaller presses, but he said he wasn't predicting a major move in that direction by many presses.

Laura Brown (no relation to Richard Brown), executive vice president of strategy and research for Ithaka, an organization that studies the future of publishing and has promoted new models for university presses, said it was "hard to disentangle" all of the factors that may have been at play in the failure of the Rice press to create a new economic model.

She noted that in the current economic environment, "scrutiny of the subsidy" that presses receive can make them more vulnerable -- especially those presses that are small. A big part of the problem, she said, is that certain functions are needed whether a press is big or small. "You can't just get rid of half of a finance person and half of a marketing person" in the same way that a large operation may be able to eliminate some positions, she said. "There are a lot of costs of running an enterprise."

The model of joining the library may work, she said, if there is genuine university commitment to expanding the library role. But she said that it wasn't clear that this would always be the case. If a university press goes to an open-access digital model and gives up the revenue from print books, the institutional subsidy may be greater -- putting pressure on a library budget.

Indeed Levy, the former Rice provost, said that when the idea for reviving the press there was talked about five years ago, one proposal was to make it part of Rice's library operations. And he said that the library's leaders were willing to have that happen. "I"m the one who said no," Levy said. "My feeling was that we needed to be supporting the library more rather than raiding its budget." So Levy found general university funds and set up the press as a largely independent unit, typical of the way university presses are managed.

Does he now think that the library -- which, like a university press, is focused on disseminating scholarship instead of making money -- might be a better home for a university press? "I have an open mind," he said, "because both publishing and libraries are evolving so quickly."


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