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Hacking the Academic Press: or Herding Pushmi-Pullyus
March 10, 2011 - 11:00pm

The Association of American University Presses has just released a report, Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses. It’s an interesting document because in many ways it’s forward looking. It bears a Creative Commons license, it is open for comments at MediaCommons, and it imagines a future that is open access. But at the same time, it is very much anchored in current-traditional publishing, and this gives the document a weird pushmi-pullyu anatomy.

Every time it starts to head somewhere daring an innovative, the other end resists. Elsewhere I have commented that I would edit the word “business” out of the subtitle of the report. We need a funding model, but that model doesn’t have to be one based on generating sales. I think instead that libraries should invest in open access publishing at the front end of the process rather than scrambling, one by one, to purchase it at the end. This won’t displace the mega-corporations that have chewed through library budgets, but it could rescue those parts of academic publishing that have suffered the consequences of the hyperinflation of scientific publishing. Relying on market conditions has not been kind to those disciplines that can’t compete easily for dollars because there are few commercial applications and fewer federal dollars supporting basic research in those fields. If libraries reallocated a percentage of their funding to support open access publishing in these fields, university presses wouldn’t have to find new business models. They’d have a funding model that is sustainable.

But this won’t be so easy, even if libraries step up to fund this work. There is a business mindset in academic publishing that will be hard to shake, and a sense that the way authority accrued to publications in the past is threatened if things change. Let me pull a few quotes that seem to be drawing back from the future in nervousness.

The technological and cultural shifts of the last decade . . . challenge not just publishers’ business models, but may even threaten many of the intellectual characteristics most valued by the scholarly enterprise itself: concentration, analysis, and deep expertise.

Oh dear. You’ve been reading The Shallows again, haven’t you? The Interwebs have not made us stupid.

. . . one of the drivers that ensures quality publishing—and part of what enables publishers to maintain their expertise—is having a financial interest in the success of a publication.

Really? Sorry, but I am deeply skeptical that intellectual independence depends on making enough money to pay for your overhead. It may help you be independent of a university administration—you know, the one that cut your budget to zero a few years ago—but depending on market forces to foot the bill does not guarantee editorial independence.

Social-network voting models of any kind (often touted as a replacement for editorial selection) will naturally be gamed by interested parties. Fame and popularity and the ability to get lots of votes are not a proxy for scholarly merit. How do we ensure that the scholarly cream is able to rise to the top?

While deciding which projects deserve attention is important, this characterization of socio-critical academic networks as “voting” for popularity seems bizarrely uninformed.

. . . publisher-driven additions are frequently visual icons of substantiality. Rare is the book that is not a visual improvement over a manuscript. How do we fund graphic and typographic expertise?

We could do it the old-fashioned way: we could pay for it. Or we could do what a lot of web platforms do—enable people to create templates that can be selected and used repeatedly. I love good design, but all those folks who are reading on Kindles don’t seem to miss it greatly. Maybe icons of substantiality aren't all they're cracked up to be.

University presses, while deeply associated with their parent institutions, are able to operate without direct pressures based on academic fads, expectations of colleagues or obligations imposed by university executives.

This sounds as if presses are grateful that their host institutions have stopped supporting them financially. But even so, there’s plenty of pressure out there—and faddishness. The pressure that we need to relieve is coming from academics themselves and the tenure and promotion guidelines that depend on publishers publishing the way they always have and libraries purchasing. What happens when libraries can’t purchase and publishers can’t publish? Oh, right. We arrive where we are today, looking for a way forward.

So that’s one end of the pushmi-pullyu. The other end is refreshingly forward-looking and open to collaboration and innovation. I’m thrilled by these indications:

University presses are enthusiastic to engage with and publish many of the worthwhile but experimental projects that inventive scholars are creating.

Indeed, the title of this blog post was inspired by the Hacking the Academy project. There are many great ideas percolating out there; I’m glad to see them embraced.

. . . the simple product-sales models of the twentieth century, devised when information was scarce and expensive, are clearly inappropriate for the twenty-first-century scholarly ecosystem.

Yes. Exactly.

Active, structured, open sharing of lessons learned by participants in existing digital publishing projects should be an ongoing process.

Agreed. Trade publishing suffers terribly by failing to share information that would benefit the industry. I’m happy that the AAUP is not falling into that trap.

Open access is a principle to be embraced if publishing costs can be supported by the larger scholarly enterprise.

I’m so glad you think so!

. . . during a time of dramatic transition, all members of the relevant scholarly communities—presses, authors, libraries, administrators, scholarly societies, and funding agencies—will need to be enlisted in open-ended and open-minded discussions, to ensure a robust scholarly communication ecosystem in the future.

Indeed. The scholars who create new knowledge, publishers who select and improve it, and libraries that make it shareable all have to think hard about how we can make this system work. Because right now, it isn’t. And it’s too important to let it fail.


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