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Infrastructure is "a dense interwoven fabric that is, at the same time, dynamic, thoroughly ecological, even fragile," writes Susan Leigh Star in her 1999 article “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” This metaphor easily applies to infrastructure vital to the advancement of the sciences, where computing or instrument needs frequently can be funded only through multi-institutional investments, often in partnership with private and governmental funders. Some, like the Exascale computing initiatives for understanding COVID-19, are high profile and regularly in the news. Others -- such as Internet2, the “member-driven advanced technology community” founded by leading higher education institutions in 1996 -- are so long established that their workings have become largely invisible.

Envisioning humanities infrastructure as a similarly complex fabric and recognizing the university press community’s essential contributions to it will be crucial as higher education institutions and funders plan for pandemic-related economic impacts. University presses unquestionably play a significant role in the production of monographs, journals and digital projects, as well as in the curation of the scholarly record, particularly in the humanities. Powered by high-quality peer review, they function as a network of innovative laboratories for scholars; their combined impact is particularly clear in the growth of disciplines and the progress of interdisciplinary scholarship. They also increasingly incubate sophisticated inter-institutional collaborations, purpose-building platforms and practices responsive to the changing needs of scholars and knowledge itself.

Star also notably cautions, “Study an information system and neglect its standards, wires, and settings, and you miss equally essential aspects of aesthetics, justice, and change.” Recognizing those subtler aspects of infrastructure as, for example, Safiya Umoja Noble does in Algorithms of Oppression -- published by New York University Press -- has motivated many people to identify, own and work to disable the infrastructural elements of systemic racism. In society in general, and higher education in particular, much can be gained by interrogating the economics of infrastructure (what the different parts of the system do, why it costs what it does, who pays -- and who is paid -- for which part) and by exploring its symbolic aspects (who derives the most benefit from the system and who does not, and who is most impacted by its undesirable by-products).

Together, university presses, with notable seed investments from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, have been creating a new layered infrastructure to address vexing questions about how research might be more equitably created, assessed and distributed. For example:

  • University presses are working with scholars to design praxes that engage new forms of peer review. For example, Wilfrid Laurier University Press produces a peer-reviewed scholarly podcast titled Secret Feminist Agenda, and the University of Michigan Press recently published A. D. Carson’s i used to love to dream, a mixtape/essay of hip-hop scholarship.
  • University presses are conducting, as Princeton University Press director Christie Henry describes it, organizational peer review -- interrogating our publishing, hiring and retention practices. Staff members are working together to identify and promote more equitable procedures, as articulated in The Antiracism Toolkit for Allies, hosted by the Coalition for Diversity and Inclusion in Scholarly Communications.
  • The University of British Columbia Press founded and is developing, with the University of Washington Press, the Ravenspace platform for media-rich, interactive publications. This open-source, collaborative publishing process for Indigenous communities and scholars will soon be available to other author teams and presses.
  • The University of Michigan Press and the University of Minnesota Press have developed the open-source digital platforms Fulcrum and Manifold, respectively, not only to support their own publishing but also for use by other presses and scholarly groups. Johns Hopkins University Press, the MIT Press, Stanford University Press and Yale University Press have been constructing similar platforms.
  • University scholars, libraries and publishers alike have engaged multi-institutional funding and momentum to build open, community-owned, equitable systems for advancing humanities research. Examples include Community-led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs, Invest in Open Infrastructure, Next Generation Library Publishing, and the latest stage of OPERAS, the “European research infrastructure for the development of open scholarly communication in the social sciences and humanities.”
  • The Open Access Data Trust Pilot represents another international cooperative in which university presses are active. This project aims to produce ethical infrastructure, policy and governance models to support a diverse, global data trust on open-access monograph usage. It augments our substantial investments in open-access book publishing, such as TOME and the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot.

Those examples of dynamic, collaborative support for humanities scholarship by universities and their presses suggest the powerful possibilities of inter-institutional infrastructure. They both reflect and shape the practices of a new-generation professoriate seeking networked research through responsive and community-minded publishing models.

A New Funding System

Yet at a time when some of the university press community may soon face significant challenges from pandemic-induced higher education funding cuts, the fragility of this infrastructure is all too clear. Moreover, the unequal distribution of the costs of supporting the network of university presses exacerbates those challenges: with more than 4,000 degree-granting institutions and fewer than 130 university presses in the United States and Canada, this vital infrastructure of knowledge and career advancement is directly supported by less than 3 percent of the institutions it benefits. In a world where sales were more evenly distributed, that might have worked. Now, however, it means the core infrastructure is both fragile and highly concentrated among a few, likely wealthier, institutions.

“We need investment in the infrastructures that support humanities research and help make that research accessible for the public good,” writes historian Karin Wulf in the Scholarly Kitchen blog, adding that “the university presses are a fantastic example of critical infrastructure for that knowledge production.”

Amy Brand, director of the MIT Press, writes that “established models and practices are increasingly unfit for purpose in a world of shrinking library budgets, overpriced journals, unpurchased monographs and oligopolistic analytics platforms.” She concludes that “the time is ripe for greater multi-stakeholder coordination and institutional investment in building and maintaining a diversified open infrastructure pipeline.” James Hilton, dean of libraries at the University of Michigan, has amplified this view, arguing that university presses are essential infrastructure for the humanities and should be financially supported in the same way that other higher education inter-institutional infrastructure is.

If one presumes that infrastructure’s “dense interwoven fabric” is born of profound visionary commitment and strong, sustained inter-institutional investment, then the lack of the latter -- despite the presence of the former -- will forever leave university press initiatives vulnerable, the fabric thin; one small cut and it tears. In its wake will be the unfinished promise of a humanities revitalized by the energy of collaboration, the outcomes of equity and the wonder of shared knowledge.

Humanities scholarship needs a new system for funding its infrastructure, one that recognizes university presses as mission-critical components worthy of intentional, inter-institutional commitments -- rather than as auxiliary units of a few individual institutions, funded by sales and assessed only by the bottom line. We challenge private and government funders, especially as they create future frameworks for open scholarship, to protect and enhance the vital roles of public engagement and quality assurance played by university presses in myriad disciplines. We likewise call upon the leadership of colleges and universities -- whether these institutions have their own press or not -- to exercise similar foresight.

These stakeholders have long seen the value in investing significant resources to sustain science infrastructures that contribute to a common good. It is essential to their mission that they collaborate and invest with that same care in the crucial infrastructure for humanities research embodied by the network of university presses.

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