Don’t Stop the Presses: Information and Research at Risk

A 1920 history of Yale University Press notes, “The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else he builds ever lasts.”  As a young boy growing up near Cleveland, Ohio, I spent many hours in the public library experiencing the lasting value of books. Books were a vehicle to take me places and show me different cultures. Books opened other worlds and diverse views.

While I was spending time in my local library, the AAUP (Association of American University Presses) held its 1978 Annual Meeting at Notre Dame University. Among the panels, one was entitled “The Now and Future Crisis.” The oil-embargo had led to an economic downturn forcing universities to restrict budgets, and university presses were faced with uncertain futures. In fact, the university presses at Duquesne, Michigan State, and Catholic University had withdrawn from the AAUP because they could no longer support the publication of books. I had no idea at the time that I would become a director of a university press, and the word “crisis” would continue to be a topic at annual meetings.

Fragmentation has impacted university presses. Libraries have become publishers. Individual faculty members, aided by technological advances, self publish their works. Blogs and other digital environments allow new forms of scholarly communication. The book had a unity all to itself. Now, content is pieced together to create a whole, and like the music industry, entire collections (albums) have given way to individual tunes. Customers are creating their own playlists, and reading lists.

As we move into the era of apps, the disintegration of the book and other institutions are leading to individually-selected existences. Customers are explicitly defining what features they wish to have in products and companies need to react quickly. Education, with its antiquated committee bureaucracies, is facing the threat of privately-funded knowledge entities. As this commercialization grows, the influx of funds to public institutions will be diminished. Brand identity and competitive advantage will allow many premier educational institutions to survive, but many lesser brands will end up like the old five and dimes which were decimated by larger warehouse stores.

University press functions will survive in any educational setting. Editing and dissemination of research and scholarship is critical to advancement and innovation. The market barriers to the art of making books aren’t very high anymore. However, the failure to maintain information for the longer term might prove fatal. In our haste to digitize the world, we might actually be dismantling problem solving. Speed of informational retrieval doesn’t build better bridges. Texting doesn’t lead to deep thinking. The best solutions come from a thorough understanding of the total body of research.

A history of Oxford University Press, published in 1922, contains the following passage: “The endowment of research is a difficult subject…The support given to the Press in the past, whether by individuals or by other institutions devoted to learning, has been trifling in consideration of the work which it has produced. The need of such support is now far more urgent; and the record of the Press is proof that financial support would be turned to good account. ”  University subsidies to their university presses rarely reach the level of one percent of a university’s total budget. Most are very far below that. Many don’t reach the level of a university president’s total financial package. Let’s not stop the presses.


The Association of American University Presses and the Closing of the University of Missouri Press

Recently I attended the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Association of American University Presses in Chicago, Illinois. The theme was “Igniting the Future” and the organization is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The theme seemed rather ironic or dark considering the history of Chicago and fire, even though the MSL soccer team is called “The Fire.”

At the same time, the Chicago Cultural Center was holding an exhibit entitled “Morbid Curiosity.” According to the exhibit’s brochure, “the desire to investigate the theme of death is considered unusual and potentially unhealthy or abnormal.” As a director of a university press, after years of hearing about extinction, especially of monographs, subject areas, and almost anything that resembled a book, the art exhibit provided a nice juxtaposition. Even though the viewing space was filled with skulls and skeletons, the artists were using death as a way to emphasize the importance of life.  I hoped to transfer the exhibit’s perspective to the university press setting—the death of one form of communication meant that other forms were emerging in need of the skill and expertise of university press staff members.

The upbeat mood at the conference was restrained, however, by the news that the University of Missouri press was going to be closed. Even before the announcement, perhaps with prescient foresight, the AAUP had scheduled a director’s meeting to hammer out a path for future vitality and visibility. Among the issues that were discussed was a statement that a Missouri administrator had made—”When you look at what we have invested in the press over the past 15 years,” [vice president for finance and administration Nikki] Krawitz said, “and maybe before that, we’ve invested a lot in the press, and relatively few of our faculty publish in the press, so the subsidy to outside authors is huge.” This statement highlights the problematic way in which university presses are perceived.

First of all, most universities do not have university presses. So, presses like the UM press, subsidize books for other universities without compensation. Among the colleges and universities represented in UM’s 2012 fall catalog are Miami University of Ohio, the University of Arkansas (Fort Smith), Andrew College, Washington University (St. Louis), Southeast Missouri State, and DeAnza College. Similar results would be found by browsing the catalogs of other university presses. Of course, the University of Missouri’s faculty benefits from being published at other university presses, too. A look at the vitas of UM’s English Department shows that at a minimum 56 monographs produced by department faculty where published at other university presses, including Cornell, Stanford, Georgia, and Ohio State, to name a few.

Secondly, being published by your home university press tends to be a sign of an author’s weakness. It’s like using the football coach to referee a home game. Everyone would understand the fix was in. The faculty of the UM English Department did publish at least seven books with their home press.

The hint that the UM press should be profitable was tacitly implied by several administrators’ comments. University presses are not profit centers. Of course, the majority of university sports programs, and in many cases, several university departments run deficits. University presses are just easier targets.

The scholarly ecology needs university presses because they are a deterrent against predatory, commercial publishers.  The small investments by those universities that have presses enable younger faculty to get published. Perhaps, some forward thinking chancellor at a state board of regents will realize the value of sustaining scholarship and ask for a small levy from all schools in that state that do not have university presses. In this way, libraries would get free copies of every book published by their in-state university presses and open-access publications would flourish.

The old Fram tagline is right on target–either pay me now or pay me later. Closing a university press just escalates the costs across all of academia. Unfortunately, university administrators don’t always read the fine print.

Access to Research Funded by Governmental Agencies

“Publishers do add value, so I think it’s fair that they recoup their costs. We give them six months of exclusivity where they should be able to recoup those costs,” Doyle said. “We are not trying to put publishers out of business. We are just saying that they don’t have exclusive rights to research funded by taxpayers.” Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.)

The battle over publically-funded research is heating up again. On one side are legislators and information organizations like libraries and on the other side are publishers of all variety. The issue in all of this is truly how much should publishers get for adding value—editing, page-make-up reliable retrieval, etc. —to research that is funded by the NSF, NIH, and other governmental institutions. The bill’s main sponsor, Representative Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), does admit that publishers should recoup their costs and can do so within a six-month window of exclusivity.

Part of the problem is that when research is funded, other than some modest instructions to make research available, an amount is not allocated for open access publication. If all researchers were good writers, a panacea that never will exist, publishers would not have to get involved. Doyle notes that high subscription costs have indeed limited access to information, but he doesn’t call for more funding to institutions of higher learning. Universities with a rich tradition of graduating the best and the brightest, in other words institutions that can charge substantial fees and tuition, have the best resources. This is a typical example of supply and demand economics.

A much too simplistic approach would be to provide a $1500-$2000 stipend to hire an organization to edit and format an article of a researcher’s findings for upload to a digital site. Then again, while Doyle contends that releasing data doesn’t impact publishers’ bottom lines currently, the realization that results would come without costs within a reasonable amount of time would definitely impact the purchasing habits of public information entities.

The other issue that Doyle does not in fact understand is that the researchers raw data is only in very rare cases the same as the finalized article. What Doyle is asking then, is for a publisher to provide a different version to the government for free. This is hardly fair. The government doesn’t require graduates of public high schools to pay royalties on their future discoveries.

Finally, while Doyle’s plan might work for scientific research, it would not work for research that is funded in the humanities. This type of research has a much longer revenue tail and can still provide publishers income decades from initial publication. When the unfortunate 9/11 incident occurred, previously-published books and articles on Osama bin Laden became vital reading.

University presses act as deterrents to commercial publishing monopolies. University press monograph average list prices are @$20 less than commercial presses like Elsevier and John Wiley. The sad part about today’s environment is that small subsidies to university presses are coming under attack, see the Missouri Press story. As universities find ways to gather their faculty’s work and instruction in more effective ways, institutions with university presses will be far ahead of their colleagues in framing that work in ways that are easily distributable and digestible by the worlds’ scholars.

The Future of Scholarly Presses Has No Business Model; It Has Many

As a university press director at a small university press (we have a staff of 3.25 FTE and augment operations with a few paid students and several interns who get course credit for working at the press), I have a great understanding of the term “barebones operation.”  Supply and demand does indeed drive pricing, but some models are emerging that will have a true impact on the availability of scholarly information. Currently, the larger costs of running a university press are in the areas of  acquiring content,  copyediting and page layout. Printing costs are controllable in many ways, especially with the rise of good quality digital printing including print-on-demand. Conversion services that turn a print-ready PDF into an e-readable version for 99% of the current platforms are very reasonable.

One initiative that will open up content for end users are systems like the UPCC, University Press Content Consortium ( Project Muse has contracted with over 70 university presses to provide content to academic libraries and other organizations in a manner similar to journal content. The collection allows publishers to take a traditional book and add its content to a digital platform extending the financial return on each investment. Further, however, the platform opens up the way presses can think about distributing content by allowing for a reversal of the traditional production cycle. Content can be made available in a digital format initially. By providing presses with information on usage, presses will be able to decide if certain content needs to be collected for a print version or e-book.

Secondly, while slow to catch on, open access monographs are still a viable way to provide for lower priced academic books. In the open access model, a university might fund an author’s work or provide a sabbatical or exchange time to create a monograph. Funding organization can also provide grants to university presses to ameliorate pre-press costs. Decreasing the costs initially, enable presses to offer lower-priced printed and e-book editions.

University Press directors who read Joshua Kim’s 10 ideas to lower the cost of university press books (  probably are doing so with a smile and a nod. Here’s my take on the thoughts, using college football as an analogy.

  • Concise Book – Shortening games to three quarters, especially night games, would reduce costs. So would eliminating overtime and going back to ties.
  • Go All Digital – Instead of playing real games, use a system like Madden College Football 2012 to decide game outcomes.
  • Go Virtual – If coaches are hired, have them work out of their homes or bring in temporary trailers to house them during high-activity periods.
  • Go Flat – Forget the coaches altogether. Have players run the teams.
  • Outsource Copyediting – Outsourcing coaching would reduce the gigantic costs of hiring and firing coaches.
  • Embrace Business Development – Be a pioneer; let an NFL team run your college football operation. Forget the concept of scholar-athlete.
  • Sponsorship – Have folks rent a football player for a season. Some strings attached.
  • Go Naked – Fully account for every football cost. Disclose it all. That would be something.
  • Embrace Failure – Go back to the single wing. Never punt. Use systems with one defensive lineman and eight defensive backs. Onside kick every time.
  • Brainstorm the Business Model – Look at all the alternatives. Start a new program at your school that selects 22 different guys from the student body to show up at the stadium to play against 22 guys selected from the opponent. One week of practice. Play schools within an hour’s drive only. Get rid of all the divisions.

End results aren’t always predicated on a lack of trying. The external environment changes and solutions are not apparent or even feasible. One lesson that is clear is that there is no business model. The days of selling 1,000 or more books to academic libraries are gone. Each project is a new business model. As I always like saying, if the solution were that easy, everyone would already have done it. The challenge is in the uncertainty.


An Early Adopter