Hot Type: Despite Broader Audiences, University Presses May Have to Scramble for Support

November 21, 2010

Assume that university presses make it through whatever you want to call the current era of publishing: crisis, transformation, great digital shift. Not everybody makes that assumption. I do. The real question, for me, is how numerous the survivors will be, what they will look like, what kinds of materials they'll publish, and how they'll operate in five, 10, 20 years.

The Association of Research Libraries recently came up with scenarios for the year 2030, designed to help libraries avoid future shock as they make strategic plans. I've wondered when someone would make similar prognostications for university presses. The new issue of the Journal of Electronic Publishing, out Monday, does just that. Among the contributors' more startling suggestions is the idea that we could have more university presses, not fewer, in the future.

Collectively the essayists push forward with other ideas that have been gaining ground in the past couple of years: that presses need to find ways to ally themselves more closely with their host institutions; that presses have to learn to publish many kinds of things digitally and well, not limit themselves to monographs and journals; that consortial arrangements will likely be the ticket to survival; and that publishers need to bring scholars more into the process if they don't want to lose those authors to alternative publishing systems and outlets.

In his invitation to contributors, Phil Pochoda, guest editor of the issue, asked them "to rethink from scratch what scholarly communication in the fully digital era might look like," how it could be organized "within and among universities," and how scholarly materials — all kinds, not just journal articles and monographs, those staples of university-press publishing — could best be found, edited, produced, and shared, in whatever form. The invitation and the essays that resulted carry on the conversation jump-started by a 2007 report on "University Publishing in a Digital Age" — note the lack of "press" there — published by the nonprofit Ithaka group, which promotes the use of technology in higher education.

Mr. Pochoda has an interesting angle on all this. He directs the University of Michigan Press, which in 2009 got redefined as an academic unit of the campus library. Many presses report to their university's library; Mr. Pochoda's is embedded in it — a development that some observers thought might be the beginning of the end for the press. So far it hasn't been. Michigan has taken the lead in setting up a broad and innovative university-based publishing system, which includes its Scholarly Publishing Office, also part of the library. The office produces the Journal of Electronic Publishing.

To his credit, Mr. Pochoda did not limit his invitation to university-press people. Refreshingly, only two contributors work for scholarly publishers: Peter J. Dougherty, director of Princeton University Press, and Michael J. Jensen, director of strategic Web communications at the National Academies and its press. The others include university administrators (Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning and programs at the University of California, and Paul N. Courant, dean of libraries at Michigan), researchers and consultants (Kate Wittenberg, project director for client and partnership development at Ithaka, and Joseph J. Esposito, chief executive of GiantChair, which helps develop and host online catalogs for publishers), digital visionaries (Peter Brantley, director of the Bookserver Project at the Internet Archive, and Clifford A. Lynch, director of the Coalition for Networked Information), and a scholar-editor (Tara McPherson, an associate professor of critical and gender studies at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and founding editor of Vectors, a journal of culture and technology).

If you follow the blogospheric conversations about scholarly publishing or attend conferences involving academic publishing and libraries, you have almost certainly read reports or posts by several of these people and/or have heard them give talks. Most are regulars on the scholarly-communications circuit.

So I was pleasantly surprised, again, to find some fresh ideas in this issue and what might, in some circles, pass for dangerous thinking. Mr. Pochoda et al. deserve a lot of credit for tackling their subject ambitiously and imaginatively and without much resort to stock phrases like "adding value." One assumption that no one questioned, though: that the world will continue to need the kinds of output that scholarly presses produce. That assumption, as much as financial and digital challenges, may be scholarly publishers' greatest vulnerability.

I don't have room here to give you the full rundown, so if you're a publisher or an author or just interested, you should go to the issue, freely available online. But here's a recap of three ideas that jumped out at me as I was reading.

There will be more university presses, not fewer. In his essay "Imagining a University Press System to Support Scholarship in the Digital Age," Mr. Lynch anticipates a future in which all research universities as well as other higher-ed institutions have university presses — "indeed, we see announcements of launches rather than shutterings of presses," he writes. This will be possible in part because all of the presses will use a handful of "platform providers," perhaps run by university consortia, which handle the production, delivery, and preservation of digital files. Most presses will be small, he writes, "some almost cottage-industry participants," and closely aligned with the academic strengths of their host institutions. Nobody will look askance at presses that get half of their scholarly output from local faculty members. Accreditors will consider the lack of a press to be a red flag.

Breaking out of academe. In "Next-Generation University Publishing: A Perspective From California," Daniel Greenstein begins with a question: "What does the university require from its publisher?" Part of California's answer involves what he calls continuum publishing, which he defines as making sure that as much of the university's publishing output as possible, both formal and informal, gets into the hands of as wide an audience as possible, even if that means breaking it up and repackaging some of it. Citing a recent experiment with sharing California climate research via a Web portal, Mr. Greenstein suggests that university publishing could break into the space largely occupied by commercial science, technical, and medical publishers.

Prepare for radical disruptions — and not just in scholarly communications. The gloomiest and therefore the most absorbing essay comes from Michael Jensen. He posits two scenarios for 2020, Dystopia and Dystopia Lite, about publishing in a world in which economic and environmental systems are collapsing all around us.

In Dystopia Lite, university presses survive but look very different, as publishers, librarians, administrators, and faculty members "come to collective, tentative agreements on what needs to be retained" from the current system. Such conversations are already taking place on "forward-thinking campuses such as Michigan, California, Pennsylvania, and others," Mr. Jensen notes. By 2020, in this scenario, "open access of relatively raw 'content' has become the default." Costs will be underwritten by a hodgepodge of subsidies, some of them cross-institutional, and by "some sales of selected value-added versions of raw scholarship (also known as publications) to individuals and institutions."

In the full-on doom-and-gloom scenario, digital communications may well be robust, with "routine 'smart crowdsourcing' of peer review" and all of us living in what he calls "digital ubiquity." That won't matter much to presses, though, because there won't be any money to support such endeavors. "By 2020, when it is crystal clear that repair of the physical world is nearly impossible (and/or when geoengineering schemes have caused massive 'unintended consequences'), the economic contraction will be staggering," Mr. Jensen writes. "Beyond that, there be tygers."