As We May Publish: My Reflections on AAUP’s Sustaining Scholarly Publishing Report

This blog post is a response to questions posed to me via Twitter by Shana Kimball, Head of Publishing Services, Outreach and Strategic Development at MPublishing, University of Michigan Library (http://lib.umich.edu/spo) She asked me in a tweet: “Curious about what you think authors should take notice of in the AAUP report? How should it change their publishing habits?” My immediate reaction was: great questions. But I realized quickly that my response was not likely to fit into a tweeted reply.

Some background: Since last week, I’ve been commenting on a new report from an AAUP Task Force on Economic Models for Scholarly Publishing. The members of the task force, representing several well-known university presses, have written a report entitled “Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses.”[1] The focus of the report is on university presses as a “keynote species” in the scholarly ecosystem, and the report’s conclusions speak to the need for collaboration and experimentation at and among university presses. So, there is a lot to digest in the report for the presses themselves and for their future, but why should any of these issues matter to authors, scholars, non-publishing faculty members, or even University administrators?

First, while most authors probably know (or at least sense) that university presses are in a transitional period and facing severe challenges, the report provides background and case studies about what is actually happening behind the scenes at the presses and discusses some of the new publishing models and strategies that are already being tried. The report seeks to address the challenges of a changing landscape for university presses from “new technologies to new economic conditions to changing relations with stakeholders.” While some might suggest that university presses—like many other businesses or academic enterprises—will just need to adapt to new economic and publishing realities, the report notes that the long-term sustainability of scholarly communication is not solely a question for university presses to answer, but in fact, requires a larger conversation between all shareholders in scholarly publishing, including authors, researchers, universities, funding agencies, and librarians.

And the stakes in the evolution of scholarly communication remain high for faculty members since university press publication remains one of the primary ways we establish our reputations as scholars. The importance of publishing with a University Press is a major criterion in many promotion and tenure decisions and is still a major conduit by which we review, edit, share, and archive our research and our scholarship among our peers and within our various disciplines. Therefore, I would argue it behooves us as an academic community to be very concerned about what is happening at university presses. To use the report’s “ecosystem” metaphor, authors are an important species in that system as well.

Moreover, change in scholarly publishing is already being driven by faculty—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—especially in the context of our everyday campus-based requests and needs. The scholarly ecosystem is deeply interconnected. For example, changes in how we access other people’s research (the demand side of the equation) is being felt by university presses (the supply side). If the demand rises for PDF files, then presses need to consider not only how to meet that need now but be able to have in place economic models that will allow them to meet that need in the long run.[2] In this regard, I would cite what Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, wrote earlier this year in Library Journal: “Times have changed. The migration to electronic formats untethered to physical libraries has already happened—so far as readers are concerned. How often these days does one encounter even the hoariest of scholars insisting that print journals in the library are preferable to electronic access at their desk? But the publishing system (and much of the prestige bound up in it) remains tied to archaic production processes, largely because librarians and their budgets have managed to throw together make-shift bridges to close the gaps between scholars and the resources they need. We’re good at making things work for our faculty, for now, and we do it quietly, making compromises behind the scenes. We’re not so good at meeting the needs of future scholars. They aren’t able to raise a stink, so we ignore them.” Faculty members are not neutral or disinterested parties in this conversation—we already impact the system.

Digital publishing realities are here today. This is no longer quite the horizon issue it was ten years ago. Many of us are already exploring and adopting open access (OA) models and utilizing open publishing formats and platforms. Therefore, I would argue that it is valuable to have the perspective of how open access (among other shifts) are impacting the university press system.

One reaction I had in reading the AAUP report and its growing body of comments is that a “healthy scholarly ecosystem” may very well look different, depending upon whether you are a librarian, an editor at a university press, an author, a grant administrator, a member of a scholarly society, etc. We may find broad agreement on what qualities we would all ideally want in a “healthy scholarly ecosystem.” But in the comments I’ve read so far, I detect thornier issues when the conversation switches to different university press missions, press priorities, scholarly agendas, and economic realities (among other things). I believe the report’s strength is in starting these conversations now and trying to bring all the shareholders to the table for the discussion.

But this set of concerns leads to Shana’s second question: “How should the AAUP report change publishing habits?” I have two responses to this question.

First, I think, for many of us, our publishing habits have already been changing. We look to university presses today for support of new experiments and new forms of scholarship. Here, I am definitely influenced by my own experiences in scholarly publication. I have been involved in alt-scholarly publishing since 2005 when I began using podcasting as an open access platform for my scholarship on film noir. That project has generated a forthcoming book, The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism (November 2011, University Press of New England). The Maltese Touch of Evil engages in experiments around publication and reception, including considerations about how we might take advantage of digital logics to extend our critical methodology. Finally, I am also working this year to launch a new open access journal dedicated to multimedia work in film and media studies that utilizes open peer review. As I have experimented with new forms of publishing, I have found organizations like MediaCommons to be sites for collaboration, encouragement and support, and the AAUP report becomes another link in that chain. The report and its use of CommentPress is part of that community-building effort.

Community building around newer models of scholarly publishing should remain a priority in my estimation, since it is unlikely that a “one size fits all” publishing approach will emerge in the future. As the AAUP report acknowledges:

“The one evident conclusion that emerges from the various reports on the current state of scholarly publishing, as well as in the research undertaken for this report, is that no single new business model will replace the traditional print-based model. Rather, a mix of revenue sources will be required to sustain scholarly publishing in the future, and that mix is likely to vary for different kinds of publications.”[3]

Second, for authors who haven’t changed their publishing habits yet or are not particularly interested in doing so, I hope the report and its surrounding discussion encourages curiosity and consideration about what is happening in academic publishing in the digital age. I hope authors throughout academia want to learn more about the benefits of open access publishing, experiment with digital publishing projects, or talk with their editors about how to release their books in new digital formats. And even beyond a publishing issue, I hope reports such as this one help educate senior faculty about the changes that are greeting the newest members of our profession: graduate students and junior professors. We no longer can afford to have overly conservative promotion and tenure committees that are not giving adequate consideration and scholarly weight to new forms of publication. As university presses meet the challenges of a transformed publishing landscape, the projects that are likely to emerge will be like paper-based books in content only. As we ask our presses and our libraries to meet the challenges of digitally enabled scholarship, let’s advocate for faculty governance that will review and reward this scholarly activity appropriately.

Finally, I hope the report opens a few eyes about the new realities at university presses. Some of these changes are likely to be quite transformational, and will be a major part of our evolving scholarly ecosystem for years to come. If you haven’t considered it before, maybe now is the right time to start asking how your next book or journal article might benefit from open access as the primary mode of publication, or how might the content of your research benefit from being published in a digital format.

I would also love to hear responses and reactions from other authors and scholars on what the AAUP report might mean for their publishing habits and needs.


[1] The full report is being published at MediaCommons.org using the CommentPress software. You can read more about CommentPress and its functionality here, but the key feature of CommentPress allows readers to leave comments at the paragraph level and engage in a targeted and threaded discussion of the report’s findings and conclusions.

[2] In support of this contention, I think the report’s section on “Open Access as a Primary Model of Publication” is particularly illuminating with its case studies of publishers associated with the National Academies and RAND corporation.

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