On University Presses and the Nature of Scholarly Publishing

From Scott Sherman in The Nation: “University Presses Under Fire How the Internet and slashed budgets have endangered one of higher education’s most important institutions.”

Another setback in the 1960s and 1970s was the rise of large publishing conglomerates such as Elselvier, Springer and Wiley, which aggressively expanded their acquisition of science journals. This is a fact of considerable importance: subscriptions to science journals are expensive (a one-year subscription to Brain Research costs $19,952), so academic libraries have had to devote considerable financial resources to retain them, and that has diminished their budgets for humanities and social science monographs. In Books in the Digital Age (2005), the Cambridge sociologist John B. Thompson explains that “in 1997 journals were thirty times more expensive than they were in 1970,” and the trend shows no signs of changing.

The article presents multiple points of view, and a number of recent efforts to change the way university presses work—including the roles of ebooks/digital scholarship and open access scholarship, but notes one age-old problem inherent in the interactions between scholars, tenure, and university presses:

A crucial question faces university presses and the universities themselves: Who will pay for the dissemination of scholarship? University presses provide a number of vital functions for the academy as a whole—starting with the fact that, by and large, young professors achieve promotion and tenure based on monographs they publish. But the funding for the entire system is lopsided. If the University of Colorado Press publishes a monograph by a young professor at Dartmouth that enables that scholar to obtain tenure, then the University of Colorado Press, with its very modest budget, is in effect subsidizing Dartmouth, which has an endowment of $3.7 billion as well as its own small press. In his New Media & Society essay, Pochoda noted that approximately 100 university presses are subsidizing “at least 1,000 other universities and colleges who are free riders on a system that they rely on but do not support.”

I note that the price of a printed scholarly monograph, say a book that began as a Ph.D. dissertation, runs between $40.00 and $90.00 dollars. This makes it unlikely that the book will be purchased widely by younger scholars at the dissertation stage, or independent scholars or engaged readers of the general public. It seems to be a reasonable middle-way to provide a digital version for half the price, even if that digital version is a non-printable .PDF file derived from the file sent to the printer.
I note, for the curious, that it is not even slightly unusual for a scholarly monograph from a university press to not only not provide the author with an advance, the author likely will not be offered royalties unless it’s one of the larger presses with wider distribution.

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