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University Presses and the Problem of the Status Quo

Posted on February 5, 2015 by Colleen Skidmore

Four Canadian universities appear in the top 100 for arts and humanities in the Thompson Reuters 2014-15 World University Rankings.  They are University of Toronto (15), McGill University (26), University of British Columbia (40), and York University (97). The top three of the four have university presses. The fifth ranked Canadian university, the University of Alberta (124), also has a press. Of the 13 performance indicators used to determine ranking, citations/research influence is worth 30 percent of the score. Why then are university presses being threatened with closure?

 

The internal threat to university presses

Wilfred Laurier University Press is not the first university press in Canada to be threatened with reduction or closure because of financial exigencies suffered by the parent institution. In 2015, however, we must mark the threat to WLUP as a canary in the coal mine of research publishing in Canada, especially of social sciences and humanities monographs. WLUP _transforming ideas_We must also expect of university presidents, provosts, and research vice-presidents a more informed understanding of, and commitment to, universities’ responsibility for the dissemination of research to scholarly and public communities.

In other words, we need new approaches; the status quo was long ago left behind by academic presses because of technological disruption that has opened unprecedented opportunities for imagining and enabling new ways of thinking, presenting arguments, and disseminating research data, outcomes and analyses to other scholars and professionals, policy makers, and public readers. Academic publishers are an indispensible part of the research enterprise at universities. In this role, they have been in a position to explore new ways of developing, designing, and presenting research findings with a nimbleness and inventiveness that commercial publishers can only envy. Their role and work is at risk, however, because the status quo of the business model that universities are maintaining in relation to research dissemination has not been equally inventive and exploratory – an odd thing in a university environment of inquiry and experimentation.

 

The problem of the status quo

The problem lies in the traditional and now dated notion that a press is an administrative ancillary service, like parking, food services, and residences, rather than an academic support unit, like libraries, IT, or labs. Administrative units, unlike academic units, are expected to be self-funded and self-sustaining, at minimum recovering operating costs. Public funding is not usually distributed in support of ancillary units; rather, staff, students, and visitors are charged for such services.

Research dissemination is not a service, however. It is an essential role and responsibility of research universities. Once this is acknowledged, the value to scholarship, society, and institutions becomes clear again, and sustaining financial models can be newly imagined.

WLU President Max Blouw is reported by the Waterloo Record as saying, “I have a hard time taking revenues and subsidizing a press when I should be putting revenues into a classroom. If it were paying for itself, I think I would be quite happy with it. In fact, I know I would be. I think it’s a wonderful thing to do.”

Dissemination of research is more than a wonderful thing to do; it is a fundamental responsibility of research universities. Publishing research outcomes in journals and books is a not-for-profit academic activity for the public good; it is not, nor should it be, a commercial, ancillary, cost-recovery service for students and employees at a university. And while it has become a common default position to justify cuts as favouring “the classroom,” meaning students, without research publication, from scholarly articles to monographs to textbooks, nothing can take place in a classroom. Nor can knowledge be mobilized in the public sphere without publication and dissemination which opens widely the door to informed public debate. Furthermore, in an age of international ranking, university presses are essential players in fostering an institution’s reputation.

 

Imagining the new

President Blouw’s view is broadly shared, however, and based on a twentieth century model that is long obsolete. As result, new opportunities for not only supporting research publication but also pushing the boundaries for how it is done and increasing its value and impact, are not being sought and thereby overlooked. For example, the federal Research Support Fund is a $342 million pot of money (in 2014-15) distributed to post-secondary research institutions to support the “hidden” or “indirect” costs of Tri-council supported research undertaken by their researchers. These costs include such things as administrative staff salaries, workplace safety training, and library and laboratory maintenance. Notably absent from the list of such costs to institutions is that of maintaining peer review publishing infrastructures for researchers to disseminate their work nationally and internationally in a timely and competitive manner while achieving the expected standard of excellence.

Three elements mark today’s research and publishing environment differently compared to even ten years ago: shifting approaches and models for research funding support from government granting agencies and private enterprises, such as the Research Support Fund; the philosophical shift to open, free online access to research results and educational resources; and the role of publishing expertise on professors’ research teams.

Transforming research reporting from manuscript form to a peer reviewed document that has been edited and designed for ease and accuracy of reading and viewing in a variety of ways and formats is a specialized set of skills and processes. New technologies have enabled presses to reduce the cost of operational processes such as producing and distributing bibliographic data, printing, digitizing, and distributing monographs and journals. It has even made it possible for researchers to rethink how they report their findings, allowing primary evidence and data to be linked to final work and easily available to readers.

Much of the technical work of publishing is now contracted competitively with companies outside the institution. University presses continue to supply content-focused expertise to bring research into its final form for reporting and disseminating. These tasks include quality assurance through peer review, editing, and design to produce a book or article, followed upon publication with marketing, promotion and distribution of the work, and soliciting and receiving published peer review of monographs. Publishing research outcomes is the essential set of steps in the “supply chain” of research and the dissemination of new knowledge.

The later twentieth century business model for university presses generally relied on a combination of library and bookstore sales, grants to publishers and individual researchers, and institutional subventions. In the past ten years, library and bookstore sales have decreased dramatically. Academic libraries no longer compete to have the largest physical collection; instead, driven especially by the exponential rise in journal subscription fees charged by private, for-profit publishers, libraries now collectively purchase licences and databases for e-access. Independent bookstores have almost entirely disappeared, displaced by Indigo/Chapters and Amazon, both of whom distribute titles at deeply discounted prices that are subsidized by presses at a significant loss. Journals are now mainly published electronically, while books are published on a variety of digital platforms in addition to print where demand still exists and the vast majority of individual sales still take place. The expectation that academic publishers supply free or open access online to their articles and books is another departure from the old business model.

 

Recovering and reimagining responsibility for research dissemination

While these changes may seem dramatic, they are not problems that cannot be solved. Financial models need to be reimagined, and made as resilient, responsive, and innovative as the research publishing process itself. The greatest problem is that in a perennial climate of budget crises, many universities have lost sight of the essential academic role of publishing in the core mission of research institutions. Until we recover that view, and refuse the status quo in favour of new ways of thinking and acting, the international dissemination of Canadian scholarship is at unprecedented risk.

One Response

  1. […] Posted on February 5, 2015 by Monika Igali  … the responsibility of universities to create and disseminate new knowledge, and the threat of administrators’ status quo thinking to academic publishing. Read more… […]

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