A pressing issue:
the future of the
monograph

What might the university press of the future look like? In an essay in the Journal of Electronic Publishing, Clifford A Lynch, director of the Coalition for Networked Information, imagined how the currently struggling university press system could thrive in the digital age.

In this Q+A with JISC Inform he sets out this vision of the future.

 

Q

What value do university presses offer to higher education institutions and what's wrong with the current system of university presses?
I'll limit my comments here to a discussion of scholarly monographs; there are a relatively small number of university presses that do journals, but that's another story.

Monographs are essential in the humanities and many social sciences; they are the primary scholarly output in those fields. They are milestones upon which academic promotion rests. University presses were historically set up to publish monographs that were not commercially viable due to their very small market; even if the press could break even, the profit margin was so thin it wouldn't interest commercial players. Many monographs were actually net losses, subsidised by the university that hosts the press, or by a grant. As monographs have become ever more specialised and resources have become ever more constrained, university presses are going broke and closing, or re-directing their publishing efforts into more mass market books. It's getting harder and harder to publish very specialised monographs in many areas of the humanities and social sciences. This is hurting scholarship in these fields.

 

Q

Can you imagine a possible future in which universities presses not only survive but thrive in the fully digital era?
There are huge opportunities here. For example, if we move to digital distribution of monographs (with print on demand in those cases where people want paper) we can take a lot of costs out of the distribution system, such as warehouses and returns. If we move to some kind of an open access-oriented system, we can eliminate a huge amount of overhead in billing and fulfillment and re-focus marketing on publicising new works. Most of the audience for these works is within the academy; the small tail of commercial sales can be farmed out to vendors like Amazon.

The key to making this work, however, is to get presses to accept some fairly simple common digital distribution infrastructure. Right now this is a huge problem. Presses continue to burn vast amounts of resources developing complex specialised platforms (there must be at least a half dozen of these out there competing with each other right now) that support a complex array of digital and print publications and transactional and site licence business arrangements.

Presses will thrive when they can basically reduce themselves to what I think is their essence: acquisitions and editorial functions, and publicity in collaboration with the authors.

 

Q

How crucial is partnership and collaboration to this future?
It's essential, on multiple levels.

Presses must learn to share common digital distribution infrastructure, and to avoid the tendency to complicate, embellish and customise this. They need to become much less competitive and more cooperative.

Presses must align their priorities with those of their host institutions. This includes everything from their positions on public policy issues like copyright (where they have often been in opposition to their host institutions) to their choice of subject specialisations, which should reflect the academic strengths and priorities of their host institutions. This is hugely important, and has been a dramatic and appalling leadership failure within the university press community in recent decades. University presses are going to need ongoing subsidy from their host institutions as part of the commitment of those host institutions to support the dissemination of scholarship, but they aren't going to get the support they need unless they get policies and priorities aligned with their parent institutions.

They are also going to need to get their roles and activities much better coordinated with the research library community.

 

Q

What's stopping this vision becoming reality? Are the obstacles more technological or cultural?
I suspect that the problems are mostly cultural at this point. A major problem is the acceptability of digital publication for monographs. Without a nice-looking printed book, scholars are concerned that tenure and promotion committees, department heads, deans and provosts will not take their work seriously. They worry it will be hard to get their work reviewed in major scholarly publications. In addition, the system has tremendous inertia and people are fearful of testing its ability to accommodate change. But for works that are essentially printed monographs, just disseminated through digital means, I'm hoping that the now very good print-on-demand technologies will provide the bridge necessary to facilitate the transition.

Similarly, I think we know how to build an e-book platform for the university presses. The issue is mainly to get mass convergence on one such platform, without so much customisation as to destroy the economics.

 

Q

How might they be overcome?
It's a time for leadership from the heads of the presses, as well as from the academic leaders to whom the presses report, such as the boards of directors and provosts or university librarians.

 

Q

In your article, you also raised the issue of reference works that are now databases, and the very challenging economics surrounding these. Could you say a few words about this?
There are many 'monographs' that aren't really monographs at all; they're more naturally viewed as databases. Many years ago, before it was affordable to create modest-size databases for public access, scholarly presses produced all sorts of printed dictionaries, encyclopedias, gazetteers, and other materials. If the technology had been available then, these would never have been books; they benefit hugely from the searchability, the incremental and continuous updatability. And as soon as it became economically feasible, they ceased to become books and found much more productive lives as databases.

The problem, however, is that rather than being one-time purchases, perhaps updated every decade or so, these digital databases that underwent constant update became subscription information resources and thus substantially more expensive.

Controlling costs for these kinds of resources is going to be an ongoing challenge, but perhaps a greater challenge will be to keep a large subset of monographs from following the same trajectory, and keeping them affordable. I don't think we want every monograph to become a database, though a certain number perhaps should. And we need a really serious conversation about editions, versioning and updates to published works in a digital environment that gives us much more flexibility in this area that engages authors, presses, libraries and readers. This is going to be an important intellectual and economic challenge.

 

Clifford A Lynch

Clifford A Lynch is executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI)

Read Clifford Lynch's article in full: Imagining a university press system to support scholarship in the digital age

 

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