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From the Scholarly Kitchen

Neither Fish Nor Fowl: Journal Publishing and the University Press

July 6, 2016  |  By

By Michael Clarke. Originally published in the Scholarly Kitchen on July 6, 2016
A mural at a drinking water facility in The Hague based on a drawing by M. C. Escher. Photo by Kees de Vos via Flickr.

A mural at a drinking water facility in The Hague based on a drawing by M. C. Escher. Photo by Kees de Vos via Flickr.

The following is the transcript of a talk I presented on June 16th at the Journal’s Assembly of the 2016 Annual Conference of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) in Philadelphia. Following the talk was a lively discussion. I have extended and edited a few points to clarify questions raised during that Q&A session.

The thesis of my talk is that university presses are not well positioned to thrive (and we’ll come back to that word) in journal publishing because they have not adopted any of the (relatively few and common) business strategies that are necessary, given market dynamics, for success. I do not put forth this thesis lightly. I have great affection and admiration for university presses, their values — craftsmanship, attention to detail, “getting it right”— and their mission. This is not admiration from afar: I served, in the formative years of my career, at the University of Chicago Press (Chicago), where I learned the tools of the trade and many of the practices and protocols of scholarly publishing still in use today. But after nearly two decades of observing university presses, from within and without, this thesis seems to be inescapable.

I use the term “thrive” here instead of “sustainable,” which is the more in vogue term in “not-for-profit land” today. I do so purposefully and I am not the first person to make this important distinction. “Sustainable” connotes a sense of survival: “just enough to keep things going.” But university presses are not (or should not be!) subsistence farmers. Indeed they cannot be. The market that university presses operate in requires far more than subsistence. It requires substantial, ongoing organizational surpluses in order to make the business investments required to compete with savvy, technologically sophisticated organizations that have already adopted (and continue to adjust) their strategies to a dynamic market. To thrive requires surplus revenues for experiments, many of which will fail. It requires funding for acquisitions. It requires the ability to make the occasional big bet. It requires funding to attract and retain talent. And it requires technological sophistication and capabilities. It short, it requires far more than subsistence.

As noted above, there are a few successful strategies that have been widely adopted in the journals publishing market. Indeed, there are precisely three of them, as cataloged by my colleague and business partner Joe Esposito:

The Leviathan Strategy. This is the strategy employed by the major commercial houses: Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature (especially the Springer side of the house), Informa/Taylor & Francis, and SAGE. The idea is to use scale to reduce costs on a per-title basis. These organizations are able to spread the costs of online hosting, production, marketing, sales, and administration across thousands of titles. This is what I have termed horizontal scale because it is scale based on maintaining a high volume of a small number of content formats (journals, books) cutting across many subject verticals (see Figure 1 below and also my previous post on this, entitled “The Changing Nature of Scale in STM and Scholarly Publishing“). Production, copyediting, technology, and (most importantly) sales — all are less expensive and more effective — at scale. Better and cheaper.  

Scale also provides — and this a critical point — more leverage for individual titles, which is to say it provides wider markets and more ways to monetize content. This means that a publisher such as Elsevier can, margins aside, generate more gross revenue from a given title than can a university press. This, and not having access to more capital, is what allows commercial publishers to offer large signing bonuses for high caliber society titles. It is not that commercial publishers have access to more money, it is that their capital works better.

A variation on the leviathan strategy is the megajournal strategy. This includes PLOS ONE, Scientific Reports, RSC Advances, and so on. These journals allow publishers to achieve scale effects in an open access (OA) context. Note that this requires a lot of papers (scale requires, well, scale). RSC Advances and Scientific Reports are publishing upwards of 10,000 papers annually. PLOS ONE is publishing in the neighborhood of 30,000. This lives up to the “mega” moniker. Some less-then-mega megajournals have not achieved critical mass. SpringerPlus just shut its doors to new papers, with activity shifting to the aforementioned Scientific Reports, which is now in the same portfolio.

It is notable that of the four largest OA publishers, three are also the three largest subscription publishers: Elsevier, Springer Nature, and Wiley (Public Library of Science is the fourth).

Figure 1: Horizontal versus vertical scale in journals publishing. Horizontal scale is aligned with the leviathan strategy and vertical scale with the community strategy. Image by Clarke & Company, all rights reserved.

The Community Strategy. This is the strategy employed by most society publishers. It constitutes “going deep” in a given discipline or subject area. Examples include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Physical Society, the American College of Cardiology, the American Psychological Association, the American Chemical Society, the IEEE, and a great many others.

By going deep, these organizations achieve what I call vertical or marketing scale. The American Academy of Pediatrics (where I once worked) can go to every pediatrics conference of note in the world. The IEEE’s coverage of electrical engineering is likewise nearly omnipresent. Compare this with a university press that is publishing in sociology, psychology, religious studies, ecology, economics, history, musicology, et cetera — it is simply not feasible to cover any of those communities with anywhere near the rigor of a society or association.

Practitioners of the community strategy can (and do) compile extensive databases of members, customers, and other constituents around the world. They get to know their communities better than anyone else and can design tailored new products, services, meetings, and events. Critically, the cost of launching a new product or service becomes much less because marketing is much more efficient and effective. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, is already interacting with the potential customers for any new product or service they might develop. They are the people attending their annual meeting and receiving their journals and buying their books. They already have a relationship. It is much easier to sell to someone with whom one is already doing business.

Moreover, the titles of community strategy publishers often become essential to a field (and therefore resistant to cancellation) because of their depth and breadth of coverage in a particular discipline. Try to run a physics department without Physical Reviews, a psychology department without the journals of the American Psychological Association, or an engineering school without the journals of the IEEE. You would be unable to attract faculty or students.

The Prestige Strategy. The prestige strategy is that pursued by only a handful of the most rarified titles in the marketplace. These are Science, Nature, Cell, the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, the Lancet, and a handful of others. We are here talking about impact factors that sound more like speed limits. The publishers of these titles have developed mission-critical, must-have brands that command premium subscription prices. They are extremely resistant to cancellation as the most prominent research is published in these titles.

These are the three strategies: The leviathan strategy, the community strategy, and the prestige strategy. University presses are, for the most part, not employing any of these strategies. Strategy-wise, they are neither fish nor fowl. They do not have the scale benefits of those pursuing the leviathan strategy. They do not have the marketing benefits of those pursuing the community strategy. They do not have the brand power of those pursuing the prestige strategy. And given the trajectory of library budgets, they do not have the resistance to cancellation that each of these strategies confers. Libraries are reluctant to cancel a leviathan publisher as there is just too much content at stake and the value per title is great. They are reluctant to cancel the titles of a community publisher as they are essential to certain departments. And they are reluctant to cancel a prestige title because the most prominent science is published there.

I do not mean to imply that university presses have completely ignored these strategies. They have not. Examples abound: ProjectMUSE and HighWire Press (which began within the same organizational unit as Stanford University Press) are example of university-led leviathan initiatives. Rockefeller University Press (RUP) and MIT Press are examples of the community strategy. When I was at the University of Chicago Press, it used to publish something like 90% of the world’s astronomy and astrophysics literature. So there are examples, but they are exceptions as opposed to standard approaches.

It is also worth noting that university presses employ the prestige strategy with regard to books. The brands of the great university presses function in the social sciences and humanities similarly to the prestige journal brands. But the prestige strategy has not carried over to journals (university presses publish many high quality journals but that is a different thing).

So how did we get here? Since the mid-1990s, the impact of the Web on the delivery and business models of journals has been profound — much more so than for books. The reason for this difference (versus books) is simply that the unit of usage is the article, not the issue, and it is easy to print out a journal article or read it on a screen as they are relatively short as compared with a monograph. And so journals transitioned to online delivery rapidly. Put another way, journals get far more lift from scale effects than do books. But it is important to note that, while the scale effects brought about by the strategies I have discussed have accelerated since the advent of digital delivery, their origins predate it.

The Site license & Shift to Institutional Revenues
To understand the root of this shift we have to go all the way back to before the Second World War. At this time, the vast majority of journals (outside of Germany) were published by learned societies and university presses. Elsevier was a struggling regional publisher with no journals in its portfolio. After the war, the commercial publishers quickly grew. The formula for this growth was developed by Robert Maxwell (one of the most confounding and ignominious figures in the history of publishing), who founded Pergamon Press (now part of Elsevier) in the years after the war with money from a distribution arrangement with Springer (the story of Pergamon Press and Maxwell has been chronicled in the indispensable A Century of Science Publishing: A Collection of Essays, edited by Einar Fredriksson and published by IOS Press in 2001; available as a free ebook here).

The secret to this growth was simply that they (Pergamon and soon others: Springer, Elsevier, Blackwell) adapted to the market. The vast majority of journal revenues were in those days earned from page charges fees paid by authors — and from individual subscription sales. But in the years following the war, researchers, especially those in war-wrecked Europe, had very little money for either page charges or subscriptions. But libraries, especially those in North America, did. The European commercial publishers realized this and began developing journals without page charges and with relatively high institutional subscription prices. This, combined with the increase in research output following the war, led to the so-called “serials crisis.”

This shift in business model led to the extraordinary growth of commercial publishers in the post-war period. The cold war led to federal increases in R&D. The output of this research increase fell largely to the journals of commercial publishers. The shift was accelerated by the advent of digital distribution in the 1990s. Commercial publishers were already operating on a business model oriented around institutional subscriptions. Digital distribution led to the development of the site license, a concept borrowed from enterprise software. The site license further advanced the institutional model by accelerating the decline in individual subscriptions across campus. When a journal is available on one’s computer (and now tablet) via an institutional license, why purchase one’s own individual subscription?

Publishers oriented around the community and prestige strategies were slow to make this shift and some (the New England Journal of Medicine being the most notable example) actively resisted it as long as possible due to the number of individual subscriptions at stake. University presses were likewise slow to shift to site licenses. I was at the University of Chicago Press until mid-2002. The site license was well established by that point, but it would be years later until Chicago established an institutional sales team — and this is an organization that was a leader in distribution (albeit print distribution, via Chicago’s distribution center) as well as publishing.

The Big Deal is Getting Bigger
The site license led, almost immediately to the bundling of journals into a single license. By 1996 Academic Press (now also part of Elsevier) had invented such a license, which became known in the industry as the Big Deal. The Big Deal has, simply put, been the most important business model in the industry since the advent of subscriptions. It has been the gravitational force around which all else must orient. It explains nearly all journals-oriented acquisitions in the industry (e.g. Wiley-Blackwell, Springer-Nature). It explains the growth of SAGE and the financial performance of Elsevier. And it is getting bigger.

The Big Deal has been slowly moving from the institution to the consortia and the national level. National deals which encompass nearly every academic center in the country are being struck in China, Brazil, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Egypt, and the Netherlands among others. In the medical space there are additionally mega-deals such as the entire National Health System (NHS) in the United Kingdom or the Veterans Health Administration in the United States. Not only are these deals increasingly being struck at the national level, but the scope of the deals are getting larger with OA article processing charges (APCs) now in the mix. Consortia and countries are negotiating to pay one price for all subscriptions and all APCs for papers from authors at affiliated institutions.This is the Mega Deal.

The first of such Mega Deals was struck in the Netherlands, with Springer Nature, Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society and, most recently, De Gruyter. Other countries are in active discussions with publishers about similar models.

The single greatest missed opportunity of university presses in the last century has been the Big Deal. Yes, there have been efforts to bring together university press into a Big Deal —the most notable examples being ProjectMUSE and JSTOR. Other efforts have sought to create scale effects. These have been successful efforts in many respects and I don’t mean to undervalue them. But no university press has used the Big Deal as a business strategy to dramatically expand its journals portfolio the way that Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley, Informa/Taylor & Francis, or SAGE have. SAGE has nearly doubled its portfolio in the last five years, moving from approximately 500 titles to nearly 1,000. Note that Cambridge University Press (CUP) and Oxford University Press (OUP) combined do not publish as many titles as SAGE — and SAGE publishes the fewest titles of the big commercial publishers in this space (Note, however, that CUP and OUP have themselves both expanded their journal portfolios as well: OUP has grown from 250 titles to 380 over the last five years).

An Inflection Point
Publishers oriented around community and prestige strategies by and large could not make this shift as there was simply no strategic or structural alignment — though a few, such as IEEE and the American Psychological Association, have used the model (combined with their primary community strategies) to some extent. University presses had no such barriers and could have adopted the Big Deal. At one point the university presses had an opening to leverage the Big Deal to expand their portfolios. This is called an inflection point. The usage of “inflection point” as a business term was coined by Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel (see: Grove, Andy. Only the Paranoid Survive. New York: Crown Business, 1999). It alludes to the mathematical term referring to the point in a curve at which a change in the direction of curvature occurs (see Figure 2). In Grove’s parlance, the curve is an industry trend line — so it means the point at which the market dynamics of an industry change, as happened with Intel and its move from memory chips to semiconductors in the early 1980s. And while Intel successfully transitioned its business to the industry dominating semiconductors, university presses were not able to make a comparable transition from subscriptions to site licenses and the Big Deal.

Figure 2: An inflection point describes the point in a business cycle where the market has shifted and an organization must decide if it will adapt to the changes. Adapted from Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive.

When I was at Chicago in the late 1990s societies were banging at the doors asking to move to Chicago’s platform. Chicago could have signed up hundreds of society titles with minimal financial outlay (e.g. the signing bonuses that would need to be brought to bear today) and administrative complexity (migrating a journal at that time was relatively straightforward as there was no other well-established Big Deal to disentangle the journal from) and started to knit together a Big Deal, which could have then been leveraged to compete at the scale of the commercial houses. They did not (we did not). It was known at the time that this was possible and was talked about actively – so this is not hindsight talking. So why did it not happen? I’ll discuss some reasons in a moment.

Open Access
I would be remiss if I did not mention open access here. OA presently represents 3% of the revenue in the market (according to Simba), but it is growing based on directives from funders (e.g. the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust) and governments (e.g. the United Kingdom and the European Union). As library budgets are flat overall (down in developed world, growing from a smaller base in developing nations), OA represents a diversification of revenue streams for publishers and an opportunity to grow from a revenue source outside the library. It is, somewhat ironically, a return to the page charge using a different name.

Societies and university presses should be well positioned for this change, but have struggled to make headway. In my view the reason for this is not related to business models but rather the notions of “quality” held by many editors and publishers. The concept of “sound science” promulgated by the Public Library of Science (PLOS), and in particular PLOS ONE, does not align with editorial cultures that equate quality with selectivity and novelty. Because of this, it is difficult for university presses and society journals to cultivate the volume of papers necessary to make a given journal financial viable. There are, of course, exceptions, the most notable being RSC Advances and Optics Express. 

I am going to make a statement that I think may be controversial in this room but that is not very controversial outside of this room: university presses are for all intents and purposes (and with the notable exceptions of Project Muse, CUP, and OUP — and for different reasons RUP and MIT Press) in mortal danger of becoming irrelevant in journal publishing at this point in time. I do not mean that university presses are in danger of vanishing — only that they are in danger of becoming increasingly small niche publishers of increasingly niche titles (this is less true of books, where the monograph remains the territory of the presses and their strong brands — though of course the monograph is not without its own problems). The game is being played with rules that the university presses have not adapted to. The question is, why have university presses struggled to adapt?

I’ll start with some reasons that I have heard for this over the years that I do not actually think are true. These include:

  • Capital – “The commercial houses simply have more money to work with. We can’t afford to pay a signing bonus of $X million for this society journal.” The endowment of Harvard University is $36.4 billion. Princeton’s is $22.7 billion. Yale’s is $25.6 billion. Stanford’s is $22.2 billion. MIT’s is $13.4 billion. The University of Chicago, my alma mater, lives with a paltry $7.6 billion endowment. These are stupefying numbers. The University of Chicago, the pauper in this neighborhood, holds an order of magnitude more liquid assets than Elsevier and Wiley combined. Harvard could buy Elsevier outright paying all cash. Capital is, at an organizational level, a non-issue.
  • Technology – “We don’t have the technological capabilities to compete with the big publishers.” When I was at Chicago they had developed the most sophisticated end-to-end digital publishing system in the industry. They were years ahead of the commercial houses. HighWire held a similar lead. University presses have ready access to people working on emerging technologies in engineering and computer science departments. They have access to the sophisticated IT departments of major universities. And the cost of technological development has dropped dramatically. If Chicago and Stanford could develop bleeding edge publishing platforms in the 1990s when development costs were much greater, it remains possible today.
  • Mission – “Our mission is to publish niche titles many of which are just not going to generate revenues.” If the provost of the university has said, “don’t worry about generating revenues, we’ll find the resources for the press to continue to publish a relatively small number of niche journals titles indefinitely as it is important to the mission of this university,” then more power to you. This talk is not relevant to you. It has been my experience, however, in working for and with university presses, that this is not often the case. Journals are often called on to produce revenues to offset costs elsewhere at the organization.
  • Talent – “We can’t compete with the big commercials for talent.” University presses presently employ some very talented people. Universities are also able to bring perks unmatched in the commercial space (campuses, college towns, sabbaticals, and a particular intellectual environment) and could very well match corporate salaries with more revenues flowing over the press (see also: chicken and egg).

So what are the real reasons that university presses have struggled in the journal’s market? I can think of a few:

  • Book orientation. University presses, with a few exceptions, tend to have a book orientation. Even in cases where the journals division produces substantially more revenues, the energy, mindset, priorities, and cultural emphasis of the organization tends to revolve around books. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, as university presses publish great books. But it means that they have missed opportunities with regard to journals over the years. In the time since the Second World War this has resulted in ceding a vast amount of market share and moreover being, with a few exceptions, forced out of the scientific, technical, and medical (STM) market. This also manifests in the culture and priorities of the press. When I was at the University of Chicago Press the books division (despite being a money-losing operation in most years) was located on the main quad and book acquisition positions were the most coveted positions at the organization, considered by many to be equivalent (from a prestige perspective) to faculty positions. The journals division was shunted off campus, with STM journals (the lowest cultural strata at Chicago despite providing substantial revenues) relegated to an old parking garage with no windows, abandoned by facilities management (I used to have a curb under my desk). It was clear that the purpose of the journals division was to remain out of sight (literally) and produce revenues to fund the real work of the press: books.
  • Captivity to the editorial fallacy. This is the belief that high quality content is sufficient for financial success. Once this was true. It has ceased to be so. Simply being strong editorially is not enough. Having good typography and copyediting is not enough. These things are necessary but not sufficient. Without a viable and adaptive business strategy even journals with the strongest editorial programs will not succeed.
  • Misaligned incentive structures. What do press employees receive if they grow the portfolio of the press? What happens if they launch a new product series that brings in substantial new revenues? The answer is typically a pat on the back. Conversely, a significant failure is often rewarded with delayed career advancement or loss of employment. Given the incentives, why would anyone take a significant risk? There is nothing to be gained only something to lose. The fact that there are new initiatives at university presses is a testament to the caliber of intelligent, curious, and brave individuals who work at university presses and occurs in spite of, and not due to, the reward structures of these organizations.
  • Leadership misalignment. This is perhaps the most important reason of all. While our presses have historically had excellent leaders by many measures, they have not been drawn from backgrounds that were well-aligned with the opportunities in the marketplace over the last 20 years. Boards of directors are often filled by academics biased to social science and humanities (where books are more important than journals), and with few if any members with industry experience at commercial houses, software companies, and other organizations in the market with different perspectives. Press directors have historically been appointed from the book side of the house based on a track record of book acquisitions. When a person with a financial background is brought in as director, it is too often someone focused on operations, not on product development and strategy. In short, presses have historically had people in leadership whose experience aligned with either the book business or operational efficiency and not on growing the business. Over time this has resulted in missed opportunities with regard to journals.

There are of course many exceptions to this and I am heartened to see that the nature of leadership appointments has been changing at university presses. Recent appointments at the major North American houses include several directors with commercial experience, journal experience, and technology backgrounds. Commercial and technology representation is also beginning to be found on the boards of university presses, California’s perhaps being the most notable.

The University of Chicago Press and the Big Deal
I said that I would talk about why the University of Chicago missed developing a Big Deal in the late 1990s, despite having all the pieces in place and despite there being many people at the organization who clearly saw the opportunity. The reason it did not happen was a perfect storm of the factors I just discussed. Chicago at the time had a press director who came from a book acquisitions background and was very much focused on books. The executive leadership team at the time only had one representative from journals – everyone else had a book or operational orientation. Further, the board of directors of the press was composed largely of faculty with a social science and book orientation.

To be fair, scaling up the portfolio to the level necessary to assemble a Big Deal would have been difficult and may have ultimately proven unsuccessful. Scaling is not simply the process of adding more — it requires new processes, practices, and technologies. It is also extremely difficult to scale while retaining the quality so valued by university presses (including Chicago) — that is to say the same focus on craftsmanship, attention to detail, and meticulous editing. It is not impossible: if done right, scale can improve quality because larger organizations have more resources to invest in tools and more opportunities for standardization and propagation of best practices. But for Chicago the transition from a craftsmanship orientation to industrial-scale quality control would have been a significant leap and ultimately the moment passed and the opportunity slipped by.

And while the opportunity was seen by many at Chicago, what was less apparent at the time was the consequence of not pursuing it. It was not simply forgone revenues and a once-in-a-generation opening to leverage a shift in the market to rapidly increase market share. There was an additional and very painful cost that was not well perceived at the time: As Chicago’s competitors (including not-for-profit competitors) developed stronger journals programs that leveraged scale effect, this eventually resulted in the loss of nearly all of Chicago’s STM journals (which were owned by partner societies) to other publishing houses. In other words, while many at Chicago saw clearly the rising curve following the inflection point, what was not apparent at the time was the falling curve.

While university presses face many challenges, they also bring many assets. These include:

  • Brand. University presses have world-renowned brands built over (in some cases) centuries of publishing the highest quality scholarship. The brands of Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Chicago, California, Columbia (and so on) universities are household names. The brands of the presses of these institutions are better known and more highly valued among end users (scholars, researchers, students, and even many lay readers) than that of the largest publishers.
  • Proximity to the Library. Having the key customer segment as part of the same organization (and sometimes even the same operational unit) is a non-trivial benefit. University presses are in a position to more readily (as compared to their commercial and society peers) conduct experiments, better assess user behavior, explore new product concepts, and glean market intelligence.
  • Proximity to the University Teaching Hospital. Universities presses at institutions with a teaching hospital have another unexploited asset in their midst. As with the library, access to the university’s hospital can provide opportunities to better understand (and design products for) integrating into the physician workflow, gaining market intelligence, and conducting experiments. Commercial publishers have pushed deep into the health care workflow with decision-support tools, clinical reference works, and (more recently) integration into electronic health records. The proximity of the university press to affiliated teaching hospitals (as well as business and law schools) is an opportunity that few if any presses seem to be availing themselves of at present.
  • Access to Capital. I mentioned previously the mind-boggling sums of money floating around in university endowments. I don’t note this with a naïve belief that university presses can simply tap such an endowment. Doing so will take years of very savvy engagement, building support across campus with key influencers. It will take solid business planning. It will take active and engaged leadership that is trying to further align the press with the mission and objectives of the university.
  • Access to Grants. University presses are well aware of the opportunities to win grants from philanthropic institutes interested in scholarship, such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. There are additional opportunities for certain projects from organizations like Carnegie, Gates, Arnold, Moore, and others with a more STEM orientation
  • Access to Expertise. Leading technologists, business thinkers, and others are at universities. The battle for access to this talent is being fought at a level far above the means and wherewithal of even the large commercial publishers. Artificial intelligence researchers, for example, are being offered compensation packages from the likes of Google, Apple, and Uber that more resemble lottery jackpots than salaries. Tapping the expertise of such individuals in an advisory capacity can provide university presses with insight and market advantages.
  • Proximity to Research and Scholarly Communities. Finally, university presses sit within some of the largest and most prestigious university systems in the world. In addition to providing insights into the evolving needs of users, it provides access to potential editors and editorial board members and an effective calling card for even those researchers and scholars at other universities. It also provides a platform to convene communities of expertise to explore new topics and ideas via workshops, learning labs, symposia, and other assemblies.

There are undoubtedly additional assets I have not included in this catalog. The point is that the university press, due to its location within the university, has certain advantages others do not. I do not, of course, underestimate the challenges inherit in operating a business unit inside of a larger not-for-profit entity—but that is a topic for another day.

Potential approaches that some university presses are already pursuing or might consider pursuing include:

  • Adoption of the Community Strategy. As I’ve discussed, publishing journals across a wide variety of disciplines is only viable at scale. There is not a single university press in existence with enough scale to be undiscerning about the disciplines in its portfolio. University presses might focus on a limited number of subject areas or cultivate other forms of community that allow for the development of scale around marketing activities by offering many products to the same community.
  • Start proprietary STM journals. University presses today publish very few STM journals. Winning publishing contracts for society-owned STM journals requires financial outlays that are not feasible for most university presses (at least without investment from the parent university). Why not regain entry to the STM market by leveraging the university press’s proximity to research communities by starting proprietary journals (owned by the university itself)?
  • Open access. OA continues to grow, albeit more slowly and from a very small revenue base. While there is a great deal of uncertainty in the OA business model at this point due to its reliance on the mandates and funding of governments (including and especially those of the United Kingdom and the European Union, two organizations that may have very different priorities in the coming years if indeed they even continue to exist) and a small number of funders, this is in some ways an opportunity. The opportunity, however, is largely in the development of new proprietary journals in the STM space as OA funding in the social sciences and humanities is far less robust.
  • Collaboration to achieve scale effects. University presses have a long history of collaboration. Distribution centers, such as those of Chicago and the University of North Carolina Press, are one example. In the digital realm, Project Muse and OUP’s University Press Scholarship Online offer aggregations and economies of scale. Is it time for a university press Big Deal? Are there opportunities to create economies of scale in OA publishing?
  • New digital products, services, and tools. The university press market remains focused on books and (to a much lesser extent) journals. Commercial publishers have developed workflow tools, decision support resources, bibliographic databases, analytics tools, professional network platforms, and much more. Given its proximity to the researcher and scholarship community, the library, and the university teaching hospital, is it time for the university press to move beyond the book and journal format? (I realize that this talk on the journals market but it is worth asking the question).

These are but a few possible directions and I am sure other people have more and likely better approaches. The important thing is to experiment. There are some exciting recent initiatives at university presses including Collabra and Luminos (California), Nautilus and the Journal of Design and Science (MIT), and University Press Scholarship Online (OUP) among others. Some of these may ultimately not prove to be successful but others will almost certainly thrive.

Despite the challenges faced by university presses in the journals market, the press itself remains a vibrant institution with strong brands. It brings many assets to the table, including talented staff brimming with an enthusiasm and energy that was palpable at AAUP this year. The principal challenge is to choose a strategy for journals that aligns with the dynamics of the market and provides a path to success. The waters that the university press swims in are moving swiftly and teeming with competition—competition that has captured the vast majority of the growth in market share since the Second World War. To continue to swim in these currents requires making choices. But to remain neither fish nor fowl, pursuing neither community nor leviathan (nor prestige) strategies, risks eventual irrelevance. This would not be a good outcome for presses as it would reduce the diversity of revenue streams and lead to more brittle organizations. It would not be a good outcome for learned societies, who will lose the option to partner with another mission-oriented organization to publish their journals. And it will be a loss for universities and their faculties and libraries, who are concerned about the market dominance and revenue orientation of the large commercial journal publishers.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Michael Magoulias, Director of Journals at the University of Chicago Press, who invited me to give this talk at AAUP. Thank you to AAUP for hosting me and providing the forum for this talk. Thanks to my colleague Joe Esposito for allowing me to shamelessly lift some of his ideas and repurpose them here. And most of all, thank you to the audience at the Assembly who raised a number of excellent points and asked many thought provoking questions.

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Michael Clarke

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Michael is the Managing Partner at Clarke & Esposito. His experience spans both the publishing and software industries, with a focus on developing, delivering, and marketing information products for professionals. See Full Bio

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