Changing the economics of scholarly publishing

Inside Higher Ed recently published an article about a “New Collaboration for Scholarly Publishing” that describes how five university presses hope to alter the discouraging economic situation for publishing scholarly books. NYU, Fordham, Temple, Rutgers and UVA presses are collaborating to create a joint system for copy editing, design, layout and typesetting a series of books about American literatures. The project, funding by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, aims to produce over 100 new books that otherwise might not have been published due to cost constraints. By reducing the expenses that are common to all publishing operations, the project expects to allow each press to issue 5 additional books each year over the 5 years of the project.

Two aspects of this project make it significant beyond its own goals. First, it is only the initial such project that Mellon plans to finance; similar projects in Slavic studies and ethnomusicology are already in the works. Second, and most important, this project will help demonstrate that cooperation between academic presses is possible without surrendering the unique features of which many university presses are justly proud. Each of the publishers in this first project will be responsible for selecting its own titles and will continue to select in the specific area within the broad topic that is their own specialty.

It is no secret that publishers routinely have to reject quality manuscripts because the costs of production make them poor financial risks, however good the scholarship may be, and that many young scholars therefore can not get their work published. The hope for this experiment is that the value of collaboration, in terms of significant cost savings so that more worthy monographs will see print, can be realized without losing distinctive reputations or sacrificing quality.

A far more radical push to change the economics of scholarly publishing is expressed in this post on “Digital Media, Games and Open Access” from the blog “Grand Text Auto.” It is written by Nick Montfort, an assistant professor of digital media at MIT, ostensibly to explain his reasons for refusing to review for traditional journals anymore, saving his efforts for open access publications. As Montfort says, “there must be a few things that those of us who are part of the scholarly publishing process can do to foster an open-access future. The easiest thing that I’m able to think of is simply not volunteering our labor to lock academic writing away from the public.” His explanation of the current inequitable system of journal publishing is both clear and scathing, leading to his conclusion that that system, based on restricting access to scholarship rather than encouraging it, should be called “anti-publishing.”

These two very different approaches to the economic problems of scholarly communication may seem poles apart, but each is founded on the recognition that our current systems do not serve scholarship very well and are likely unsustainable. Whether changes come through carefully planned collaboration or through the radical disruption of open access (or both), change is certainly in our future.