To Read: How Not to Run a University Press

In the category of things that I used to post to the blog that now land on Twitter instead: the link. In an effort to maintain a better archive for myself, I’m experimenting with moving these things back here again.

Today, Chris Kelty’s post on Savage Minds, “How Not to Run a University Press (or How Sausage Is Made)”. In this post, Kelty thinks through the reported demise — or, more accurately, the institutional doing-in — of Rice University Press. Among the issues he raises, perhaps the most significant is the university’s refusal to understand that publishing requires actual labor and financial support:

If you judge the experiment in digital publishing on these facts, it’s sure to look like a failure, but the failure is not in the vision or ideas articulated by the press, but a simple failure to maintain good business judgement. It speaks volumes about how university administrators and many others (including many academics) see academic publishing: as something where no labor is required, only a great big print-a-book machine, a warehouse and some stamped envelopes.

This assessment resonates strongly for me, as in chapter 5 of Planned Obsolescence I focus on the role of publishing within the university, and the university’s responsibilities with respect to publishing. My fear is that universities will take on this responsibility without committing resources to it, assuming (as Rice appears to have done) that because the new mode of publishing is digital, it must be cheap.

The fact is that while the costs involved in publishing can be reduced in some areas, the costs of labor cannot — and, if anything, digital publishing requires more, and more kinds of labor.

This is perhaps not the moment at which institutions want to hear that they have to make additional investments in something that feels optional, but they really need to hear this:

  • If you expect your faculty to publish, you must provide the means for them to do so.
  • If you expect scholarly publishing to turn a profit, or even break even, you may want to stop holding your breath.
  • If you allow commercial entities to take over scholarly publishing, because they can afford to do so, you must expect their predatory, monopolistic practices to encroach on the access you have to your own faculty’s work, and to diminish the impact that their work can have both inside and outside the academy.

There is no solution to this conundrum except for institutions to recognize that they must become responsible for supporting scholarly communication, and that this support will require treating the technologies and the labor involved in publishing as part of the institution’s infrastructure.

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