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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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In a recent piece for The Bookseller, Anthony Cond (for whom I have a huge deal of respect), writes approvingly, if cautiously, of the births of new university presses. Indeed, there is much to celebrate in the idea of the university taking back the means of its research production on a not-for-profit basis. I am wholly in support of such a mission.

However, in that article, Cond writes:

Indeed, the UK is now up to 23 university presses (I challenge you to name them all). At least three more are in the planning stages. The question, given the high entry cost relative to publishing opportunity, and the thin spread of existing university budgets, is why?

I agree with Cond’s assessment that two answers to this can be found in student experience on the textbook front and the increasingly damaging top-loading of commercial publisher acquisitions. I think, though, that there might be a second raft of reasons that are more cynical and potentially worrying.

The link to student recruitment

When we consider “the high entry cost relative to publishing opportunity, and the thin spread of existing university budgets”, the basic question that any manager is going to ask, regardless of the public good from a new OA press, is: what’s the financial plan? How does this help the university to fulfil its mission, but also to stay afloat?

In our era, sadly, the way that UK universities are funded is via tuition fees. The QR funding that HEFCE gives is invaluable for research, but the majority of university finances are coming from students. I think we would be wise, then, to be on the alert for how the rise of OA presses might be co-opted by those seeking to expand student recruitment. The university branding on the press, of course, is one aspect here. If research can be widely disseminated among students and the public and it has an institutional brand on it, rather than a third-party logo, then this is good for the university. In other words, OA presses become, for management justification, and like the cycles of most other research production, tied to or a marketing arm of student recruitment.

This is my first concern, then. I want OA. It’s good for research and for general education/learning. But the environment surrounding it – and potentially around new OA university presses – has toxic potential via student indebtedness and tuition fees. Perhaps this doesn’t matter and I’m also not expecting those running such enterprises to be able to fix the entire system (better OA than not OA), but it’s worth considering and bearing in mind. It strikes me that institutional practices around brand co-option of new university presses is something we should at least keep an eye on. If only because we must avoid another situation where universities expect such presses to turn a profit (CUP/OUP, for instance) rather than be cost-neutral.

The economic models

My second concern for the context in which we might read the emergence of new OA presses pertains to the lack of diversity of economic models that I have yet seen. Article and Book Processing Charges seem to be the offer. But I don’t think these scale very well, particularly in the humanities.

The Crossick Report called for experimentation. It noted that there is no one single established business model for monograph publication and that it’s early days. But I still see unscalable Book Processing Charges in each of these cases. Certainly, the presses are aware of this. UCL covers its own researchers internally (which might, I feel, be wrongly construed by researchers elsewhere), while Goldsmiths Press seeks to “combine green open access with a fair and varied pricing model in order to avoid the exploitation of authors as well as readers, creators as well as users”. In both instances, high-profile institutional insiders (Lisa Jardine and Les Back) have pledged (or, now, even published) books with the presses. But could they do so if it were to cost £5,000+? I certainly couldn’t.

Obviously, I don’t have the one single magic answer that can fix all of this. Because there isn’t one. I’m trying a different economic model for journals, though, elsewhere. But in this rush to new university presses, of which I am broadly in favour, all I really want to add is that we should be careful of the environment in which they are born and we should also work with such partners to find ways to make OA affordable, across all disciplines, through a variety of business models.