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All change for university presses

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From bypassing aggregators to the influx of new university presses, the world of library-based publishing is changing fast, reports Rebecca Pool

This year two leading US university presses made the bold step to bypass scholarly publishing aggregators and distributors, such as EBSCO and ProQuest, and sell digital collections directly to libraries.
 
Using custom platforms to host e-book collections, MIT Press and the University of Michigan Press join Duke University Press, which has sold electronic collections to libraries since 2005, and UK mainstays Oxford and Cambridge University presses.
 
Why take action now? Each press has cited myriad reasons but the rise of digital books has been key. In Going it Alone: Why University Presses are Creating their Own E-book Collections, Terry Ehling, director for strategic initiatives at MIT Press, highlights how the purchasing behaviour of institutional customers now shows a much stronger preference for digital books acquisition. And Charles Watkinson, director of the University of Michigan Press, (UMP) concurs.
 
‘In the past, e-books provided marginal income but more recently it’s become clear libraries are substituting print books for e-books,’ he said. ‘Given this serious split between print and e-books, we felt a need to take control of our digital destiny.’
 
And the organisation has. Using funds from US-based private charity, The Andrew W Mellon Foundation, UMP developed an open-source publishing platform based on the University of Michigan Library’s existing research data repository framework. Then, in January, it launched The University of Michigan Press E-book Collection on the platform, with more than 1,100 titles, and more to follow.
 
Watkinson is keen to emphasise that his press hasn’t ‘left’ the aggregators. As he explains: ‘Our front list is withheld from the DRM-free aggregators for three years but we are still making it available on a single-user purchase model from EBSCO and ProQuest, for example.’
 
What is clear from UMP’s growing e-book collection, many titles include digital enhancements such as zoomable online images or embedded audio and video, content not every aggregator would find easy to accommodate. What’s more, a handful of products have taken these digital enhancements a step further, and are described as interactive scholarly works. For example, a digital archaeology report – A Mid-Republican House from Gabii – includes hyperlinks, spatial, descriptive and quantitative data, and a series of interactive 3D models of the reconstructed ancient site. 
 
Watkinson is certain that not every scholarly publishing aggregator has been quick to embrace digital-rich content. As he puts it: ‘We have, for example JSTOR, Project Muse, and Alexander Street Press [a ProQuest company], doing really interesting projects and understanding how scholars can work in new ways,’ he says. ‘But the problem is many organisations have to design systems to work for every [scholar], whereas we can customise our design for particular needs.
 
‘Interactive scholarly work [such as the Gabii report] is the future and we have scholars wanting to create projects that expand the boundaries of the book,’ he said. ‘We’re interested in these new forms and felt we needed our own platform.’
 
Mandy Hill, director of academic publishing at Cambridge University Press – which uses aggregators and in-house platform, Cambridge Core, to provide scholarly works – agrees: ‘An aggregator groups all of its content together, which is great, but this also means [its systems] have to be designed to accommodate a range of content types. So the experience of using that content will not be as rich.’
Referring to CUP’s recently launched Elements, which provides an outlet for research that sits outside the traditional formats of book or journal article, she said: ‘You just couldn’t see the benefits of a born-digital programme such as this through an aggregator.’
 
But she also highlights that not all customers are too bothered about digital richness. ‘Our own platform has seen well over 20 per cent growth in usage again this year, so there is no doubt that many customers continue to want to come to our site for the benefit of accessing our content. However, I can’t kid myself that this is true for all customers; many just want content anywhere that it’s available, so it’s about providing that choice.’

Change reactions
The adoption of open access (OA) publications has also driven change among university press heavyweights.
Enhancing OA monographs is considered a ‘key mission’ by MIT Press and Libraries, with the Press undertaking a major initiative to flip its scholarly monographs to open access and make these available on MIT Direct. Meanwhile, Cambridge University Press committed 18 months ago to shift to a fully OA model, recently creating an Open Research platform to publish pre-prints on early-stage research.
 
The University of Michigan Press is also increasing its OA publishing content, which, as Watkinson comments, was a key reason to develop its own platform.
 
‘Some aggregators have not been very good at disseminating OA material... like changing forms of scholarships, OA books are the canaries in the calming,’ he says. ‘EBSCO and ProQuest have engineered a system around digital-rights management and are now finding it difficult to ‘un-engineer’ some of these systems [for OA].’
 
While such changes to the scholarly publishing landscape have triggered the move towards sales of e-books directly to libraries, the customer data sourced from these developments is also a welcome benefit for presses. As Ehling, from MIT Press, has said, direct access to usage data from its platform allows the development of insight tools and advanced analytics capabilities to support publishing programs.
 
And as Watkinson points out, while some aggregators provide usage statistics and information on which institutions use the Press’s products, other aggregators provide very little data.
 
‘We’re now also interested in more nuanced and richer geographical information, such as international reach or reach with the US,’ he says. ‘For example, a Google Analytics-type map that shows usage outside of major university centres would be a great advocacy story... and we consider altmetrics to be really important in terms of storytelling.’
 
The UMP director is looking forward to gaining a greater market understanding by having direct conversations with librarians. ‘The librarians we’ve generally spoken to in the past have been our colleagues at Michigan, and we now recognise that libraries are all so very different from each other,’ he says.
 
For Mandy Hill, the direct relationship and closer understanding of customers coupled with usage statistics are an over-riding benefit of using a home-grown platform. Right now, Cambridge Core has a feedback option, developed by software provider, Usabilla, that enables users to directly provide feedback to CUP on their experience of the platform.
 
‘This is really powerful and important to us, as we can find out which aspects of what we are doing, whether it’s website, marketing or editorial development, actually matter to our users so we can develop our services accordingly,’ she says.
 
Amid moves to drive digital enrichment, OA and market understanding forward, the latest ‘go-it-alone’ platforms have garnered criticism in scholarly circles. Some have questioned the sense in adding another platform from which to buy e-books, while the possibility of increasing the already large administrative burden of libraries looms. And what about the diversity that aggregators bring?
 
Scale is an important factor, and one the larger presses such as MIT Press and UMP have. As Watkinson puts it: ‘The priority for a platform like us is to make sure we can work with OCLC, ProQuest and EBSCO, and then, actually, it won’t be too difficult.’
 
‘I have also had librarians ask is this is going to be the next, new big deal,’ he adds. ‘But if you are buying a huge Springer collection, why wouldn’t you buy a non-profit publisher’s collection the same way?’
 
For Hill, the answer lies in choice. ‘It is about providing customer choice. By working with aggregators and providing our own platform, we are enabling users to choose which experience they want.’

Smaller scale
Andrew Lockett, press manager of the digital-first, open access University of Westminster Press, is following developments at MIT Press and UMP.
 
As he puts it: ‘I will be very interested to see how these platforms perform in the long run. A problem with the monograph system, bearing in mind that the majority of revenue is still with print, is that from the sale of a monograph some 35 per cent of that is directed into distribution. If you think about supplying an open access title direct, there is potentially this percentage of the cover price of the monograph to be saved.’
 
Lockett has been at the University of Westminster Press (UWP) from the beginning. Launched in 2015, the organisation publishes peer-reviewed academic books, policy briefs and journals that focus on social policy, as well as social sciences and humanities, science and technology, media, arts and design. Its collection currently comprises some 19 books, 11 journal issues and more than 350,000 views and downloads.
 
Akin to the recent aggregator-independent e-book platforms, clear motivations for establishing the University of Westminster Press were the rise of OA, as well as a desire to publish less traditional formats. For example, the Press has published an audio version of its Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, which, in Locketts’ words was ‘a relatively straightforward exercise’.
 
‘It would have been very difficult to do this with some players in mainstream publishing, as procedure and protocols are so nailed down,’ he said. ‘The potential here [for our Press] is really strong.’
Indeed, UWP is hardly the only up-and-coming new press to spot potential opportunities in the changing scholarly publishing landscape. Its opening coincided with the launch of other UK-based OA presses, including University College London, Goldsmiths and Cardiff.
 
Lockett reckons that the impetus for these developments stems from the Research Excellence Framework, as well as universities wishing to increase OA publishing. ‘There was also the frustration in the library sector that wanted more opportunities to publish on behalf of academics, and a growing confidence from senior librarians that they could have a role in these activities,’ he says.
 
Alison Shaw, chief executive of Bristol University Press, echoes Lockett’s comments. ‘We have a distrust of the large commercial players that seem to be doing this for profit... and this is not me attacking the commercial players, this is from the perspective of the academic,’ she said.
 
Bristol University Press was spun out of Policy Press, established by Shaw in 1996. Since its inception in 2016, it has focused on global social challenges, with a continuation of Policy Press’s aim to inspire social change.
 
Right now, five per cent of its journals’ admissions are OA, and it is currently developing two OA journals. But Shaw’s current observations suggest the academics writing for her press, are ‘remarkably traditional’. ‘We’ve always got to ask, “what do people want?” Right now, print books are here to stay.’
 
Clearly the latest developments in scholarly publishing are bringing as much variety as they are change in the world of the university press. As UWP’s Lockett puts it: ‘During the late 1980s and 1990s, everything seemed as if was going to stay the same... but now we do seem to be in a transforming moment.’
 
Still, some in the university press community believe more collaboration would help. UMP’s Watkinson notes that financial pressures are forcing all university presses to think very broadly about their futures.
 
And amid such a backdrop, Shaw would like to see more communication between the large commercial presses, mid-sized and smaller OA presses. ‘As university presses, we’re in this together – we all have the same drivers and want to get scholarly content out into the world so it has impact,’ she said.
 
CUP’s Hill agrees. ‘I really don’t see these developments as unwelcome competition,’ she said. ‘I would now like to work with the newer presses, to see how collaboratively we can support the needs of our parent universities.’

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