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Setting up a University Press in the Digital Age

New university presses don’t come around too frequently so the opportunity to take a lead in establishing the University of Westminster Press, in the heart of central London, seemed too interesting an opportunity to pass up. The relatively change-immune world of academic publishing has moved on rather briskly of late and the onset of digital disruption and the frantic search for ‘new business models’ (always a sign of flux, trouble and opportunity) has been heard in these relatively stable and surprisingly profitable quarters.

Wikipedia lists fifteen UK University presses, but with Exeter, the Open University Press and Nottingham out of the game or incorporated into commercial imprints, it is really only the big two (Oxford and Cambridge) and another four: Manchester, Edinburgh, University of Wales and a revived Liverpool that have longevity and a relatively high profile. Luton is not mentioned (having been incorporated into John Libbey) or Middlesex (closed in 2009) nor Chester (founded 2001), though it does list Kingston (run by academics and embedded within its publishing MA), Hertfordshire (launched in 1992 and a leading publisher in Romani studies) Buckingham (whose list includes many educational materials) and two specialist outliers, the University of York Music Press and the Policy Press based in Bristol from 1996 and with an enviable and large back catalogue, in the practically orientated social sciences. As if to symbolize the somewhat variable fortunes of such enterprises there is also the Sheffield Phoenix Press (concentrating on biblical studies) that arose out of the ashes of Sheffield Academic Press, a previously long-standing imprint. This tally is a long way short of the 100 or so US University presses on the Wikipedia page – a tally very likely to be understated, too.

Look again, though, in the UK and you will find a new generation of open access publishers or operations including Cardiff University Press, UCL (University College London) Press, University of Huddersfield Press and ourselves, the University of Westminster Press. These presses are based inside universities with the dominant (if not universal) trend to be based within their libraries. They are committed to the principle of open access. In the last few weeks Goldsmiths, University of London have announced their launch and in The Bookseller Anthony Cond’s article declared that  ‘The university press is back in vogue and that ’their time has come again’ subject to a few specific institutional conditions being (and remaining) in place.

Several things have propelled open access publishing, though one of the biggest factors has been the rather unhealthy nature of the traditional scholarly publications market, which has seen academic book sales, and journals dwindle as prices rocketed. Government and funding organisations have questioned the logic of funding research that subsequently is protected from likely readers by the lofty paywalls of publishers or via prices for the most basic of research monographs soaring over £80 or more for hardbacks. Most university library budgets cannot stretch to funding the large number of relevant titles published. As for students and the general public, that section of the market has long ago evaporated with the exception of textbooks needed to pass examinations. The worrisome gap between the academy and its research and the wider world can only extend further without a concerted move to open access.

Research funding councils are now mandating a move to open access, supported by the good work of organisations such as JISC. The race is now on to adapt to a world in which open access is not only preferred, it is expected – with no certainty over how exactly it will play out. A key feature of the landscape is the UK’s Research Excellence Framework known as ‘the REF’ that plays a key role in monitoring and evaluating research according to a four-star system and other criteria. With one phase completed in 2014 and the next scheduled for 2020, the REF is vital in terms of deciding how funding is channelled to university departments. Higher education institutions expend very considerable effort and ingenuity in assessing the best possible outcomes in the REF exercise, which means considering both the direction of research and publication outlets very carefully. On the one hand, prestige publishers are considered to have an advantage in this changing marketplace by dint of their long-standing reputations that is said to influence REF panels. On the other, their understandable reluctance to relinquish high profit margins or lower costs to enable immediate reasonably priced open access publication offers an opportunity to start-ups and it is proclaimed (if not universally believed) that REF panels assess all materials on the basis of quality of submissions not on reputation of the publisher. ‘Impact’, a key word in the REF lexicon – broadly interpreted as influence in the world outside the academy – also must surely be enhanced by the absence of the high-price deterrent of publishers still wedded to a model of ever lower sales and ever higher prices which has been the norm for decades.

What’s involved?

Crucial, is an editorial board, which vets proposals, oversees the governance of the press and ensures that the fundamental cornerstone of the academic peer review process is applied and monitored. Universities are not short of committees, so there is some work to be done in terms of recruiting and any publisher who has worked in this context will vouch for the importance of getting the right personnel for this board – experienced, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable, but with the insight to see the viewpoint of publishing professionals.

Contracts are another essential and here I’d say publishing expertise is highly relevant and needs to supplement the work of legal specialists. With open access publishing, handling of the key issue of copyright is different to traditional publishing agreements and yet there’s a need to retain an understanding to document how author-publisher relationship should function outside of the mere grant of rights and of the financials. An open access author contract is effectively a collaboration aimed at enabling the widest possible access to the writing of an author or multiple authors and it has to be a practical document with realistic parameters in the event of it ever having to be referred to again. Whatever template contracts you use, the golden rule always seems to be that the first few such arrangements will not quite match the template, as each transaction is individual. Flexibility and attention to detail here, early on, will pay dividends in the long run.

At the University of Westminster, a decision was taken early on to utilise the open access platform run by Ubiquity Press, which offers digital distribution services and hosting for its own publications but also a growing number of other publishers – the core of which are university presses. This takes away the burden of managing IT infrastructure and hosting, the absence of which would be a major task to sort out. Presses that go it alone otherwise may have to rely on the university’s own IT infrastructure which may be considerable, well-funded and expert but may not have the flexibility of other platforms in an era where many people are used to working directly on their own WordPress sites. The open access university press of 2015 also operates firmly within the world of social media getting the word out via Twitter (see UCL’s heavily publicised launch), post content on Facebook like the University of Cardiff Press, or even use blogs as their major window to the outside world.

And lastly in terms of essentials, there are people or more precisely the relevant author contacts required to get going. Networks can be informal – in my case they have involved authors that I worked with over a decade ago in previous job roles – or be developed using more formal means via meetings, but a commissioning editor’s chief value is her or his ability to generate new leads for publications via their acquaintance with a range of authors in relevant fields. In this respect business is fairly largely as usual.

Five months into the role, I am at a relatively early stage in a process which takes somewhat longer to blossom into a full publishing programme, so I took the liberty of asking UCL’s Lara Speicher (who could be said to be at the end of this process following a successful launch in June 2015) what she thought the differences were for an OA university press setting up and the key factors in doing so. She highlighted the positives of distribution where an internet connection ensures there are no barriers with ‘price or location’ and, for certain, I’d agree this removes many traditional publishing problems associated with logistics, warehousing and export markets in a flash. With the opportunities of digital publishing, some elements of publishing are more complicated, ‘because of the number of different file types needed, and the production and management of the associated metadata’ and there is also the challenge of ‘discoverability’ for open access publications outside the ‘traditional publishing supply chain model’. Ultimate goals may differ too for OA publishers with the emphasis being on ‘readership and dissemination’ rather than profit, which for legacy publishers may not require much of either of those two objectives to be achieved. She also highlighted the key role of business planning in setting up a press and having clear expectations when it comes to managing resources over all time scales. Vital too, is the kind of vision and initiative shown by UCL and similar organizations in making an unequivocal commitment to enabling the ‘widest possible readership’ for research undertaken by its academics.

What has struck me most, as I conclude, is the pace of change in the area. Numerous new ventures are underway with existing publishers adapting their practices and there’s a flurry of activity all round. It would be a full-time job just to keep abreast of all of this, but in the meantime its back to a new university press and its publications… to come.

Andrew Lockett is Press Manager at University of Westminster Press

* with thanks to Lara Speicher, UCL Press

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