Why it’s time for the rebirth of the university press

Printing Press


A long time ago, well, before Simon Cowell was a household name anyway, universities used to run university presses. These would print journals and books. They didn't really make a profit, in fact they often made a loss. Their titles were esoteric, academic and occassionally odd. But they did it because that was the best, indeed the only route often, to sharing knowledge publicly. Other universities and libraries would buy these journals, sometimes the production was very professional, other times less so and the glue and string would show. 

Then gradually, universities began to realise they weren't in the print business, and that they couldn't really compete with the professional publishers in terms of marketing and distribution. So, one by one, they sold their titles to the publishers. For a while it was a mutually beneficial deal. Their publications had a wider distribution and they had access to centralised expertise in publishing, library contacts, copyediting, etc. In exchange the academics provided their content and their labour in editing and reviewing. 

But over time, the distance between the publishers and the academics increased, and it became less of a mutually beneficial arrangement. Libraries were locked into 'big deal' packages, and as academics continued to provide the majority of the labour, the profits earned by the big publishers increased. As Edwards and Shulenberger put it: "beginning in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, this gift exchange began to break down. A few commercial publishers recognized that research generated at public expense and given freely for publication by the authors represented a commercially exploitable commodity".

One of the problems previously was that printing and distributing paper journals was an alien business for universities to be in. It involved equipment, and logistics which were costly to maintain and seemed increasingly detached from the everyday business of the university. But I would suggest that the almost wholesale shift to online journals has now seen a realignment with university skills and functions. We do run websites and universities are the places people look to for information (or better, they do it through syndicated repositories). The experience the higher education sector has built up through OER, software development and website maintenance, now aligns nicely with the skills we've always had of editing, reviewing, writing and managing journals. Universities are the ideal place now for journals to reside.

I would argue then, that now is the time for the rebirth of the university press as a place that runs a set of open access, online journals. In times of financial stress in the sector, it may seem perverse to be proposing that universities take on a function that is not aimed at earning revenue, but here is my economic, and public good, argument.

Running journals on an ad hoc basis across universities is inefficient. By centralising resource you could support several journals. At a rough guess, based on my experience of editing JIME, I think one central, full time administrator could support 4 journals. The same, or maybe less time required, for technical support. That admin support may or may not do the copyediting also. The other main roles are those that are currently performed by academics for free anyway – reviewing, managing and editing the journal, organising special editions, reviewing, etc.

The same universities are currently paying a considerable sum to publishers through libraries. By withdrawing some of this spend and reallocating to internal publishing, then the university could cover costs. In addition the university gains kudos and recognition for its journals and the expertise and control is maintained within the university. Now, if enough universities do this, each publishing four or more journals, then the university presses now begin to cover the range of expertise required. And in times of financial crisis people will increasingly ask 'what is the university for?'. Being able to point to the wealth of knowledge that we generate and then share freely will be one part of an answer.

This is, of course, happening at many universities, but it's a piecemeal approach, often operating in the spare time of people with other jobs. One has only to look at the list of journals currently using OJS to see that it's an approach that is growing. I feel though that the time is now ripe for a more focused, concerted push to make the university press the home again of academic knowledge.



  • Plug103

    Of all the new models several writers have suggested recently – this is the one that I like the best (not that that means anything at all!). It simply seems to make more sense to re-visit this model in light of new technologies.
    Surely the guardianship, curation and dissemination of information is as much the responsibility of HE as the production of it? (ninja librarians)
    I don’t think it will solve certain problems – I can still imagine issues with closed peer review or other ‘control’ systems but it would be a definite starting point and perhaps better than 1000’s of OJS’s appearing everywhere without some discovery or cataloging?
    Go for it…


    An online journal – based on the geography or where your institution is located? Or an online journal from each institution for engineers, geographers, economists, etc, etc?
    Too much noise, not enough filtering.

  • Martin

    What are you on about Cann? The impending weekend seems to have addled your senses – An online journal, eg JIME which anyone can contribute to. Leicester may run Microbiology is Sexy, Marxism and Curry, etc. I.e. just as we have now, but the universities take back the ownership of the journals.

  • Colin Smith

    I hear what you are saying Martin, but your description of one person being able to look after four journals is very simplistic, as is your summary of the roles/tasks involved. I, for example, manage the editorial office of only one journal, with the help of two editorial assistants. That’s three full-time people on one journal already. Then, beyond that there is the production of the journal, the marketing, the financial management, and so on. All told, I would say to publish the journal I work on equates to at least 7 or 8 full-time people.
    As you know, I have the benefit of having worked on both sides of the fence, so to speak, and I have to say that, generally-speaking, there is a lot of misunderstanding out there in terms of what it takes to run a journal. Just as an example, most of my time this week has been taken up investigating and resolving an anonymous claim of scientific misconduct. Would you be happy to land that upon your administrator?
    I have been, and still am, a supporter of Open Access. However, I also believe that users of journals take a lot of their functionality for granted. Yes, you can set up a journal using OJS and make quite a good job of managing it. But there are many, many journals out there that couldn’t possibly be run like that because they have a lot of complex workflows and technology going on behind the scenes that (with the greatest respect) you only know about if you have worked in an academic publishing house. Open Access journals are certainly the way forward, but I still think they are best managed by dedicated publishers. Replacing that system with an administrator sitting in every university just wouldn’t cut it, and academics would be the first to complain if their journals begin to suffer as a result.
    I also just want to pick up on your point about costs. I don’t understand what advantage there would be to universities in still spending the same sum of money on publishing, but by taking on the work themselves?


    Martin, your stunning ignorance of economic forces explains why you have suggested this nonsensical solution 😉
    So either universities co-operate to share journals out between them (yeah, right), or it’s the battle of the fittest to grab the “best” journals (medicine, science, etc). Can’t see that working out better then Elsevier.

  • mweller

    @Colin – maybe you’re working on prestigious journals. On the ones I’ve been involved with this sort of work nearly always falls to the unpaid editor or board. I agree there may be legal issues, but a university tends to have a legal team too. As for the personnel, I’m going on my experience of editing a journal. Maybe bigger ones need more people, and maybe that’s where the commercial publishers would remain, but most journals are fairly small scale, publish 3 times a year, online and don’t have tens of thousands of submissions. So I think the model works here – it’s the long tail of academic publishing that most people don’t really acknowledge.
    @Alan – you are clearly smoking something funny up in Leicester. I didn’t say they share them out, you start your own journals, and yes there would be a degree of the best survive. I’m sure things like Nature and BMJ wouldn’t work this way, but the majority of journals aren’t these top titles, they’re small scale productions which are well suited to the university approach.

  • Mike Johnson

    Thanks for posting this Martin. I had a shock yesterday to hear colleagues passing the tip to ensure they included the cost of placing their paper in open access journals in their research bid… this fee may well be over £1000. What kind of open access is that?! Here’s another model for you (which of course you’ll be aware of but, just saying…)

  • Frances Bell

    Not all OJS installations are self-publishing by institutions. I am glad Mike mentioned CO-Action – they are publishers for ALT’s newly open access jounral including 19 Volumes of archives
    A model where the scholarly society pays the publishers for a range of services including hosting, manuscript management, copy editing, typesetting , printing, etc. is a very interesting one. As co-editor I am very hopeful that this move will increase readership and impact of journal as well as being good for authors.
    I blogged about it here

  • mweller

    Mike and Frances – yes, absolutely. I think the society journal is probably the most viable model around, and I probably should have extended ‘University press’ to include these, as much the same story can be told there eg of handing it over and now being in a position to reclaim it.

  • Frances Bell

    ALT didn’t hand over the journal to Taylor and Francis – they had a contract to publish it and it’s the renegotiation of the contract that has allowed ALT to broker a different deal including full open access. Seb Schmoller wrote a guide published here
    I think that is a different situation from University Presses.
    Anyway, hope you will consider submitting to our journal in future.

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