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.