AAUP 2014 recap: Open access is shaking up scholarly publishing, and that’s not a bad thing

By Darja Malcolm-Clarke

In June, thanks to the Pat Hoefling Professional Development Grant from IU Press, I was able to attend the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) in New Orleans. This was my first time attending and was an excellent introduction to the UP publishing industry beyond IU Press. The theme of this year’s meeting was Open to Debate, a gesture toward open access, the technological/digital mandate that promises (or threatens, depending on your point of view!) to transform scholarly publishing. The website framed the conference inquiry thus: “As we replace old business models with rapidly evolving new ones, scholarly publishers must collaboratively and energetically defend the core truths of our industry while signaling our willingness to embrace change.”

Attending the conference this year was important to me because I somewhat recently left academia proper for UP publishing; upon entering the industry, I found there was much more going on than I’d realized when I’d been on the other side of the manuscript submissions pile. I knew this meeting would be an excellent orientation to the issues the industry faces, both in the present moment and as anticipated in the coming years. I was not disappointed.

“Open to Debate” indeed! Throughout the conference I heard a variety of positions about OA, and positions about the positions, and questions about the positions. There were a number of panels and sessions that provided different “ins” to the “problem” as well as attempts to identify the “core truths” of the industry (to use the language of the conference materials).

The conversation opened with the first plenary session, titled “Not Just Open Access.” I believe the title was intended to suggest that it’s not just OA that is up for debate because OA, it turns out, allows us to call into question many of the “givens” of university press publishing of the last century. The plenary presented three perspectives on “how university presses can rethink their missions of access, clarify their value propositions, and explore new models of connecting readers and consumers to scholarship” in light of the “information scarcity models with paywalls and cost-recovery to fund and execute” the mission of distributing scholarship. Things would be simple, of course, if the digital revolution meant that scholarship could be disseminated far and wide digitally—for free. But OA, it turns out, is not free. It’s not even cheap! Grappling with that reality is one of the challenges UPs face and constitutes the foundation of many of the inquiries I heard at the conference. Indeed, much of the discussion revolves around the difficulties of funding OA given the way UPs are structured in relation to their home institutions and other universities. And that presents an unusual opportunity to rethink many other aspects of the industry as it exists.

Joe Esposito frames his talk by asking, if the current UP business model is broken, where is the breakage? He begins by pointing out a key difference between UP publishing and library publishing—libraries have institutional support while UPs must be governed by marketplace economics. At the same time, UPs cannot follow a strictly for-profit model because part of their very mission is anchored in the commitment to support certain worthwhile disciplines that might not otherwise be profitable in the purely for-profit world. Thus UPs are stuck in the difficult position of having to be governed by marketplace economics while pursuing a mission that is decidedly not tenable in marketplace economics! Thus, to stay afloat, a UP must rely on other UPs to publish home-institution scholarship in some of these fields, which leads to further dilution of support from the home institution. The result is that institutions can wind up not supporting their own UP.

Mark Edington also addresses this problem, pointing out that the UP industry is organized in a way that pits UPs against their own institutions, in that presses are actually largely supporting the work of faculty of other institutions. As a result, institutions tend not to have an incentive to support their UP. Moreover, Edington points out, having UPs compete in the marketplace and function as firm-based organizations, as opposed to having institutions provide the revenue and create a commons-like organization, sets up university presses to struggle.

Edington presents OA as an opportunity to redress some of the problems Esposito brings up—the conundrum of UPs being mission-driven (that is, not-for-profit) while being asked to accomplish the incompatible task of being market-driven. He frames OA as simply a means to an end, the “how” to the UP’s mission statement (which is the “what”—to disseminate scholarship).

Edington suggests that shifting to an OA model can be an opportunity to transform the kind of waters we swim in from being marketplace- and revenue-focused to being focused on disseminating scholarship. The way to do this is to recognize that the UP mission is also the mission of the home institution, and for the home institution to adopt maintaining its press as part of its mission. Doing this could shift the way UPs go about their business and the kind of work they are able to do. If I understand him correctly, Edington suggests that institutions supporting OA in their presses is not only the way to shift from an unsustainable model of UPs in the marketplace—it is also the opportunity we need to make UPs focus on scholarship rather than on “catering” to consumers. This, of course, can only help researchers who are in fields that are not commercially “popular” but nonetheless have valuable work to present to the scholarly community. In other words, the best way to assure the UP system will survive the shift to OA is for home institutions to take on fiscal responsibility for maintaining their presses.

Edington points out too that some of the rancor about OA stems from an association of digital publishing with second-tierness (an attitude I sometimes see, as a fiction writer, from people outside fiction circles who maintain the knee-jerk assumption that magazines published online are universally low quality; this erroneous association has not yet been exorcised from wider cultural discourse, it seems). Others hold that OA is utopian, but Edington says hoping to maintain UP publishing with the rise in the cost of academic books over the last decade is itself utopian.

I am sorry to say that only the first four minutes of the video of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s talk about scholarly societies and the commons were made available, so I was not able to refresh my memory/decipher my frantically scrawled notes from her talk. However, I look forward to perusing the digital scholarly network MediaCommons, of which she is co-founder.

Another thread about how to fund OA was presented in the “Town Hall” session The Revolution Will be Subsidized. The focus of this panel was to restore the economic viability of the humanities monograph; the models presented both relied on Open Access. The first was presented by Raym Crow for the AAU/ARL Task Force. The second was presented by Donald J. Waters of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Suffice it to say that the models were as complex as they were compelling. I leave it to the reader to explore these different initiatives.

Another panel, Open Access: Success and Sustainability, looked at case studies of OA experiments underway. Representatives from four institutions presented their group’s OA initiatives: Susan Skomal of BioOne’s Elementa; Frances Pinter, the Executive Director of Knowledge Unlatched; Alison Mudditt, Director of University of California Press; and David Corey of University Press of New England. The overarching inquiry was by what criteria should we define the success of OA experiments—by sustainability, high usage, worldwide reach?  The intricacies are beyond the scope of this post, but for interested parties, the links above may help illuminate some of the workings of Elementa and Knowledgte Unlatched. Mudditt cited the unsustainability of current business models as one reason for her leading UCP into their OA experiment, as well as massive shifts in the dynamics of the journals market. Corey concluded that in his view, OA fulfills the UP mission and the university mission, echoing sentiments from the first plenary that UPs are caught in a paradox of having to operate in a higher education mentality (having a nonprofit mission to share scholarship), while being asked to operate simultaneously in a publishing industry mindset (maintaining sales stability and growth). He pointed to the need to strike a balance between discoverability (higher education mentality) and affordability (book publishing mentality).

The second plenary session was built around the idea that just as scholarly publishing is changing, so should the AAUP. Reimagining the AAUP: Evolutionary and Revolutionary Opportunities was a session unlike any I’d ever attended! The group of 400 people, crowded into an enormous ballroom, was broken into smaller groups and asked to brainstorm on the future direction of the AAUP; the aim was to gather attendees’ “ideas for how to best realize the myriad opportunities for AAUP that lie before us.” The association’s mission statement had been recently reworked, and we were asked to develop a strategic plan in the separate arenas of advocacy, collaboration, infrastructure, education, and research. The different groups then presented some of the fruits of their brainstorming, and we voted via text message on the most important or promising of these. It was fascinating to see the results being compiled in real time! A more detailed summary of the process and the results can be found here. It will be interesting to see how the results of that process unfold—whether the congregated were able to compile a strategic plan that was truly useable or informative.

I went to the AAUP annual meeting with the sense that OA is shaking up the UP industry and that everyone is scrambling to make sure they have a seat on that train as it pulls out of the station. What I didn’t necessarily anticipate was the deep contemplation that would go into identifying and rethinking the “core truths” of the scholarly publishing industry. It was heartening and energizing to see the varied approaches to framing the issues OA presents and configuring ways to grapple with them—and indeed, appeals to use this moment of transition to bring UP publishing in better line with what should be its core truth and primary focus: nothing more nor less than simply disseminating scholarship.