Open Access publishing and the future of the university

What untapped potential is there for universities and Open Access publishing initiatives to provide each other with mutual benefit and support? This is a question that has stayed with me since the end of a small workshop that I organised in late July, funded jointly by the Institute for Social Futures and the Centre for Invention and Social Process.

In recent years, the landscape of academic publishing has been shaken up the demands, coming from a range of directions, to render academic knowledge more ‘open’ – that is, more readily accessible, within, and crucially beyond, a global scholarly community. While an ideal of openness may not be an infallible ethical and practical guide, its impact has been unquestionably significant. It has been felt particularly keenly in the world of journal publishing, with an explosion in free to access journals alongside an increasing pressure from central government and funders for academics to make sure their journal publications are, if not immediately then at least at some point, made open to a wider public.

In this context, the rise of Open Access book publishing has somewhat flown under the radar. And yet, looking around, it is possible to observe the steady increase in interest in making not just journal articles Open Access but books too. This involves an increasing number of publishers that are, at least at some stage, making their books available to download for free, but also to be bought as hard copies, generally at a much lower cost than many mainstream academic publishers.

Given such developments, I hope it is not hubris to claim that the workshop, ‘Open futures: The practical politics of academic book publishing’, marked a small but important moment in this evolving history of academic publishing. Although arranged to coincide with the launch of Mattering Press, the new Open Access book publisher that I have been involved in for the past four years, the real significance of the workshop resulted from who was there. Present were representatives from two still nascent components of the Open Access academic book publishing industry in the UK, whose collective significance for what they stand for and the potential they hold for the futures of academic book publishing might just outweigh their current individual and collective size.

In the first group were a set of individuals involved in scholar-led and, to some degree at least, subject-specific book publishers with a strong commitment to producing works that are available both on an Open Access basis and to purchase at the point of publication, a model that has been made far more feasible by the rapid rise of print-on-demand digital printing. This included editors and board members associated with Mayfly Books, which continues to produce a diverse range of texts that engage broad field of Critical Management Studies, Meson Press, which publishes scholarship on digital and new media, Open Humanities Press, the most established of the Open Access book publishers at the workshop and which has a track record of publishing a variety of critical and theoretically informed scholarship in humanities and the social sciences, and Mattering Press, which focuses on work broadly within the domain of Science and Technology Studies.

The second group included representatives from a new wave of university presses. The connections between universities and academic book publishing has a long history, which I will not recapitulate here. However the university presses at the workshop each in their own way mark a departure from the de facto university publishing establishment. Each has a commitment to Open Access: both UCL Press and University of Westminster Press, similar to the scholar-led presses, produce books that are available to buy and to download for free at the point of publication, while Goldsmiths Press releases pre-print drafts of its books one year after publication.

While some participants had met independently at other forums, the workshop was the first time this particular collective had been assembled. On display were arguably the two most significant new branches in a rapidly changing and potentially recomposed landscape of academic publishing. On the one hand, presses whose output is oriented towards a particular scholarly community, and whose day-to-day operations depend to a great extent on the donated labour and continuing enthusiasm of those that run them. And on the other, presses whose output aims to reflect some of the diversity of scholarship associated with a particular university, and which receive direct financial and infrastructural support from the institution, although the extent of this varies considerably.

In recognising the need for and potential of creative responses to the problems of academic book publishing, the scholar-led publishers have been first movers. At this point I should highlight a few other presses not in the room but whose significance in this respect is major, all of which similarly combine Open Access books to download and print on demand books to purchase. This includes the UK-based Open Book Publishers, which has published huge array of books across a variety of areas in the humanities and social sciences, and US-based Punctum Books, which leans towards books in the humanities and directly solicits texts that break the mould of academic genre.

What such scholar-led presses variously recognised is that the needs of academics were frequently not adequately catered for by the mainstream, commercial publishing industry. One issue concerns audience. Many academic publishers rely on a business model that is, on the face of it, almost as exclusionary as possible. If you would like to buy a copy of my first book, you can certainly do so, but you will be asked to pay nearly £100 for the privilege, making my plug somewhat redundant. The model however works by selling in hardback copies to university libraries. Even small sales volumes will recoup the costs of production. To be fair, this does open texts up to a wider audience, even if it is one that is narrow, geographically concentrated, and fairly elite. Not all academic publishers operate with this model, of course. But even those whose books are available at a more modest cost necessarily price out considerable segments of a potentially global marketplace.

There is also the much commented-upon issue of labour. As the pioneers of the Open Access publishing movement were at pains to point towards from the start, the edifice of commercial publishing relies utterly on the free or at best the inadequate payment of the array of academic contributors to make academic knowledge production possible. A norm has developed of labour being routinely and unquestioningly donated by academics to the for-profit journal and book publishing industry when, as some have pointed out, perhaps what is being demanded of reviewers and editors might be considered closer to consultancy. Remuneration practices rarely if ever reflect this.

There are also the constraints on authors who publish with a mainstream commercial press, which some of the first wave of scholar-led publishers also saw an opportunity to challenge and which is being built upon by the new wave of university presses. There is the increasing tendency to judge work not just on academic merit but also potential profitability, with the result that certain research areas have become far more readily publishable than others. There are also constraints on format and genre, with the fairly conservative publication strategies of the vast majority of academic publishers meaning that texts of unusual length, or that incorporate an unusual mixture of text and imagery, or that cross boundaries of discipline or genre, or that want to combine an off-line printed text with related but distinct online media and other materials, struggle to find a home. And finally, some of these publishers saw the opportunity to make political interventions not just in the work they publish but also in their own practices. One area of focus has been on reviewing practices, with publishers such as Punctum Books and our very own Mattering Press seeking to develop reviewing models that are more collaborative and/or more open, as a way to begin to pick away at some of the problematics of the institution of double-blind peer review.

What was so encouraging to see at the workshop was many aspects of this diverse and still emergent programme being embraced by publishers that operate with the direct support of their universities. This includes both the publishing models they have adopted, oriented in different ways to opening up their texts to a wider diversity of readers than elsewhere, and their attention to the politics of publishing. With respect to the latter, Goldsmith Press is providing particularly strong lead, attending closely to the constituency of its authors, as well as to how academic prestige is institutionalised, with reviewers being asked to comment on not just a book’s content, but also its citation practices (some of the complexities of which have been explored by Sara Ahmed and Lisa Blackman). Beyond the UK, we can also see a number of other Open Access ventures that are prospering thanks to direct university support, for example Heidelberg University Publishing in Germany and the highly influential Limn, operating somewhere between a magazine and journal, which has received support from three different US universities.

Despite the many successes of scholar-led publishers (and I should be clear that many of the new university presses could also be said to be led by scholars – Goldsmiths Press, for instance, is very much the result of the vision of Sarah Kember, who has now become a writer within both scholarly and fictional genres and a publisher – nonetheless, I will continue what serves as a useful organising distinction for now), their many continuing challenges almost all, at root, boil down to a lack of dependable external support. At Mattering Press, we have been lucky enough to receive some funding from institutions, including the aforementioned institute and research centre that supported the workshop and subsequent launch event (about the latter of which you can read about here), as well as a scholarly society – the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST). This assistance has been invaluable in helping us establish ourselves. As a charity, we have also received donations direct from supporters and readers, some of which have been sizable. However we could certainly achieve a lot more with a funding arrangement that would enable us to plan our development not just in the coming months but also the years ahead.

When it comes to demonstrating what can be achieved by a university that recognises the benefit of supporting Open Access publishing, UCL Press provides a particularly striking example. At an early stage, and somewhat remarkably, senior management recognised the benefit that could flow towards the university from being associated with a well-supported and sustainably resourced publishing venture. The press has developed its own platform, published a range of works connected to members of staff at the university – a particularly successful example is its Why We Post book series on social media, including a monograph by the anthropologist Daniel Miller – and is even providing the opportunity for students to pitch ideas for publications. The press already has 14 books for sale, and dozens more in the pipeline, having only launched just over a year ago.

UCL management seem to have recognised, unprompted, that supporting a publishing venture is not just valuable for its members of staff and a wider academic community, but also that it has the potential to add considerable reputational benefits. Congratulatory online pieces such as this evidence that in their own small way. But there are far more valuable rewards on offer. These range from readers more clearly drawing an association between an institution and its brightest scholars, to the generalised goodwill that might flow from academics towards those universities supportive of Open Access publishing ventures, for all the reasons sketched above.

The issue for universities will inevitably be how to quantify any reputational benefits that might be forthcoming. It is certainly possible for presses to become involved in this game. At the workshop, Sarah Kember gave an example: students, she argued, when applying to university could as a matter of course be asked about their familiarity with the respective press as a way of demonstrating its influence. In a higher education landscape increasingly marked by logics of commensurability and competition, being able to demonstrate an impact on the decision making process of even just a handful of additional students, with all the associated material benefits they would bring to a university, might be one way of demonstrating the value of particular publishing initiative. However, given that universities are already, at least in the UK, involved in numerous ways in the uncertain science of enhancing reputation, potentially on a global stage, they should already be familiar with the less tangible aspects of this game. It is quite possible that those activities wholly dependent for their justification on generating a corresponding metric are precisely those that are the least effective (sadly the extent to which universities understand this varies enormously).

The workshop title turned out to be apt. The futures of academic book publishing are more open than they have been for some time. Looking into this inevitably opaque future, it is entirely possible that existing scholar-led publishers, as well as those that are yet to emerge, will continue to prosper by operating, as they do now, with limited or no institutional support. The silver lining would be the continued autonomy and independence this brings. It is also possible that the likes of Goldsmiths Press, UCL Press, and University of Westminster Press will turn out to be outliers, important yet ultimately exceptional ventures, leaving the structure of the established academic publishing landscape more or less to continue as it is.

My hope is, however, for a different future, one in which universities recognise that the worth of the work its staff extends beyond what they produce to how it is produced, and where universities more clearly see themselves as institutions that can play a role in redefining both in creative and supportive ways. Turning once again to Sarah Kember, whose thinking on these issues has gone far deeper than most, in her recent inaugural lecture she reflects on the productive but nonetheless continually ambivalent institutionalisation of Goldsmiths Press: as both scholarly writers and academic publishers we need, she suggests, to recognise that “we can get out of the instrumental and the institutional something that is alive and kicking, something that is experimental”. The injunction I would make to universities is to recognise what benefits might flow in their direction, from publisher to university, for those institutions with the ambition and foresight to take the leap into supporting these kinds of experimental, creative and necessarily uncertain endeavours.

The French root of the verb “to publish” refers to the act of “making public”. At Mattering Press, as scholars versed in the traditions of Science and Technology Studies, we have long recognised that publishing is at once an endeavour of telling and making. For much of its history, academics and universities have however specialised in the first of these, in the art of telling what is known. In my view, it is time for more universities, and indeed more academics, to become involved in the second, in the very practical politics of how precisely academic knowledge is made.


Many thanks to the participants at the workshop for their comments and contributions, including Janneke Adema, Mercedes Bunz, Sarah Kember, Chris Land, Andrew Lockett, Tahani Nadim, and Lara Speicher, as well as to the Institute for Social Futures, the Centre for Invention and Social Process, and the Centre for Mobilities Research for their support for this event and the associated launch (on which, see here). This article has been co-posted on the Institute for Social Futures blog.  

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