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Stuart Shieber posted an interesting and troubling analysis a few days ago of the recommendations of the Chicago Manual of Style with respect to open access publishing. The upshot of these recommendations appears to be “fight it,” or at least “limit the threat it poses to publishers’ ownership of the materials of scholarship.” As Shieber points out, there’s no small irony in the fact that

the book is owned by a university (The University of Chicago, as stated in three copyright notices on each page) filled with faculty and students whose interests are not best served by this kind of short-term profit-maximizing attitude.

And yet, there’s the problem: while The University of Chicago claims ownership of the Chicago Manual of Style, that ownership comes through the intermediary of the University of Chicago Press. And the press, like nearly all US-based university presses — which is to say that I’m not particularly picking on Chicago here; this could have happened at any such university press that happened to be the publisher of such an influential style guide — isn’t part of the university, except in a most nominal sense. The existence of the press is meant to confer a kind of prestige on the university, but, as I discuss in chapter 5 of Planned Obsolescence, the trend over the course of the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first has been to so severely attenuate the relationship between the press and the institution that, for all intents and purposes, most presses are now independently operating non-profit corporations that sometimes happen to reside on university campuses.

Over the course of those decades, most university presses successfully fought off the stigma of being seen as “vanity” publishing operations by professionalizing — turning away from local authors in favor of a field-based publishing model, seeking the “best” work being produced nationally and internationally. The result was increased prestige, and increased income from sales — but that last has proven to be a double-edged sword. Because university presses are no longer seen by their institutions as serving in-house needs, and because they now appear able to generate income from the broader academy, most such presses have had the financial support provided to them by their universities slashed, making them increasingly dependent upon commercial income and decreasingly a part of the broader university culture.

The result, as we see in the open access section of the Chicago Manual of Style, is, perhaps of necessity, a wholly commercial understanding of their function, their products, and their ownership thereof. The press’s survival might seem to depend upon it. And because of that understanding, Chicago, which one might in previous editions have understood to be addressing both authors and publishers, has here clearly announced its partisanship: it is a volume intended to serve publishers, and not the authors those publishers publish, or the universities those authors populate.

And that’s fine. I’m not here calling for a boycott of Chicago style by open access publications — if anything, Chicago could stand to learn from their example — but I do want us to look carefully at the financial implications for all of our universities of the style guide’s having staked out such a position with respect to scholarly publishing and intellectual property. And I want us to recognize that there is another way.

It’s not an easy option, to be sure: it’ll be resisted by everyone involved, from established presses to university administrations to scholars themselves. And there are lots of complexities that I haven’t fully worked out here, of course. But there are a few very basic, if massive, changes that can help get us out of this mess:

  1. Every institution that requires its faculty to publish needs to develop a scholarly publishing service. It might not necessarily be an entirely in-house, single-institution operation — it might be productive to think about consortial publishing arrangements paralleling our current library consortia — but every institution must have a publishing system of some sort.
  2. Those publishing systems must focus on publishing the work of the faculty at that institution, re-creating the connection between the publisher and the institution that has been allowed to deteriorate over the last several decades.
  3. All of the work published through these services must be released in open access form, saving our libraries from the slow death by budgetary strangulation they’ve been suffering, and making the work available to all students, scholars, and interested members of the public. The point of all this publishing, after all, is making the scholarship public; the more freely it can circulate, the better.
  4. Because of that open access imperative, the university publisher — once again genuinely a university publisher — must be fully supported by its institution. If it can find ways to recuperate some costs, perhaps through the sale of print-on-demand editions of work or through other specialized services, so be it, but the university cannot abdicate its responsibility with respect to supporting scholarly publishing, any more than it can expect the library to become self-supporting.

The first question, of course, is about the press once again coming to be seen as a vanity outfit: I can hear the cries of what about peer review? The bottom line here, of course, is that peer review is already the responsibility of scholars, though it’s currently facilitated by publishers; under a model such as this one, scholars will only be required to acknowledge and take charge of that responsibility. University publishers should of course continue to facilitate peer review, but will likely be best served by doing so openly, curating the kinds of crowd-sourced conversation that can genuinely help an author improve a text and that can give us a more detailed sense of the impact an author’s work is having on the field.

There are many, many other questions to be asked about a system like this one, some of which I take up in Planned Obsolescence, but the key point here is clear: as long as university publishing is beholden to the bottom line, it cannot serve the needs of the university community. Only in radically changing the relationship between the publisher and the institution can we set aside the misguided questions about ownership that Chicago has gotten caught up in, and instead genuinely meet the ethical imperatives of open access to knowledge that the university ought to serve.

[Update, 6.34am: edited to fix link problem.]
[Update, 5 Jan 2011, 7.04am: reverted to older version to fix WP iPhone app format hosing, and re-corrected spelling of Stuart Shieber’s name.]

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