On the Scholarly Press, the Manual of Style, and Intellectual Property

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.]


  1. The one piece of this that seems wrong as a norm is #2 — given the dispersal of academic specialities (caused in part by the need of colleges and universities to hire faculty who can teach across the curriculum), why would a university press turn away from the strengths it has built over time to try to publish only or chiefly the work of its own faculty? Why not imagine that university presses will continue to do what they do well — cultivating lists / groups of specialists drawn from across the academy? I agree 100% that university presses need to be brought back inside the gates of the university, de-commercialized — indeed, heavily subsidized as a core part of the university mission. But I don’t think this assumption entails a turn away from servicing the profession toward in-house publishing. Surely academics will continue to innovate and collaborate across university lines; don’t new technologies make this easier, more likely to expand? I can imagine university press specialties being tied to charismatic individuals/ historic areas of strength at particular institutions, as they often are now. Ties between universities and their presses can be strengthened without turning presses into institutional mouthpieces.

  2. Hi, Meredith. I can certainly see why presses would feel compelled to continue along their current lines in publishing, especially where they’ve built recognized strengths, but I see key problems ahead for them — primarily that, despite those recognized strengths, all but a precious few presses are strangling to death financially, precisely because in attempting to serve the profession rather than the institution they’ve lost the institution’s support. And I don’t see those institutions adding to their present levels of support unless there’s some clear evidence of what’s in it for them.

    There are some presses that might well be able to maintain some variant on their current lists, but only if they’re part of a broader set of publishing operations that are directed toward the faculty at the institution. Both California and Michigan are experimenting with this kind of structure — maintaining the press in something like the form that it has long assumed, though as one among a suite of publishing services on campus. And it’s that emphasis on services that’s key here; the publishing center, in order to be fully supported by the institution, must be reconceived as a service unit within the university, leaving the illusion that it can be operated as a revenue center behind.

  3. Fabulous post, Kathleen. Now you’ve got me thinking that it might be a fascinating (and revelatory) exercise to draw up a hypothetical budget for a given academic institution–in consultation with its library staff–that attempts to model or project precisely the scenario you’re advocating: a publishing service fully integrated into the university whose raison d’etre is to make its faculty research freely accessible. For the purposes of the (notional) budget, we might assume universal buy-in from all institutions of higher learning with a stated research mission. Liberated from the need for a ginormous library acquisitions budget as a result, the institution could re-direct those savings toward the publishing service. In most cases, universities could also build on existing digital repositories rather than start such a system from scratch. (Maybe the next time I teach Information Access in the iSchool I could have the students take a stab at this as a research assignment–they could start by reading your blog entry & relevant sections from Planned Obsolescence, and then post the results on MediaCommons . . . I suspect that actually crunching the numbers and making them available for analysis could be enormously persuasive.)

  4. Kathleen, this is an intriguing idea, but I’d like to hear more on your ideas about the role of acquisitions editors and other discipline-specialized editorial staff in the model you’re proposing. In the current model, acquisitions editors also do a lot of work helping junior faculty re-imagine their dissertations as books, and the best ones got that way from working with a series of projects in the same disciplinary subfield. Is this editorial expertise and specialization an artifact of the existing financially-unsustainable commitment to particular disciplines? If so, and if some fields really do need specialist editors, how do we pay for them? Is this a case where disciplinary associations or discipline-specific publishing co-ops would have a role?

    I’m thinking of the faculty member in Obscure Subfield at Tiny SLAC, whose college publishing operation doesn’t have the money to hire full-time an editor who knows that subfield well. The only other option that comes to mind would be a landscape of freelance/consulting editors, which provides really poor job security. (Then again, if university presses continue to bleed red ink, it’s not like many editors have a lot of job security anyway.)

  5. These are really excellent questions, Shane, and something that will require a lot of creativity and collaboration to sort out. One of the things I’ve been arguing is that in fact we need editors to turn their attention away from acquisitions as it currently exists and back toward an older model of development editing, supporting authors through the process of conceiving and producing work from much earlier stages. This sort of work is precisely the kind of service that I imagine a service-oriented university publisher providing — and the kind of thing that would be a huge recruiting draw for those institutions.

    How to provide enough such editors with the kinds of specializations that would be needed, however, is a real difficulty. This same kind of difficulty is being faced on other terrain by digital humanists at SLACs, as no institution can really afford to employ the number of specialists in particular technologies and methods that the kinds of projects being done today require. There are some early conversations in place about how we might facilitate (and fund) the kinds of cross-institutional collaborative structures that would allow for sharing of these talents and resources; I could imagine similar structures for sharing editorial talents and resources as well…

  6. As a university press director, I’m certainly in favor of universities recognizing and supporting the valuable work of their presses, and I’m not opposed to appropriately supported open access for some kinds of work. But this blog post does seem to overlook numerous functions of university presses. While some scholars are writing only for other scholars in their discipline/field, many scholars (and university-based creative writers) are hoping to reach larger or different audiences that publishers help them reach. Many scholars also really want to earn royalties if they can, to help with their research costs, hire grad students, etc. Good publishers add value to publications through skilled developmental editing and copy editing, improved clarity through design, and wider dissemination not just through sales but by facilitating translations and other licensing to entities outside academia. I could go on, but I won’t.

  7. All of these are crucial functions of presses, and none of them need be obviated by the changes I’m suggesting here. Royalties, however, are a red herring in this discussion; the percentage of authors who earn anything on their university press publications is minuscule.

  8. I have thought one of the big differences between academic libraries and university presses is that libraries serve their own institutions very well but don’t do a very good job of serving beyond their campuses. (An example: to serve their faculty and students, they accept licenses that restrict sharing beyond the campus.) U.P.s do the opposite, but as you say, they are a tough sell to administrators because they are not allowed (as libraries are) to be cost centers. I like the idea of somehow making libraries more outward-focused and bringing the sharing libraries want to do and have been good at to bear on the need to produce and share scholarship. This is a startling, but really very intriguing idea.


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