/ Next-Generation University Publishing: A Perspective from California


This article reflects on the opportunities that exist for universities that think strategically about their publishers. It is prepared by an academic administrator who has oversight responsibility for a university press and is based on a year-long planning process launched in November 2009 to help the University of California Press identify strategic and business options. More a series of observations than a carefully crafted theory of academic publishing or route map for university-based publishing, it is offered in the hope that it may usefully inform and be informed by other institutional strategies.

The University of California Press, founded in 1893, is the nonprofit publishing arm of the University of California (UC) system and one of the six largest U.S.-based university presses. It publishes approximately two hundred new books and forty multi-issue journals each year, in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and keeps about four thousand book titles in print. About a fourth of its authors are affiliated with the University of California. The annual operating budget in 2010–2011 is about $26 million; $3 million or 11 percent of which is made up of university subsidies.

That’s the headline. Here’s the backstory.

Like many academic publishers, UC Press is at a watershed moment in its long and distinguished history occasioned by:

  • The continued rapid pace of change in the way that scholars wish to produce, distribute, and consume information
  • Continual, and in some cases, revolutionary changes in the publishing business
  • A global economic recession of historic proportions that fundamentally challenges UC Press’s business fundamentally at a time when the university is forced by circumstance to examine how it spends scarce dollars that might otherwise be invested in core instructional activities, faculty salaries, and graduate student support[1]
  • The need to recruit a Director for the UC Press to succeed Lynne Withey, who will retire after an exceptionally successful term that grew and strengthened the UC Press and fostered innovation within it

This article reflects upon experience derived from a year-long planning process launched in November 2009 to grapple with these manifold challenges and identify strategic and business options for the UC Press. More a series of observations than a carefully crafted theory of academic publishing or route map for university presses, it is offered in the hope that it may usefully inform and be informed by other institutional strategies. It is a personal reflection as opposed to a formal report or set of recommendations.

The University as Publisher

The planning process began with a single question: What does the University require from its publisher? While outwardly simple, the question enabled us gracefully to sidestep the typical debate about what, if any, subsidy is appropriate for the University to provide for its press and to focus instead on the more significant question about what the University needs to achieve strategically and how its publisher can support it in doing so. It was also informed by a conversation with the University’s leaders, who stated quite clearly their preference for a highly focused, financially disciplined approach that would align efforts wherever possible to enhance the impact of University publications and make the University’s intellectual assets—the knowledge that is created and the information that is managed there—meaningfully accessible to the broadest possible community. This guidance was as much a consideration of audience and presentation as a reference to possible business models, and has been very usefully informed by various local efforts that have sought to aggregate materials based on UC scholarship, presenting them in a manner that makes them accessible to more general audiences.[2] It also took account of earlier efforts to understand possible alignments between universities and their presses.[3]

Finally, the review began with a number of operating assumptions:

  • UC sponsors a great deal of publishing, mostly in the UC Press and the California Digital Library (CDL) but also in research units scattered throughout the system.
  • This publishing would have greater impact and operate more efficiently if it were centralized more than it is now—that is, if it were possible to identify a single point of decision-making about the choices and budget decisions that need to be made.
  • Given its expertise, the UC Press should be the focal point for UC publishing, recognizing that it would need to evolve substantially to succeed both as a business organization and in approaches to publishing that extend beyond more traditional journals and monographs.

Building on this foundation, a great deal was accomplished quite quickly even as the planning process went in directions not wholly anticipated. It certainly clarified my own understanding of why the University should engage in publishing.

Clearly, producing scholarship is the research university’s central function, and scholarship must be made available beyond the university’s walls if it is to achieve its purpose. The need for scholars to publish is obvious, but it does not necessarily follow that the university as an institution must support the means of publication. Historically, universities published scholarship in addition to generating it; soon after they were founded, the first U.S. research universities established presses specifically to publish work created by their faculties. In the decades since, however, scholarly publishing has expanded well beyond university-based presses, while those presses have broadened their scope to include authors outside their home institutions. Today, the university’s press is one of many venues where its faculty publishes; one that, in fact, plays a minority role. About a quarter of the two hundred monographs produced each year by UC Press are written by some of UC’s eighteen thousand faculty—a significant proportion of the UC Press’s output but a mere fraction of the faculty’s annual oeuvre. The sheer imbalance undermines the logic of maintaining a university press. The case is arguably only that much harder to make at an elite research university. There, faculty are almost by definition the leaders (real or up and coming) of their disciplines and as such have no shortage of publishing opportunities and venues.

It is almost as challenging to understand the business logic of university-based publishing. University presses work in specific academic disciplines whose boundaries extend well beyond those that surround research and the host institution. They work in markets that are infinitesimally small. Commentaries on Plato or Aristotle do not sell as well as the latest exploits of the girl with the dragon tattoo or works by Danielle Steele. Nor do long-form narratives intended to advance through careful, evidence-based argument our knowledge of arts, humanities, and social science disciplines. And they act as the venue for works that are destined for national audience but so controversial as to be shunned by commercial publishers. One thinks in this regard of the UC Press’s The Cigarette Papers, which exposed a powerful industry for the tactics it used to addict smokers in pursuit of profits or Ohio State University Press’s Justifiable Homicide, about a woman’s right to plead self-defense for killing a battering partner.[4]

In all of these regards, university presses provide an essential and common good for the academy, yet they do so without any subsidization from the academy that reflects the utility of their enterprise. Perhaps a hundred or so of the more than two thousand U.S. institutions of higher education support university-based publishers. This leaves the vast majority contributing no direct subsidy to their effort— no subsidy beyond the sum-total of the financial contributions made through their libraries, researchers, and students who purchase or subscribe to university press publications. This a typical free-rider problem; it is a significant one given the steady reliance of all higher educational institutions on university-based publishers for the scholarly works they rely on to support core teaching and research and a reward (promotion and tenure) system that is central to the academic profession. And it creates a substantial disincentive for an institution to invest scarce resources in maintaining an academic publisher. Why should it? What rationale does a university have for investing in its publisher? If it does make such an investment, what should it require from its publisher in return?

I assert the following six things.

1. Strategic approach to the core

A central role for the university’s publisher is continued support of scholarship in selected disciplines. There are several functions that rely on expert, editorially driven acquisition of materials in whatever form to fill gaps in our knowledge in existing, well-defined subjects or begin to chart out what may emerge as entirely new disciplines or sub-disciplines. Careful selectivity and peer review are the causa sine qua non of this kind of enterprise, and university presses excel at these functions. It is this aspect of the university publisher’s work that we refer to as core. The interesting question, however, is not about the core functions that the university’s publisher plays, but about where—in what discipline(s)—it chooses to devote its attention. Given that a university’s research faculty will be active across a wider disciplinary domain than its publisher can operate effectively in, how does the publisher choose? This is not a new question for university presses, which have become increasingly selective in part because of the challenging economics of academic publishing. While various approaches are adopted, a particularly promising one seeks to align discipline focus with the university’s strategic objectives. “Publishing the Long Civil Rights Movement” is one such initiative. Centered at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, the project is a collaboration involving the university library, the Center for Civil Rights, the School of Law, and the Southern Oral History Program at the Center for the Study of the American South. It is an ambitious approach in support of scholarship in an important area—one that leverages UNC Chapel Hill’s distinctive collections and its centers of expertise in partnership with its publisher.[5] It is also a challenging one to scale across disciplines. Imagine, for example, if the lion’s share of currently active university presses were to emphasize investment in areas that reflect specific institutional strengths. What market or other influences would broaden the overall disciplinary scope of publication? Or would university-based publishing evolve into a multitude of niche, often regionally focused disciplines, leaving the grand narratives and the interdisciplinary challenges either untouched or in the hands of large-scale commercial publishers?

2. Keep long-form narratives under review

At once, accept apologies for this dreadful phrase. It reflects the challenges we face as a community in describing traditional approaches to academic publishing that are subtly and then fundamentally transformed as they bump into networked technologies. The point here of continuing review of long-form narratives is to anticipate trends that emerge from the proliferation of digital forms and have potential significance for scholarship and for the business of academic publishing. I am not thinking so much about e-books and e-book readers, although there are significant advantages for a consumer who has a personal library at her fingertips, quite literally, anywhere at any time. I am thinking instead about the prospects for integrating narrative with digital collections (data, images, manuscripts) in a manner that enables a reader to explore the primary evidence, assess argument through simulation, or reproduce analyses in the data that underpin them. The classic example is the art historical work that references not only the small handful of images that the publisher can afford, but the hundreds of works, digitally available via the network, that illustrate a point. Additionally, there may be advantages to the publisher and the author in exploring new ways to organize and allocate editorial responsibility and giving it free rein across a variety of production formats. Thus, the history editor ought to be empowered to play a traditional role with print monographs, but also a producer’s one, where long-form narratives interact with or evolve as multimedia-networked materials.

This approach is doubly advantageous. It promises to keep the university’s publisher closely in touch with new business opportunities, to be sure, but also potentially to broaden the scope of publications beyond the niche disciplines that might otherwise emerge if university-based publishers aligned too closely with institutional strengths. The public domain works currently available online from Google Book Search, for example, create enormous and largely untapped opportunities for long-form narratives that interact directly with the digital corpus, in a variety of disciplines: linguistics, cultural anthropology, history, and the full range of the social sciences. Here, one may imagine a university-based publisher aligning efforts around a science, technique, or methodology of local strength (interaction with data, computational linguistics, the science of simulation) to foster exploration in the grand narrative and interdisciplinary arena that might otherwise be ignored.

3. Controlling publishing and publishing-related costs

The university’s exposure to publishing costs has increased dramatically in recent years in response to two seemingly orthogonal trends. The first is well known. It has to do with growth in the volume and cost of scholarly publications that are consumed through university libraries and bookstores in support of research, teaching, and learning. The literature on cause and effect is voluminous, often passionately penned, and needn’t be rehearsed here at any length, except to say that it has produced as a response a growing movement within universities to assert more control over cost by at once encouraging and supporting open-access publishing. A second trend receives somewhat less attention. It reflects the ubiquity of the web, the proliferation and apparent low cost use of web-authoring and self-publishing tools, and entails a veritable explosion in highly localized, departmentally based efforts that extend well beyond the production of open-access style journal articles to include monographs and journals (print and digital), course materials, conference proceedings, web-based data collections, and interactive and often highly data-driven simulations. Together, these forms stretch our understanding and definition of academic publishing but are nonetheless important forms of scholarly communication.

The university’s publisher provides an opportunity to contain the costs inherent in piecemeal and organizationally fragmented efforts that are mounted to satisfy this insatiable appetite for less traditional (highly localized?) forms of publication. In this regard, one begins to envision a publishing services function for the university’s publisher—one that promises to speed the pace, lower the cost, grow awareness, and increase use of, and more effectively sustain, the publishing efforts of academic departments, labs, and other entities that are quite frankly too small, too sub-optimized, or too inexpert to achieve as much for so little acting independently. The service would naturally entail the institutional repository functions growing up as a matter of routine, often under the auspices of university libraries and in support of open-access forms of publication.[6] But it would also include other services—some operating perhaps on a recharge or fee for service model and connecting publishing initiatives across the enterprise with whatever editorial, production, distribution, marketing, platform, and other capacities they require to achieve their specific objectives. This function leverages the capacity that the university’s publisher has in place to advance its core publishing agenda, referred to above, by making that capacity available to a wider community. It has the added advantage to the publisher of keeping it in touch with publishing needs and interests as they evolve across a broader range of the disciplines than the press is typically in touch with, thereby putting it in the path of opportunity with regard to new, highly innovative, and ultimately perhaps revenue-generating publishing practices that might one day migrate into the core. From this perspective, it is also possible to see for university-based publishing, once almost wholly focused on support for the university’s research mission, a potential to play a larger role in supporting university teaching and public service missions as well. This leads us naturally then to...

4. Continuum publishing

This imperfect phrase has two meanings, very similar yet different in important ways. The first has to do with leveraging academic or scholarly publications—whether sourced in core publishing or publishing services—so they may be presented (translated even) in ways that ensure they reach a broader non-scholarly audience. This may be especially important for a public research university owing to its essentially civic nature and also to its need to demonstrate how taxpayer dollars invested in support of its research enterprise return value in ways that matter. Once more, the idea isn’t entirely new or even radical. The trade or general audience lists that university presses have developed to help support their academic enterprises financially are often focused in areas of existing academic publishing strength. But what is strategic for a university press from its own narrowly focused business perspective may not be strategic to its university host. UC Press’s foray into California studies may chart a different course. It is essentially an academic venture in support of a new and emerging discipline of California studies.[7] It is also strategic to the University because it provides opportunities to demonstrate to a general, in this case regional, audience how University research helps us understand, even address, issues that Californians care about—the dysfunction of California politics or educational policy, for example. And it is doubly advantageous because it leverages the exceptionally rich and very distinctive library and museum collections that are readily available within the University. In California studies, the publisher helps to build a discipline that leverages the unique research collections and research strengths. Much like the Long Civil Rights project at UNC, it also operates in an area that demonstrates in tangible ways how the state’s public institutions address contemporary problems that citizen taxpayers actually care about.[8]

Opportunities may also exist in science publishing—a challenging area for the university’s publisher to break into owing to the command taken there by commercial science, technology, and medicine (STM) publishers and a handful of large academic societies that act like them. A recent UC experience surfacing web-based research results in the area of climate change demonstrated considerable appetite, both among scholars and general-audience consumers, for sharing information generated from UC research into climate change in a web-mediated portal environment. An editorial function offered a translational layer for a non-expert and provided signposts to the content, much of which was assembled dynamically by harvesting information from UC’s copious web space. While nothing like a formal publication, the experiment in surfacing research information in ways that made it accessible beyond a narrowly specialized community points to a very interesting direction that a university’s publisher reasonably ought to pursue.[9]

Continuum publishing in its second meaning also refers to the adoption of production modalities that ensure that content presented in academic monographs or journal articles (whether in printed or digital form), can be transformed selectively, at relatively low cost, and of course, where the intellectual property regime permits, so that it contributes again, perhaps with some translation, to an encyclopedia or an educational or general audience publication that may be produced by the university’s publisher. This narrower usage anticipates a world in which publications need to be disseminated in different formats, adopting different technical regimes, and also one in which value is derived as it is increasingly in the music and film industries from the pieces of a production as well as from the production itself.

5. Ensuring effective business operations

The planning process has also helped develop my own sense of the myriad ways the university’s publisher can operate as efficiently as possible in order to survive, indeed flourish, in a fast-evolving industry. No surprises here. There is considerable emphasis on retaining locally only those functions that can be performed uniquely by the university’s press to its business advantage and sourcing others in partnership or with third parties under robust service level agreements. With the exception of a small handful of functions—acquisitions/editorial, peer review, business and strategic planning—nothing is deemed above scrutiny.[10] The university’s publisher requires a warehouse for its physical stock, a platform for its online journals, and capacity to market overseas. It does not require these functions to be performed in house. Indeed, there is an advantage to seeking third-party, collaborative, or partnership arrangements in all but the most essential functions—in squeezing every economy out of routine business, administrative, and other practices in order to support functions that promise to grow the value of the enterprise. Such relationships are already well apparent in university-based publishing in shared warehousing, platforming, and other relationships, for example. While lacking very significantly in Delphic properties, I may imagine the following: the number and scope of partnership, outsourced, and collaborative operations that university-based publishers maintain will increase over the next decade; and while these arrangements will achieve efficiencies, they will not drive operating costs down to the level that large-scale commercial publishers are able to achieve owing to the ever-increasing scale of their operations.

Two areas that the university’s publisher cannot outsource or rely wholly on third-party or collaborative arrangements for were also identified. One is research and development capacity. This is largely absent or only supported on the margins, even though it is an essential capacity that will be required to explore and support promising new forms of scholarly communication and assess the efficacy and potential impact of new technologies. Strategic and business planning is also largely absent or limited. In businesses that operate on small margins and that lack the investment capital found in larger enterprises, such functions are typically assumed by a leadership team, perhaps in consultation with the board. Undertaken as a shared responsibility, they do not receive the attention and expertise that is required in an industry that is so much in flux and so rapidly evolving.

6. Exploring the “green” in open access

Discussion around this topic has been rather subdued, not because it is unimportant, but because un-gated modes of distribution have been examined tactically as means of supporting other more strategic objectives. Three such objectives are particularly compelling and seem to be advanced through open-access forms of publishing:

  • Cost-containment (where the university is able to leverage its own open-access publishing and that of other institutions in order to reduce library and student textbook expenditure on academic monographs, textbooks, and journals)
  • Advancing the university’s public service mission (for example, by making research results available to a taxpaying public)
  • Putting the publisher, through its management of an internally facing institutional repository, in touch with innovative forms of scholarly communication and the business opportunities that may be derived from them

Open access is not an end in itself but part of a portfolio strategy for ensuring that the publisher’s revenues are sufficient to offset its cost. In some instances, it is a loss leader capable of generating more in new revenues than are lost through those foregone in open access distribution. In others, it is advertising (or is it advocacy?) for the publisher and its university. In this light, it is adopted as a matter of policy—that is, the objective of making publications openly accessible in some form wherever possible. Like going green in the building industry, going open in academic publishing, in a well thought-out manner, makes increasingly good business sense.

The university’s publisher remains just one of several publishing options for its faculty, along with other nonprofit and commercial presses as well as an increasing array of less formal means of scholarly communication. This range of choices is essential to maintaining a strong scholarly communications system, but the university’s publisher serves critical roles by:

  • Showcasing (in perhaps a distinctive imprint or series) work of high priority to the university and making it readily available to the public in a manner that demonstrates its relevance and significance
  • Publishing works of particular interest to a regional constituency
  • Contributing to public awareness of an institution’s value
  • Experimenting with new forms of publishing that promise to advance research and understanding in selected disciplines, and/or to extend access to or improve engagement with scholarly knowledge
  • Making scholarly information, whether it is developed for academic or general audiences, available openly via the web as an extension of the university’s public service mission

As university-based publishing expands, becomes more diverse in its forms, and assumes greater importance within the broader constellation of scholarly publishing, coordination and strategic planning become critical. They leverage editorial, production, business, and publishing systems and services to expand (and where necessary contract) its own editorial programs in concert with the university’s research priorities. It emerges in this regard as something much different from the university’s printer (what a wasted opportunity that would be; what an investment in so rapidly disappearing function), as a vehicle for assuring the academic quality, cost-effective production, widespread distribution, and evolving innovation of a wider range of university-based scholarly publications. Benefits include:

  • A higher profile with the public for the university’s research results
  • Assurance of quality control in publications that bear the university’s name (by leveraging existing processes that organize effective peer review)
  • Publishing decisions that are driven by both quality and business strategy
  • Economies of scale (which only increase as investments are made in publishing capacity that is centralized in and managed by the university’s publisher)
  • Pooling investment that is currently distributed across academic departments, libraries, and other units within the university to support publishing innovation, and directing their expenditure in a manner that ensures the greatest possible impact
  • Most crucial, a more openly accessible tranche of scholarship than is presently available

To accomplish these goals effectively, the university’s publisher takes a leadership role in developing and implementing a coordinated publishing strategy for the university. It emerges as something much more than a stand-alone business entity with some or other level of central subsidy. It collaborates with a range of partners, including libraries, research units, scholarly societies, and cultural institutions in the way that many university presses already do. But there is a critical difference. The university’s publisher has a wider scope of decision-making and budgeting authority over the sum-total of activities that contribute to its implementation of the university’s publishing strategy. It emerges within the university quite closely aligned with the leadership. In different universities, it may take on slightly different organizational forms, reporting through different channels in the hierarchy depending on local history, circumstance, and personalities. But its form will at once follow and support its function—articulating and then making difficult budget trade-off decisions about what publishing directions and approaches will and will not be pursued. The university’s publisher remains an academic publisher that adheres to an historic mission. It emerges as an asset that advances and helps to frame a university’s strategic agenda.

Daniel Greenstein is Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Programs at the University of California’s Office of the President. Prior to joining UCOP in 2007, he was director, respectively, of the California Digital Library, the Digital Library Federation, and the U.K.’s Arts and Humanities Data Service. He holds degrees from the Universities of Pennsylvania and Oxford and began his career as a Professor of Modern History at the University of Glasgow.


    1. Analysis of university use of unrestricted funds is available in Daniel Greenstein, “Strategies for Sustaining the University Library,” Portal 10, no 2(April 2010) from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/pla/summary/v010/10.2.greenstein.html.return to text

    2. These include UC Press trade titles that touch on topics relating to California society and culture and/or reflecting areas of research and teaching interest at the University of California; CDL’s experience of Calisphere (http://www.calisphere.universityofcalifornia.edu/), which selectively gathers digitally reformatted materials from archives, museums, and special collections and packaged it thematically to support K-12 curricula in California studies; and CDL/UC Press experience with UCVerse (http://climatechange.universityofcalifornia.edu/), aggregating UC-based research on climate change in a manner that makes it accessible to non-scholarly or general audience.return to text

    3. Lynne Withey and Catherine Candee, Publishing Needs and Opportunities at the University of California (SLASIAC Task Force on the University as Publisher, 2008 from http://www.slp.ucop.edu/consultation/slasiac/102207/SLASIAC_Pub_Task_Force_Report_final.doc and University Publishing in a Digital Age, June 2009 at http://www.ithaka.org/ithaka-s-r/strategy/university-publishing).return to text

    4. Stanton Glantz, et al, eds., The Cigarette Papers (University of California Press, 1998); Cynthia K. Gillespie, Justifiable Homicide: Battered Women, Self-Defense, and the Law (The Ohio State University Press, 1990). Both works had enormous impact, the former contributing momentum to legal battles, ultimately victorious, against the cigarette industry, the latter in framing legal opinion and shaping judicial decisions.return to text

    5. See https://lcrm.lib.unc.edu/blog/index.php/about/.return to text

    6. Clifford A. Lynch, “Institutional Repositories: Essential Infrastructure for Scholarship in the Digital Age,” ARL: A Bimonthly Report, 226 (February 2003).return to text

    7. For information about California studies, see http://www.uchri.org/page.php?page_id=1252. return to text

    8. Phil Pochoda touches on the importance of regional publishing for public university presses in particular in his “Publishing 2.0: Some theses on the future of academic publishing,” The Journal of Electronic Publishing, 13:1(Winter 2010) from http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/3336451.0013.102. return to text

    9. See http://climatechange.universityofcalifornia.edu/.return to text

    10. But see “The Editorial Fallacy” posted by Joe Esposito on The Scholarly Kitchen where even the centrality of at least some editorial function comes under review (from http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2010/09/08/the-editorial-fallacy/?utm_source=feedburner8utm_medium=email8utm_campaign =Feed%3A+ScholarlyKitchen+%28The+Scholarly+Kitchen%29).return to text