/ Imagining a University Press System to Support Scholarship in the Digital Age


I outline a possible future system of many distributed university presses mainly focused on the editorial production of scholarly monographs, supported by a very small number of digital platforms for managing and delivering these monographs as a database rather than transactionally to academic and research libraries. I also touch on the ongoing evolution of various types of scholarly books into (often much more costly) networked information resources and the implications this has for the overall dissemination of scholarship and the roles of university presses.


This paper begins with a brief survey of the major types of works produced by today’s university presses, considers the problems faced in publishing each type of work, and reflects on the unique contributions of university presses that we might seek to preserve. I then, in keeping with the challenge set to the authors of this theme issue of JEP, jump discontinuously into a perhaps fanciful future and try to envision several aspects of what a system of university presses might look like if we were to design it from scratch today, unconstrained by the past. The system’s viewpoint is very important here; while we must enable a great diversity of independent editorial choices, under realistic assumptions about future resource constraints, this can only be possible if we are fairly ruthless in establishing a system that commoditizes and shares necessary infrastructure, and that eliminates unnecessary overhead whenever possible. In the future that I imagine here, the university press system is largely focused on monographic publications, and maintains a complex relationship to the plethora of electronic research and reference databases that are ever-more essential to supporting scholarship. I also view this new system of university presses as only one part of a portfolio of strategies to support the communication and documentation of scholarship. I don’t claim any particular originality in my vision of the future here; many of these ideas have been “in the air” for some time, and indeed seem to me driven by a certain economic and technological determinism.

It may be helpful to recognize that there’s a complex of what are essentially organizational, business, and cultural problems to be overcome—for these, technology is mostly well understood, and if not in place already is certainly straightforward to develop and deploy. Very strong and determined leadership may be required to force adoption of common technology platforms, shifts to new business strategies and to overcome the appeals to tradition and the carping about the endless minor problems and demands for customization that are presented as insurmountable barriers to change. But then there is a set of what seem to be deep and not well understood intellectual challenges (with a host of surrounding technical and cultural implications and questions) in defining the various digital-world successors to the current scholarly monograph (including, to be sure, something that looks very much like the current printed scholarly monograph) and understanding how these developments situate with regard to the evolution of electronic research and reference resources. We’ve already seen a variety of experiments here, with those focused on digital monographs mostly failures or limited successes, but nonetheless informative; this is going to be a difficult, lengthy process with a very large empirical component. In my discussions about the future of monographic publishing and university presses, I’ve tried to split these deeper and still-open fundamental questions out from the other types of discussion where possible.

Today’s Landscape

The products of virtually all university presses today fall into one of three categories: monographs, journals, and reference/research databases.


Traditionally, it’s been in the monographic sphere that university presses have made truly unique contributions that are essential to academe. By publishing monographs, university presses have ensured the availability of scholarship that otherwise would not have been widely disseminated or preserved (with preservation taking place as a by-product of print publication targeted to research libraries); they’ve vetted and endorsed that scholarship; and they’ve managed deep and specialized editorial processes that have both refined the presentation of that scholarship and, at the same time, often negotiated a balance between exhaustive service to an impossibly narrow readership and accessibility and appeal to a somewhat broader community of readers. These functions—perhaps in a somewhat different mix or constellation—clearly continue to be needed by academe and the scholarly community, particularly in the humanities and in most social sciences. Note carefully that these functions do not require much scale; they are intrinsically labor intensive and actually distribute and replicate across many institutions naturally and fruitfully.

The ability of university presses to continue to perform these functions is threatened by several factors, most notably the continual erosion of viable economics for university press monographs driven by: diminishing sales per title; diminishing or vanishing subventions from host universities and other sources; increasing editorial costs per title; and a toxic stew of issues involving the need to achieve economies of scale, lack of availability of capital resources to support research and development, and the consistent failure to deal effectively with most aspects of the transition or extension of the monograph into the digital realm.


I’ll largely ignore journals in this essay: There is already a massive body of speculation on the future of the scholarly journal, and on questions such as the implications of the emergence and, at least according to my view, probably ultimate but perhaps not exclusive dominance of economic models that enable open access. Traditional university presses bring little that’s unique to the journal, particularly the scientific journal; one might argue that, if there is a signature contribution to be recognized from the university press sector here, it is to slow-publication journals in the humanities where the nature of the articles and their accompanying editorial and peer-review cycles and practices approximate those of scholarly monographs.

I don’t question that it’s desirable to have a range of free and not for profit tools and services that can support individuals, groups, and organizations like scholarly societies wishing to publish journals as well as commercial alternatives. The discussion is muddled by the varying meanings of publish, and the varying ways responsibilities can be distributed among, say, a scholarly society, a platform provider such as Stanford’s Highwire Press (which is not a university press in the usual sense), and a university press or commercial publisher providing part of the production and delivery of the society’s journals. But I think there’s evidence that economies of scale are important in journal publishing, and I remain skeptical of an extensive specialized contribution that requires participation from a large number of university presses. Lower—priced noncommercial alternatives to the commercial players can be provided by a few specialist university presses operating at scale, or perhaps by new non-commercial players like the Public Library of Science.

Reference/Research Databases

But we should not overlook the various electronic reference and research databases that university presses are grappling with, or in some cases abdicating responsibility for. Once upon a time, in the age of print, university presses published books and journals, not “monographs” and journals. These publications included all manner of scholarly encyclopedias, dictionaries, prosopographies, critical editions, collected works, and similar materials. With gathering momentum starting in the 1980s as technological capabilities and costs fell into alignment, many of these “books” began to transition into more natural digital representations that permitted much more flexible access, incorporation of markup to facilitate computational analysis and manipulation of materials, continual incremental update, the economical inclusion of large amounts of image and multimedia materials, and other capabilities, first on CD-ROM and then as networked information resources on the Internet and later the web. The problems with these early electronic “books” have been numerous: the challenge of supporting ongoing life cycle costs, particularly in the context of rapidly obsolete technologies and even standards; the difficulty of defining viable licensing models, especially as we move into an era of diffuse databases, linked data, and open access for core scholarly resources; and the lack of standard, inexpensive platforms to host such works.

University presses have not been the only source of these research and resource databases, indeed probably not even the major source. Granting agencies, both public and private, have underwritten the construction of a vast array of electronic resources both by scholars and by cultural memory organizations over the past two decades. In most cases, the funders exit when the resource is built and has shifted to operational mode, leaving the hosting institution—most often the university library—to shoulder the cost going forward. Hosting institutions must then either absorb the costs themselves—which can easily be hundreds of thousands of dollars per year—or transition the historically free resource to some sort of revenue-generating model (subscriptions, underwriting by heavy users, etc.). Interestingly, while university presses typically at least tried to develop business plans for research databases, though perhaps flawed by unrealistically low cost projections or overly optimistic revenue estimates, it’s only been in fairly recent years that granting agencies have been calling for sustainability plans for the resources that they have been underwriting. And only extremely recently have funding agencies begun to ask for data-management plans in cases where data is a by-product, albeit a key one, to other types of scholarly research (as distinct from grants to specifically construct a data resource).

A little discussed side effect of the evolution of reference works has been an orders-of-magnitude cost increase for many reference works in digital form. Historically, one might purchase a specialized encyclopedia in print for a few hundred dollars; a second edition, obsoleting the first, would likely be decades away if it ever appeared. Today, the same resource in electronic form, with all the additional advantages implied by that electronic form to be sure, might be offered for a license fee of thousands of dollars per year, every year, forever. Given the essentially flat (at best) character of library budgets over time, this implies that there is going to be massive consolidation, a huge reduction in the number of resources available in electronic form. There’s certainly high overhead in producing, marketing, implementing, and maintaining each electronic resource, which will naturally push toward consolidation, toward larger and more comprehensive electronic resources. But we have to ask some questions about price points and diversity of resources, and decide whether we need to engineer a system that can support electronic resources at much lower costs, and what we would have to sacrifice to achieve that. (And as more subgenres of the monograph move digital, we need to be very careful about built-in cost escalation as part of the digital transition.)

There’s every reason to believe that the proliferation of digitization projects and of humanistic inquiry built on information technology and digital content will create a growing flood of research databases. It remains unclear what mix of university presses, libraries, and other types of organizations (scholarly societies, special purpose not for profits, etc.) are best positioned to support the creation, ongoing development, dissemination, and preservation of such resources. But they deserve serious consideration here for several reasons: they provide a great deal of insight into the paths by which monographs may extend into the digital environment and the implications of such evolution; they may come to share common economic models with the monographs of the future; and they will increasingly be interlinked with the monographic literature as underlying evidence, in much the same way that scientific journal articles are now developing a much more formal and complex relationship to the underlying data that supports the article.

University Presses as Monograph Publishers: The Future Landscape

In the future I envision, every research university, and a number of other higher education institutions, have university presses; there are many more than exist today—indeed, we see announcements of launches rather than shutterings of presses. Particularly for research universities, the lack of a university press is something that results in some questioning and discussion during the accreditation process for the university.

In this future, most university presses are relatively small organizations, some almost cottage industry participants. They work with authors to acquire monographs; some presses, probably the larger ones, also work with scholars, librarians, archivists, curators, and information technologists to develop reference and research resources (discussed later in this essay). Presses operate in much closer alignment with the academic programs of their host institutions; it is not uncommon and not suspect to see a typical press draw half of its publications from faculty at its own host institution, helping to ensure a more rational coverage of the range of disciplines that rely on monographs by the overall system of university presses.

A typical monograph is created digitally, and can be viewed digitally, but intellectually is very similar to a traditional printed monograph; it can be randomly accessed, searched by keyword, and can include many images and sound and video clips. But, except for the sound and video clips, if they are present, the typical monograph can be readily reduced to print with little loss. It would be clearly recognizable to any scholar today, or even from 1930, as a scholarly monograph. (Change in this regard will come much more slowly, and is discussed later.)

Printed books are produced only on demand, and by third parties; there are no warehouses, no physical inventory. Universities have taken the lead in the broader publishing industry in making this transition; while it has certainly hurt many traditional bookstores, the economics have been inexorable.

All university presses contract with one of a very small number of platform providers that accept electronic editions submitted by the presses, database them, provide access to their book databases in digital form through university libraries (including ensuring that these databases are indexed by search services such as Google and providing bibliographic records for incorporation in university online catalogs), and make arrangements to ensure they are archived for preservation with services such as Portico or LOCKSS. The platform providers also deal with the authentication and authorization mechanisms that control access to the electronic editions, interfaces to various institutional communities, the interfaces—both technical and contractual—to consumer delivery channels and print on demand services, statistics gathering and reporting, and similar functions. Individual university presses are not involved in engineering access or delivery technology, or in preservation. These platform providers are run either by university consortia, by individual universities, by independent not for profits, or conceivably even by commercial ventures; they incorporate very substantial scale and employ or otherwise have access to serious technical expertise. A possible model of such a platform provider is the “Big Digital Machine” promoted by Indiana University.

We know, and recognize that we know, the major marketplace for these monographs: academic and research libraries; site licenses to large collections reduce overhead and offer economies of scale. At a university press, there is little marketing, other than some placement of review copies and targeted e-mail, really perhaps better characterized as publicity in that it seeks readers rather than purchasers—probably handled by the editor in consultation with the author—and no direct sales or fulfillment, which in turn simplifies financial management. The platform providers include among their services a bridge to the consumer market, making monographs available through Amazon, iTunes, and similar channels on a nonexclusive basis, including library-friendly e-book systems; university presses are not involved in these arrangements except perhaps for setting prices. Prices in general are low. Some presses and some authors also choose to make their books available for free download under a Creative Commons license, either immediately upon publication or after some interval. Systematically, the press has moved away from transactional activities surrounding individual sales of individual books, either by eliminating them or outsourcing them.

Access to the databases of the platform providers is at modest cost to any institution with a contributing university press; other libraries can license access to the databases as well, for a relatively low fee. There are endless vexing details that need to be handled by the governance group for the consortium of universities that operate presses, which oversees the databases hosted by the platform providers, who do not themselves set prices or policies. These details would include questions about ownership vs. access; pricing structures; how to incent presses and how to make sure that they maintain a uniform minimum standard of quality in the monographs that they publish; whether to make subsets of the database available for licensing and, if so, which ones. These issues are generally resolved in such a way that the system can be kept simple, and overhead minimized.

There are other interesting cultural and organizational issues to be overcome as well. The financial arrangements here are designed to force a university to think holistically about its investments in and contributions to the scholarly communications system in academe, and to the dissemination of knowledge in the society as a whole, rather than simply hosting multiple cost-center organizations (the press and the library) that may be working at cross-purposes from a financial or a policy basis. Ideally, a by-product of this system is much improved alignment between the press and the parent institution on policy matters such as copyright, and indeed aggressive leadership from university presses in promoting policies such as fair use.

The presses are financed, typically, by a mixture of institutional subventions, author subventions, and some very modest revenue streams from direct consumer sales and from licensing through the consortium. Ideally, one would like the majority of the funding to be in the form of institutional subvention, perhaps sized using a guideline based on some standard percentage of an institution’s research budget, or library budget, and recognizing that this underwriting is an essential part of an institution’s commitment to disseminating scholarship. At some institutions, the press is part of the library, and the institutional subvention is part of the library’s portfolio of investments in advancing scholarly communication. Some presses make a greater investment in development and the building up of an endowment that is commonplace in the sector today.

Presses are measured on the production cost per book and (less quantitatively) by the quality of the books they produce; their scholarly impact, the reviews, awards, and citations and levels of use their books receive, rather than the number of books published, sales figures, and the scale of the cash flow through the enterprise (including the cross-subsidy of unprofitable monographs by more mass-market oriented titles). Just as the absence of a university press is a subject for discussion in accreditation, we also see ongoing discussions within academe about mechanisms to help assess and ensure the quality of presses, as the health of the press system relies on the maintenance of quality.

The Intellectual Challenge of the Monograph in the Digital Age

Over time, scholars will need to learn when and how to fully adapt the transmission of sustained argument that characterizes monographs to the digital environment, rather than today’s practice of simply using the digital environment to store and transmit what are still, in an intellectual sense, printed monographs. (Note that this same challenge applies for other scholarly genres, such as the scientific journal article.) University presses of the future, as the primary keepers of the monograph, need to be responsive to developments in this area, to support experimentation, and to engage and focus thinking about the issues. Without attempting to be comprehensive or conclusive,[1] I want to conclude this essay by outlining a few of the particularly intriguing opportunities that I see in this area.

First, it’s going to be important to disentangle a great deal of emotional rhetoric (and, some might suggest, fetishizing of the physical book) in order to make progress in understanding the futures of the monograph as genre. I suspect that for some types of argument the time-proven linear monographic form currently in use will continue to prove highly effective; I do not see this form being abandoned in the foreseeable future. For such works, there is a separate issue about how comfortable various individuals are in reading this type of material on paper and on various types of screens and devices; for those who prefer paper, the challenge is to ensure that there are affordable and reasonably convenient print on demand provisions; for those who prefer screens of one sort or another, a diversity of channels for the delivery of digital versions is essential. For most monographs, the economics of traditional mass printing and distribution of physical copies through bookstores simply isn’t working, and it’s likely to get worse rather than better. We should also recognize that science, as well as anecdote, plays a role in this conversation: Studies are being conducted about the comparative retention and comprehension of various types of textual material across paper and various electronic platforms, as well as in the more basic biological, neurological, and psychological principles of reading. The university presses of the future should be helping to advance these principles and approaches.

In terms of specific affordances offered by the digital environment, a few seem quite promising. Material can be organized for various kinds of nonlinear electronic navigation much more flexibly than in print (though it should be recognized that this is not entirely new in the digital world: footnotes, endnotes, appendices, and similar structures have a long history); there are questions both about how to best translate existing practices from print to digital, and about what new practices of navigation and organization are most useful. Linkages between argument and underlying evidence—source documents, data, recorded testimony, etc.—can be much richer and more fluid in the electronic environment; indeed, there are questions about how much underlying evidence should be viewed as being incorporated into a digital monograph. Various kinds of interactive and multimedia material can be incorporated into sustained arguments in much more sophisticated ways than one sees in normal practice today, though in some cases this calls for assumptions about unusual viewing environments or devices; for a hint of what is possible, consider the gap between interacting with an e-book using a Kindle reader today and what can happen in a high-end video gaming environment.

Finally, there are opportunities to explicitly manipulate some of the trade-offs that are inherent in today’s monographs. Often, the editorial and review process that shapes a monograph includes a trade-off between a very lengthy work that is of interest to a very small number of readers and a shorter, more accessible work that will be of interest to a somewhat larger audience. Is it possible, in a digital environment where extra pages are essentially free and the physics of bookbinding irrelevant, to better accommodate both audiences without much extra cost? Is it possible or desirable in some situations to produce a less expensive book by reducing editorial investment (and author revision investment) by deliberately choosing to publish the larger, more specialized and less accessible version of the work?

The usual review and editing process for monographs is very slow and produces a highly polished, highly vetted work. The nature of the review process also ensures that some worthy works never see publication, and that others are in one way or another overtaken by events by the time they are published. In the journal world, there is a fascinating range of experiments with public preprint archives, formal publication with various forms of very quick, very lightweight review and vetting, and post-publication commentary and author revisions; indeed, some of these, such as the ArXiv preprint service, have now expanded well beyond the experimental stage and firmly established themselves in the scholarly communications ecosystem of the relevant disciplines. Yet little consideration seems to have been given to how these ideas might be fruitfully applied in the monograph environment. Experience in the journal world suggests that having the presses involved in these conversations as a constructively engaged cooperator, and even a leader in enabling experimentation, rather than a threatening impediment, would be very desirable. As a related issue, given the apparent ease with which a work can be updated in the digital world, we will need presses to help with the negotiation between authors and audiences about expectations as to when a monograph is “finished” and how and when it is revised.

Electronic Research and Resource Databases: What Roles for Future University Presses?

I believe that a press-centric approach to understanding how the academy should sustain complex electronic research and resource databases is not particularly helpful. Many of these resources don’t have their roots in press-related activities, and actually call for different kinds of editorial and curatorial processes than those applied to monographic materials; some presses will have expertise in this area, but most probably will not. Perhaps the more fruitful question would be: What are the most constructive contributions that the university press of the future can make to the overall challenge academe faces in managing and sustaining a wide range of databases in support of scholarship and the communication of scholarship?

Certainly, it will be important to make press editors available as part of editorial and curatorial teams supporting complex projects when their expertise is relevant. But perhaps the greatest contribution that a press can make is to try to identify and “standardize” or template certain kinds of smaller-scale electronic research or resource works (presumably working closely with platform providers) in such a way that they can be produced under cost structures similar to scholarly monographs rather than high-cost, large-scale specialized resources. These might be works of limited complexity, or works that don’t update often, or at all—imaged collections of manuscripts and digital critical editions seem like promising potential examples. These have not been fashionable in recent years as part of many university press portfolios.

The high-cost, large-scale resources will continue to be a problem at the institutional level. They are costly enough that a direct subsidy is a substantial investment and policy choice. Exclusionary models, such as subscriptions, create huge overhead as well as their own policy issues, and run counter to the fundamental missions of advancing and disseminating scholarship; investments in building barriers are ultimately destructive. Contributory models within which institutional heavy users voluntarily help underwrite operating costs, such as Cornell is currently attempting with the arXiv preprint database, are still not fully proven, though the outlook seems hopeful and I believe making variations on this scheme of support work is of high strategic importance. But contributory support models, even if successful, they will clearly only scale to a limited universe of really major resources. There are no easy answers, and it’s not clear what the presses can do to help directly.

What the presses can hopefully do is to ensure that there continues to be a range of affordable and manageable digital monographic genres that we can afford to see authored in substantial numbers, at least as many annually as today’s crop of monographic titles from the university presses, to help scholars author for these genres when appropriate and to do so productively, and to assist authors and other interested parties (such as funders) in recognizing when their works cross the line from this type of digital monograph into an electronic resource that will be much more costly both to create and sustain.

Some Concluding Thoughts on the Realities of Transitions

I have not in most cases attempted to describe how to move from today’s situation to the future sketched here, and indeed I am not sure how or even if it might be done, short of appointing someone as Master of the Universe and having him or her simply say “make it so.”

My sense is that the urgency lies with the organizational and business problems rather than the deeper issues around the future of the monograph in the digital world; these are being explored, and that exploration will continue, though at some point a more systematic research program and funding strategy will certainly be helpful. One challenge that needs careful consideration is how to avoid making these works subject to suspicion (particularly in tenure and promotion contexts) simply because they are nontraditional; it would be very helpful to have the university presses act as a community here, and that will be easier if they are sharing common technology from the small set of platform providers that I’ve proposed. Much more trivial changes such as a move to print on demand will be challenging enough in this regard, I fear, and could well become a problem if all the presses don’t act together.

A transition to a system like the one I’ve proposed here will clearly be very difficult, if it can be achieved at all, because it will require considerable collective action as well as synchronized risky and radical change by many independent players in a situation where the refusal of individual presses to participate may well provide tactical advantage to the holdouts, at least in the near-term. At least some of the handful of very large and prosperous university presses (which are in some cases also massive commercial enterprises, contributing substantial revenue streams back to their parent institutions) existing today seem likely to at least partially opt out of the community of more modest university presses populating the future I’ve depicted, perhaps to join (at least in spirit) the ranks of commercial publishers. Given the quality and scope of their publications, their absence would certainly threaten the viability of any new system that might emerge. It’s striking to me how these same themes—of how to move from a sort of doomed competition among entirely independent actors to a more fruitful and more collaborative system, and how to deal with a few very large actors who are often atypical and sometimes more similar to commercial players, but who have the ability to block change—emerge in almost every attempt I’ve seen to rationalize and improve parts of the system of scholarly communication over the last few decades.

Any successful transition will clearly require active support—not only funding but also intellectual and political capital—from top-level academic leaders who have today become increasingly estranged from their university presses on too many campuses. In the United States, research universities face a critical challenge in defining their mission—is it just about the creation of scholarship, or does it also include the broadest possible dissemination and the ongoing stewardship of that scholarship?[2] The future sketched here, or any similar future, is only likely to be reached if these research universities, acting both individually and collectively embrace bedrock values that include not just the creation but the dissemination and preservation of scholarship, and back up these commitments with leadership, and with organizational and financial resources.


I’m grateful to Joan Lippincott for some very helpful suggestions on an early draft, to Kaylyn Groves for a superb edit, and to Phil Pochoda for not only his comments but also his patience, flexibility, and encouragement in accommodating a very late paper. I’d also like to recognize the importance of the discussions at a meeting convened by Brad Wheeler on the Indiana University’s proposed Big Digital Machine program in shaping some of my thinking here.

Clifford Lynch has been the Director of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) since July 1997. CNI, jointly sponsored by the Association of Research Libraries and Educause, includes about two hundred member organizations concerned with the use of information technology and networked information to enhance scholarship and intellectual productivity. Prior to joining CNI, Lynch spent eighteen years at the University of California Office of the President, the last ten years as Director of Library Automation. Lynch, who holds a PhD in Computer Science from the University of California, Berkeley, is an adjunct professor at Berkeley’s School of Information. He is a past president of the American Society for Information Science and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Information Standards Organization. Lynch currently serves on the National Digital Preservation Strategy Advisory Board of the Library of Congress and Microsoft’s Technical Computing Science Advisory Board.


    1. For a more extended but now somewhat dated look at the issues, see Clifford A. Lynch, “The Battle to Define the Future of the Book in the Digital World,” First Monday 6, no. 6 (June 2001), http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/864/773.return to text

    2. For a further discussion of this issue, see Clifford A. Lynch, “A Matter of Mission: Information Technology and the Future of Higher Education,” in The Tower and the Cloud: Higher Education in the Age of Cloud Computing, ed. Richard N. Katz ([Boulder, Colorado]: EDUCAUSE, 2008): 43–50, http://www.educause.edu/thetowerandthecloud.return to text