/ University Presses in the Ecosystem of 2020


University presses exist not only within a scholarly ecosystem, but within the larger context of the biological (and economic) ecosystem. By 2020, university presses may well be struggling within an economy fundamentally disrupted by collapsing biological ecosystems. In this essay, Jensen explores what that might mean to university presses, universities, and scholarly publishing.

If only university presses were in control of our destinies.

But we are not. Instead, we face a future of constant adaptation to changes that are unpredictable, of uncertainty because the rules have changed, of a strange landscape without maps or landmarks.

And that’s true of university presses, too—not just humankind as a whole....

I intend to take a different angle to the “rethinking the university press” theme of this issue. It’s true that university presses have to rethink our production systems in light of XML and digital presentation; find more ways of maximizing the potential of the web and e-books; develop and promote e-books for retail as bundles with their print books, while continuing to provide print books to print-centric customers; integrate our publications more closely with our scholars’ digital activities; blend our missions with our institutional libraries’ and scholars’ missions; and apply appropriate openness to promote scholarship while still balancing sustainability.

And of course institutions need to find ways to help their university presses continue to undertake what is essentially a very efficient act: the validation of scholarship by selective publication of high-value works, a task that a bureaucracy (or even a crowdsourced solution) would likely do less efficiently or well.

These are the sorts of themes I’ve written and spoken about for years,[1],[2], [3] and they’re all part of the shift to new methods for manifesting the mission of university presses.

But what I want to address in this essay is the landscape within which those innovations will be undertaken, in the next decade or two. As we think about the future of scholarly publishing in the digital arena, we also need to acknowledge—even try to mentally predict—the likely ecosystems within which we’ll be innovating: not just the metaphoric ecosystems of scholarly communications within a culture awash in technological wizardry, but the world’s real-life economy, within a real-life biological ecosystem.

For a couple of decades, we’ve all been watching the two vines of cultural and technological changes become entwined. Culture drives demand, and technology supplies, while creating new demands. These supply/demand interactions got us the web, and got us Twitter+Facebook apps on an iPad or Android phone, and got us the open access and open source movement. These are all important developments, but importantly, they evolved during a period of general economic and environmental abundance (the current recession notwithstanding).

Most of us presume that, apart from that troublesome recession, society will just keep marching forward, like we’ve been marching the last twenty to fifty years, and that the mainstays of what we’ve always known will remain generally true. You know, like “house prices will always rise, as they always have historically.”

I don’t think that such a “status quo with benefits” future is likely. In the short term—perhaps the next three to seven years—we’ll be able to continue to pretend that everything’s normal—just like we’ve been pretending, in policy and practice, that 95 percent of climate scientists just might have it wrong.

However, I’ve come to believe that the marketplace, the economy, the basis on which we have been making so many of our decisions, actually has no clothes, and that the greater likelihood is one of dramatic nakedness. This will have profound effects on university presses—not to mention effects on this essay.

For the last three years, in my spare time, I’ve been coauthor of a project[4] that has been collecting (and making jokes about) news stories that are indicators of five environmental collapse scenarios—species collapse, resource depletion, biology breach, climate chaos, and infectious outbreak—as well as one recovery scenario. We’ve read, considered, and be-quipped more than five thousand news items. We’ve been paying, to our detriment, very close attention to the signs and portents of environmental collapse—the studies, analyses, and conclusions of scientists.

It doesn’t look good. Overall, we’ve overshot our world’s resources, using them up much faster than they can recover. And in the boom times of the last few decades, we’ve put systems in place—profit motives, giant centralization, organizational inertia—that virtually guarantee that we’ll continue to overshoot, and virtually guarantee, I fear, that we’ll be facing a collapse of the economy that we’ve mistaken for an ecosystem.

What does this have to do with reimagining the university press in a digital future?, you may ask.

As the famous sign at the Clinton headquarters should have said: “It’s the ecosystem, stupid.”

If you’ve been paying attention to pollinator collapse, overfishing, GMO drift, the plastic gyres, the growing dead zones, the extinction rates, the invasive species, the weather extremes, the melting glaciers, the water shortages, the endocrine disruptors, the toxins bioaccumulating up the food chain... well, then you’d be nodding in agreement. But you’d be in the tiny minority. Who wants to think about that stuff, when there’s a budget to prepare, a mortgage to pay, a smartphone with a really compelling YouTube feed on it?

But those signs and portents are all representative of converging emergencies, of likelihoods that are largely absent in most long-term planning at the corporate, institutional, political, or personal levels. And as these dominos begin to fall in mid- to late decade, the impact on the economy—which is a semi-fiction based on the presumption of endless growth, in an endlessly resilient environment—will be profound.

Plenty of others have gone down this road of the-end-is-nigh, from Malthus to Lovelock, and so far, the sky hasn’t fallen. Further, this essay is not the natural place to address the interrelationships of warming oceans, dying coral, monocrops and corporate farming, antibiotic resistance, hermaphroditic fish, amphibian collapse, climate chaos, dead zones, and the rest. This is, after all, an essay about university presses.

It would be easy for me to say “read my [free] book”[5] for an overview of why I’m willing to take, as my thesis, something that could well get me laughed at, in 5 to 10 years (note: if that happens, I will be very pleased). I could easily spend a few thousand words here, bolstering that argument. But for the purposes of this essay, let’s imagine I’m possibly right, that a thousand days of daily investigation may lead to useful conclusions, and let’s then explore the possible impacts of an ecosystem and economic collapse on university presses, over the next decade or two.

If I’m right, I expect to see, by the end of the decade, a rapidly growing realization worldwide of how much we have damaged, and how much is likely beyond repair. Climate chaos will drive much of the discussion; a stiff carbon or energy tax seems to me inevitable late in the decade, beyond even the effects of the fear (or reality) of “Peak Oil,” Peak Water, Peak Soil, and Peak Biomass.

Other aspects, beyond climate chaos and peak resources—notably increasing disruptions in formerly stable biological systems in the oceans, forests, and fields—will also create economic havoc: droughts, pest explosions, invasive species gone wild, biological collapse, and the expectation of plenty more havoc, as the oceans rise, the permafrost melt releases potent greenhouse methane, and the phytoplankton wither.

The hard recognition, that we can’t just remortgage our future yet again, will be traumatic to our futures-based economy. The stock market, on which most foundations, university endowments, and retirement funds depend, will acknowledge the disruption by contracting. Wall Street hates uncertainty, after all, and ecosystem disruptions of the magnitude I expect will create mammoth regulatory and economic uncertainty, and a tremendous upheaval in expectations.

There will be economic winners, of course, but endowments and foundations, not to mention state and local budgets and tax revenue, will be unlikely to be among them.

So, let me posit two dystopian economic/scholarly publishing futures, and explore what they might mean for university presses.

In both scenarios, on the positive side, by 2020, I expect to live in digital ubiquity, where digital “devices” are as quaint as a vacuum-tube stereo, since we each have a digital presence that simply surrounds us. My personal engagement with the digital world is by now facilitated by the systems’ knowledge of the activities, interests, concerns, and enthusiasms of the other seven thousand people just like me, who are each also “one in a million.” We will have almost forgotten that once upon a time we had to ask a question with “key words.” Walls and kiosks and foldable screens and NetSpecs will provide access to whatever degree of content bandwidth we desire, for whatever purposes we choose.

For university presses, in both scenarios, I expect to see routine “smart crowdsourcing” of peer review, and see the publication of deep, field-wide interrelationships between geographically distant researchers’ resources and ideas. I also expect to see universities striving to find financial resources to match the needs and desires of academe. In both scenarios, tenure and review remain necessary elements of scholarly validation, and the desire for high-quality, high-touch, high-authority products, produced by publishers and facilitating authority for that validation, remain high.

The above presumptions are the good parts: I expect that by 2020, personal information technology will become truly personalized, as well as quite virtual. I expect to spend much of my working life in an online virtual space populated by my colleagues, and with a virtual “office” that people can “visit” or “call.” These sorts of technologies will be leveraged by scholars and by universities for scholarly purposes. University presses will respond accordingly.

The technology trajectory is pretty clear. The cultural and economic context, however, is not so clear, because the future horizon we will behold in 2020 depends greatly on the choices we make in the next five to seven years.

To address those cultural and economic contexts, I’ll posit two possible futures, below, and try to depict strategic scenarios based on the choices we make as a society, in the next five to seven years, from 2011 to 2018.

Dystopia 2020

The first and worst scenario is one where no great cultural and social changes happen in the next five to seven years. Political squabbling, vested interests, and status-quo protection paralyze governments, while corporate-driven propaganda sows enough doubt to prevent a groundswell of support for substantive change, leading portfolio managers and university administrations—and the rest of us—to mostly act as if all were “normal.” We will then dither another few years, hoping that the catastrophes occurring with increasing frequency are just periodic readjustments.

By 2020, in this dystopian future, I believe we’ll see an economic collapse of significant proportions, as every equation is forcibly changed by food shortages, stock market crashes, and a worldwide depression. As a species, we will be caught by surprise over and over, as a weather extreme, a key species collapse, an endocrine disruption, a new dead zone, or a fishery collapse create a cascade of hardships. It will be as if we’ve randomly cut off three of our ten fingers—two of which just might be thumbs. Society will react in paroxysms, rather than with measured adaptation.

For university presses, that economic landscape is bleak, because it will be bleak for public expenditure overall. There will be dramatically less discretionary money in every pocket, every budget, every foundation. Dramatically fewer books will be bought, in any format, because people will be worrying more about hyperinflation and planting backyard potatoes than in books, especially when the web is free. Library purchases will continue to be sucked dry by the commercial publishers’ contractual quarterly earnings demands, and so even fewer monographs will be purchased, whether digital or print; universities will be cutting programs everywhere, as student enrollment crashes.

Even in this scenario, digital communications will remain robust—may even prosper—but the business models of content sales will not. That is, digital scholarly society may prosper, but a publication sales model won’t be part of it, and the scholarly society will be weaker for it.

Further, universities now strapped for tuition income, state or endowment support, or research funds, may well be so disrupted that university presses will be left with neither patrons nor customers. Nevertheless, the historical expectation held by many administrations that a university press can be a self-sustaining “profit center,” by simply selling more books, will mean that the few remaining subsidies for university presses will be permanently cut.

In this scenario, many university presses will operationally disappear. Some functions of raw dissemination will be absorbed within institutional offices of libraries or IT, à la institutional repositories, but the added values of editorial selection and enhancement, production and design coordination, rights management, and the like will be seen by budget-conscious university officers as a luxury, especially when all core staff and faculty have already taken a dramatic pay cut. The strongest university presses within the strongest universities will remain strong, but the biodiversity of the scholarly publishing ecosystem will be profoundly diminished.

Publishing innovation, in this scenario, will be nearly all reactive, a sort of whack-a-mole tamping-down of the next unexpected problem. By 2020, when it is crystal clear that repair of the physical world is nearly impossible (and/or when geoengineering schemes have caused massive “unintended consequences”), the economic contraction will be staggering. Beyond that, there be tygers.

Dystopia Lite, 2020

If, however, the next five to eight years includes a dramatic awakening to the profound and deep damage we’ve done to formerly resilient ecosystems, and a recognition that difficult measures must be taken now rather than later, then there may be hope for at least an interesting future. I’m not predicting utopia, but merely “dystopia lite.”

In this scenario, by 2015, active steps are already being taken to recast society. Whether it’s carbon taxes, toxin fees, the rise of the anticonsumer economy, sustainable energy development, or the “slow-living movement”—or a combination of these and more—it creates economic and cultural motivations for large changes in societal efficiencies. Worldwide, a conscious restructuring of society to be resilient, sustainable, and clean leads to a different direction to the future.

By 2020, there will likely still be a worldwide disruption but not nearly as deep; there will still be droughts and famine, floods and fires, but the rest of the world can respond. The stock market has had five extra years to readjust itself, as have industries and institutions. As we recast our post-excess systems, we’ll have had the flexibility to be able to ask ourselves, “What makes sense to retain from the past, in this new future we’re required to build?”

In this “lite” dystopia, institutional strategy is proactive, rather than reactive. Deans, provosts, budget officers, librarians, press directors, scholars, faculty, and others come to collective, tentative agreements on what needs to be retained from the current scholarly publishing and communication system, to maximize both efficiency and quality as we move forward. Some of these discussions, independent of a wider social awakening, are happening now in forward-thinking campuses such as Michigan, California, Pennsylvania, and others, striving to reframe the mechanisms of scholarly publishing. But these tend to be exceptions rather than the rule, at least as of 2010.

In this dystopia-lite scenario, university presses survive, though they are changed. By 2020, open access of relatively raw “content” has gradually become the default, with costs underwritten by a variety of local institutional support, cross-institutional subsidy, and some sales of selected value-added versions of raw scholarship (also known as publications) to individuals and institutions.

Market demand (the invisible crowdsourced hand) will still determine what content might become a salable product, with all the attendant marketing, design, enhancement, and the rest. The salable product—the potentially salable content objects—are just books by another name.

For a scholar, having a book that is treated by a university press as a salable (rather than merely digitally distributed) product will likely have become, by 2020, as much a tenure-enhancing icon as a hardback monograph is in our current scholarly vernacular. That is, by risking a serious commitment of staff, energy, and funds, based on the perceived significance and market interest in the work, a university press will still confer authority and value upon a work, regardless of the technological underpinning.

To make this happen, library-press consortia will cross institutions, and more cooperative arrangements between presses will become required, in order to provide scholars with the sorts of materials—and venues—that they desire. Disciplinary hubs of content built by multiple presses will have become nearly normal. Institutional support via campus subscriptions to university press–published material provides a baseline budget for sustainability for university presses. “Market demand,” by this time, may be audience driven in ways we can’t currently conceive (crowd-sourced voluntary investment in ideas, anyone?), but presses will necessarily listen, and respond, and will find ways to meet the scholarly and societal demand.

In this dystopia-lite scenario, innovation in scholarly communications and publishing in 2020 will be driven by both necessity and opportunity. Our ubiquitous digital world will be always on—“telecommuting” will be so much the norm that it’s just what we do. Food will still be much more expensive than it used to be, as will all consumer goods, but society will, in general, still have some time and money for the luxury of thought.

In this scenario, I suspect that the for-profit digital ecosystem—the paywall-driven system—will contract, because surplus money will be at such a premium. But otherwise, the nonprofit and educational digital ecosystem could, in many ways, be made more robust than ever, to the benefit of all parties concerned.

University Presses: 2020

What university presses have always done—in times of plenty as well as times of shortage—is help scholarship make a mark on the world, by increasing the impact of academic output. The business models have changed somewhat over the last century, but sustainable dissemination of scholarly output, by whatever means the economy allows, has always been the goal.

Today, university presses are a key part of a scholarly communications enterprise that performs a key social service, to help civilization gain access to the work of true specialists, the people who have spent more than Gladwell’s ten thousand hours developing true expertise in a field. Not pundits, not famous talking heads, but scholars and experts. I expect the same to be true tomorrow.

If university presses are to continue to fulfill that fundamental mission, we will need to rethink our roles and partnerships—in preparation for not only a radically universal digital environment of knowledge ubiquity, but (even if I’m only half right) a radically disrupted economy and ecosystem.

Whether the 2020 scenario is dystopia, or dystopia lite, universities and their presses will need to be not just innovative, but consciously innovative, redesigning the scholarly publishing ecosystem for resilience. We need to be sure that we can continue to serve that valuable role of disseminators of scholarly expertise, even in the face of a large-scale, radical worldwide contraction.

Especially in the face of such a contraction, when you come down to it.

Because unless I’m wrong—which as I said, I dearly hope I am—by 2020, we’ll need all the expertise we can get.

Michael Jon Jensen has been at the interface between digital technologies and scholarly/academic publishing since the late 1980s. In 2007, he was appointed Director of Strategic Web Communications for the Office of Communications of the National Academies and National Academies Press. Prior to this appointment, he served as Director of Web Communications for the National Academies (2002–2007), and Director of Publishing Technologies (1998–2007) at the National Academies Press. This pioneering website makes nearly five thousand books from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council fully browsable and searchable online for free (www.nap.edu). The site receives more than 1.5 million visitors per month, and boasts of some of the most advanced search and discovery tools available on any publisher’s site, most of which were initially developed by Mr. Jensen. In 2001, Michael Jensen received the National Academies’ “President’s Award,” its highest staff honor.


    1. Scholarly Publishing in the New Era of Scarcity, Plenary presentation at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, Philadelphia, 6/2009 (includes YouTube of presentation): http://www.nap.edu/staff/mjensen/.return to text

    2. Evolution, Intelligent Design, Climate Change, and the Scholarly Ecosystem, Keynote speech for the Illinois Association of College and Research Libraries (IACRL) Biannual Meeting, March 30, 2006: http://www.nap.edu/staff/mjensen/iacrl/.return to text

    3. “Intermediation and its Malcontents: Validating professionalism in the age of raw dissemination,” Invited chapter in A Companion to Digital Humanities (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publications, 2005), John Unsworth, Susan Schreibman, and Ray Siemens, editors: http://www.nap.edu/staff/mjensen/blackwell_jensen.htm.return to text

    4. http://www.apocadocs.com.return to text

    5. Humoring the Horror of the Converging Emergencies, 2010, Michael Jensen and Jim Poyser. http://apocadocs.com/book/.return to text