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Who Ought to Underwrite Publishing Scholars’ Books?

New Orleans — At almost any gathering of academic publishers or librarians, you’ll hear someone float the idea—sometimes phrased as a question—that the model for publishing scholarly monographs is broken. Two sets of ideas aired at the Association of American University Presses’ annual meeting, held here this week, don’t say the model is damaged beyond repair. But the proposals, both from groups outside the university-press community, suggest that it needs to be retrofitted, at the least.

One possible approach came from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the other from a task force on scholarly communications run jointly by the Association of American Universities and the Association of Research Libraries. Both raised the question of how to better subsidize the digital publication of scholarly monographs, and both included the notion that faculty authors’ home institutions might do more to help pay for those books to be published. Such support would help deal with what university-press people often call the “free-rider problem,” in which institutions without presses—most of them, in other words—leave it to those with presses to support the system that gives faculty authors publication credentials.

The AAU/ARL task force describes its plan as a “prospectus for an institutionally funded first-book subvention” that would shift the burden of payment to authors’ home institutions. That would “address the principal causes and effects of the market failure for monographs,” the prospectus says. It envisions that colleges and universities would agree to pay for an openly available “basic digital edition” of some faculty members’ first books; scholarly publishers could offer those titles for sale in other formats too.

The plan also envisions that universities with a high level of research activity would offer subventions for three or four books a year, with an “annual subvention exposure” of roughly $68,000 to $73,000. Small colleges would pay for one or two books a year, and offer more modest subventions. (See the table on Page 6 of the prospectus.)

As for Mellon’s approach, Donald J. Waters, of the foundation’s scholarly-communications program, described it in an email as “a set of ideas to stimulate discussions with a broad range of constituents—presses, scholars, university leaders, libraries, and others.” In  late May the foundation sent out a request for proposals to the AAUP’s member presses, soliciting ideas for partnerships that would make it easier to publish scholarship digitally. Mr. Waters’s presentation at the AAUP meeting explored several options, including the possibility that Mellon could provide seed money to universities to pay for the digital publication of some faculty members’ work and to make it openly accessible online.

Gregory M. Britton, editorial director of the Johns Hopkins University Press, moderated the AAUP session. Afterward, he shared some thoughts via email.

“It’s interesting that these ideas come from outside the university-press community, but that proponents of each have been quick to recognize that university-press participation is essential for its success,” Mr. Britton said. “I am pleased publishers have been invited into the conversation.”

But it’s not just publishers who need to be persuaded. “These plans will not work if scholars see these works as lesser than books published under a market-focused model,” Mr. Britton said.

Scholarly publishers will also want “good data on the usage of these books,” he said. “Having them openly available in a central location will ensure that we can measure their ongoing usage.”

Alan G. Thomas, editorial director for the humanities and social sciences at the University of Chicago Press, attended the AAUP session. “Mellon has made clear that this is not an attempt to overturn our model but to supplement it,” he said in an interview afterward. “I see the initiative as a worthwhile experiment.”

Mr. Thomas suggested that university-press editors were intrigued by the ideas being circulated but also have concerns: For instance, how many institutions would really benefit from Mellon seed money, and would it be a diverse enough group? With either the Mellon or the AAU/ARL approach, would university administrators instead of press editors decide which books got singled out for support?

“Many of the university-press editors believe it would be better for the presses to make the selection,” Mr. Thomas said, because the presses have a better sense of which fields would benefit most from open-access publication.

University presses will be watching closely to see how both the Mellon and AAU/ARL conversations develop over the next few months. Mellon’s call for proposals sought the submission of preliminary statements of interest by August 1.

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