Why Academics Should Publish Books With University Presses

I discovered that last Friday was publication day for a book of great interest to me: Indigenous Research Ethics: Claiming Research Sovereignty Beyond Deficit and the Colonial Legacy, an edited collection out of New Zealand and published by Emerald. In hardback. For £85. Or as an e-book, for £80.75.

I have been cross for a while about the ridiculous pricing of some academic publications, and now I’m furious. I really want to read this book, and it’s way beyond my budget. It will be beyond the budget of most independent or precariously employed researchers. And how many Indigenous scholars can afford £85 for a book – or the e-book with a derisory £4.25 reduction?

This pricing is calculated for academic libraries. It is closed access in book form. The publisher can claim they are supporting Indigenous researchers and scholars and, sure, those whose work is published in this book get a new line on their CV which may help them in their career. But their work is not going to be widely read, used, and cited by others. Because, guess what, academic libraries are experiencing budget cuts. I was chatting on social media with a senior academic who had asked her university library to get this book, and whose library had said no, that’s above our threshold now.

This is of course n=1, so let’s take a wider look. I’ve been doing some research into the practices and economics of academic publishing – and it’s horrifying. Of course books and journals are inextricably linked, but I can’t cover both in one post, so I’m focusing on books today; journals in a couple of weeks’ time.

Broadly, academic publishers can be divided into three categories:

  1. for profit and part of a bigger business;

2. stand-alone independent for profit; and

3. not for profit.

In general, the scholarly publishing industry makes a 35-40% profit margin. Walmart makes 3%. Publishers that are part of bigger businesses are usually part of global corporations who divert a proportion of any profit to their shareholders. In such corporations, the academic publishing arm is often so profitable that it is propping up other parts of the business.

A lot of scholars are completely unaware of how this works. Most scholars in the social sciences and the humanities have heard of the book publisher Routledge; most STEM scholars have heard of CRC Press. Some know that one or other is part of the academic publisher Taylor & Francis. Few understand that Taylor & Francis is part of Informa, a global corporation in the FTSE 100, huge, wealthy, growing – and making good money for its shareholders. Taylor & Francis isn’t a little bit of Informa, it is the second biggest of five divisions, and, according to the 2019 annual report, is showing ‘good levels of growth’. In 2019 Taylor & Francis’ revenue was £560m, and its adjusted operating profit was £218m. Part of this was due to ‘a steady performance in books’ – 7,300 books, in fact, that year. E-books accounted for 31% of the year’s total book sales.

I found a vaguely equivalent book on Routledge’s website: Social Science Research Ethics for a Globalizing World: Interdisciplinary and CrossCultural Perspectives, another edited collection. The hardback price is an eye-watering £125, but at least there is a less expensive paperback (£36.99) and e-book (£33.29). They’re still outside my budget, though – my ceiling is £30. (Full disclosure – I could buy the paperback with my Routledge author discount. But we can’t all write for all of the publishers. And these prices are still very high for a 350-page book.)

By contrast, UCL Press is a fully open access press. It is run by a working group of the UCL Library Committee, and has published 184 books since it was established in 2015. And those books are all fully open access. Which means free. Free to download, free to read.

Not, sadly, free to write, though – at least, not for all authors. Publication is free for people working at UCL, and for their co-authors and co-editors. UCL also cover the publication costs of up to five non-UCL book projects each year. After that, it costs £5,000 to publish a book of up to £100,000 words. This would usually come from research funders, as part of the dissemination strategy for a research bid.

So there is still a huge degree of privilege in operation here. To publish a book with UCL Press you need to be connected with UCL, or very lucky, or funded, or rich. You almost certainly won’t be from the global South. I have been worried for a long time that open access would benefit readers at the expense of writers, and this does seem to be happening. But I understand that, on the whole, this is a step on the way to social good, as it offers good quality academic literature more freely to any reader with an internet connection. Also, UCL Press are offering consultancy and training to other universities that want to set up open access publishers of their own.

There are other OA and scholar-led presses at Goldsmiths, Westminster, Huddersfield and elsewhere. Larger university presses in the UK include Bristol University Press, Liverpool University Press, Manchester University Press and Edinburgh University Press. Then there are the oldest and largest, Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press. And there are many others around the world. Their mission includes making research available to the public, and giving voice to under-represented groups and experiences. Any surplus income they generate goes to support their mission.

You can see the difference, too, when you read the books. Routledge publishes some good books but their production values are not high. They are often poorly edited and with inadequate or no index, and their cover designs are basic and repetitive. Policy Press, an imprint of Bristol University Press, also publishes some good books and their production values are much higher. The editing is good, more of their books have good indexes, and their covers are carefully designed.

So, academics, what do you want for your books? Do you want them to be well constructed and made available to as many people as possible, by an organisation with a mission to help make that happen? Or do you want them to be averagely constructed and available only through some academic libraries, by an organisation that has a mission to line the pockets of its shareholders?

The recent Open Access Manifesto for Freedom, Integrity and Creativity in the Humanities and Interpretive Social Sciences recommends that scholars in those sectors consider the political and ethical implications of where they choose to publish, and aim for ‘outlets whose values align with your own’. I would recommend that for scholars and researchers in all sectors.

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