Academic publishing must go digital to survive



Most forms of publishing across the globe are in a state of flux. But university-based scholarly publishing faces a set of challenges all of its own. How can an industry whose target audience is so highly specialised remain viable, as funding dwindles and technology changes so quickly?

Last year, the Book Industry Strategy Group called for the government to provide financial support to establish a national university press network.

But is the proposed funding structure in the best interest of Australian scholars and the dissemination of Australian scholarship?

The call for more funding for scholarly publishing is not novel. Monograph publishing in the humanities and social sciences has always relied on funding to produce and distribute publications of highly specialised research aimed at narrow audiences.

The plight of publishing

With few exceptions, university presses around the world have been plagued by financial difficulties since the 1970s. The reduction in higher education funding has meant less money for the presses and their major customers – the libraries. The cuts in library budgets, combined with the dramatic price increases of journal subscriptions started a decline in the purchasing of scholarly monographs, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. This continues to the present.

With diminishing customer demand and dwindling financial support from host universities, presses were forced to seek new sources of funding. Some turned to foundations, government agencies and private donors; some ventured into new, money-generating markets of textbook, professional and trade publishing. Other university presses, at Sydney and ANU, for example, were closed down.

Four university presses (MUP, UNSW Press, UWAP and UQP) survived the storm in Australia, but their scholarly publishing programs suffered. The management of these four presses, by and large, focused on books for the general readership and abandoned the traditional lifeblood of academic monograph publishing in an attempt to make the presses commercially viable and save them from closure.

These presses not only survived, but have become established cultural institutions that contribute greatly to the intellectual and political life of Australia. But their contributions rarely belong to the world of scholarly publishing as defined by the requirements of HERDC (Higher Education Research Data Collection) and ERA (Excellence of Research for Australia).

The rise of the e-press

But scholarly publishing in Australia has been happening outside traditional models. Over the past 10 years, several universities have reopened or established publishing programs based on new technologies and business models.

ANU ePress, Sydney University Press and Monash University Publishing publish close to 100 scholarly books a year and have an active backlist of more than 700 titles.

The new presses are financially supported by their host universities, though none of them can match the alleged operating subsidy of $1 million MUP receives each year. The degree of institutional support they receive varies and they experiment with different combinations of paid and free access to content in print and digital environments. They are commercial publishers operating on a not-for-profit basis.
Beyond the bookshop

The new generation of university presses has largely dispensed with the traditional methods of mass printing as not suitable for scholarly books that tend to have specialist and limited audiences. Instead, the majority of titles are available as free-to-download digital files or as print-on-demand books, ensuring important, publicly funded research is available to the general public and never goes out of print.


Close to half of Sydney University Press’ sales come from local independent and campus-based booksellers, and library suppliers.

But the traditional distribution of titles via bookshops is rarely satisfactory for publications primarily aimed at other scholars, often based overseas.

Scholarly books with limited general readership appeal require more targeted and strategic approach centred on reviews in scholarly journals, direct marketing to the scholarly community and libraries.

Open access

Undoubtedly, open access is one of the best tools used to ensure the broad dissemination of scholarship. SUP’s top-downloaded book, Let Sleeping Dogs Lie? by Simon Chapman has had more than 10,000 downloads since its release in 2010. In 2011, there were over four million total downloads of ANU ePress titles.

As recent debates in The Australian demonstrate, the proponents of traditional, print-based models of scholarly publishing are losing touch with the modern system of scholarly communication. Researchers want the products of their research activity to appear promptly, in a digital format and with a creative commons licence so that they can share them with colleagues and students without infringing copyright law.

It’s not only the publishing industry, but also government bodies who are slow to recognise changing paradigms. As Colin Steele has recently written, government policy towards open access remains fragmented and inconsistent.

The way forward

The conflict between commercially driven national university press network proposed and the digital, open access model developed by not-for-profit university presses is part of a wider debate about the future of scholarly publishing and the ownership of research output.

Should it remain in the hands of commercial publishers? Or should it be in the hands of open access advocates? Should government funding go towards supporting traditional university presses and their profits, or towards supporting the dissemination of Australian scholarship? How should we encourage further research and expansion of knowledge?

The model proposed by e-presses is surely the more efficient and successful way to publish and disseminate the research output of Australian scholars. It is the future of scholarly publishing.