By John Sherer

A few weeks ago, it felt like the threats to the work we do at the University of North Carolina Press were coming from all directions.

At a regional SSP panel discussion, a key local collection development librarian in the audience told the university press panelists that declining purchases of our monographs was not primarily due to a lack of financial resources in libraries. Instead, he argued, their analytics indicated our books were not being used enough to justify their acquisition.

That same week, we were confronted with the now familiar question about how to respond to the SciHub-LibGen theft of scholarly texts. Hundreds of our books were suddenly and completely available for free download, potentially depriving us and our authors of the protections and compensation traditionally afforded by these books.

Which threat should I be more worried about? People don’t want our books, or people want them so badly they’ll download them from pirated sites.

This contradiction embodies the fracturing of the transactional funding model for humanities monographs. While deeply imperfect and apparently in crisis for many decades, the system of publishers extracting money in return for the delivery of physical copies of our books essentially funded the solution to an interlocking set of scholarly communications challenges. Book publishers added value by surfacing key manuscripts; improving texts through peer review and various levels of editing; moving research forward in many disciplines; aiding promotion and tenure review; marketing and dissemination of findings; and preserving scholarship in durable and accessible formats.

But with digital editions of our books now widely available, our reflexive efforts to apply the transactional model to the world of digital editions have become nonsensical and sometimes riddled with these kinds of contradictions. Almost from the inception of eBooks, publishers tried using analog antecedents to preserve their revenue and consequently viewed the web as the ultimate battleground in the forever war on piracy. We would do well to admit that the efficiency and scale of the SciHub theft is a trending indicator illustrating how it has never been so hard to fight online piracy, and it will also probably never again be as easy.

STEM journal publishers saw this coming a long time ago and, in order to return maximum value to their shareholders, have been weaning themselves away from the transactional model as their primary source of income. This blog is vigilantly tracking such mission creep, (including Ellen Finnie’s post earlier in the week on an Elsevier IR pilot at the University of Florida; and Kevin Smith’s post on the SSRN sale) and calling it out exactly for what it is—an attempt to broaden the control publishers have over all versions of scholarship in order to better manage access and leverage analytics. It takes a lot of resources (as well as sheer ambition) to spread even further the command and control publishers are trying to exert over the web-based tools being developed to share scholarship.

University presses don’t have access to such resources and therefore couldn’t dream of waging that battle even if we wanted to. And why would we really want to invest in barriers to access? Rather than dreading it as a facilitator of piracy, wouldn’t we be better off if we could use the unique qualities of the web to disseminate our books in ways that were unimaginable even a few short years ago?

In the world of information abundance, limiting access and erecting pay-wall feels like an odd way for publishers to stake their claim for a value proposition. Where humanities publishers need to discernibly add value is in our ability to meaningfully transform manuscripts into more valuable works of scholarship. Frankly, if we could spend less time worrying about formats and piracy and cost-recovery, we could redouble our focus on the invaluable tasks we are singularly positioned to manage (e.g., curation, editing, dissemination, credentialing, discoverability).

The immediate challenge, of course, is the funding question. If presses give away digital, can they afford to keep publishing? There is one encouraging trend indicating this might not be as economically disruptive as it first appears. The annual Ithaka Faculty Survey indicates that while even humanities scholars want to use digital tools to start research and discover new scholarship, deep engagement with a text still needs to happen with a physical format. If a persistent fractional audience of users will buy print even when digital is free, then our new business model should be trying to create the largest possible pool of potential discoverers.

Which brings us back to Sci-Hub, and a potential new way of seeing all of this. No one should interpret the following rhetorical questions as an apology for these pirated activities. On a campus where an epic academic scandal was triggered by individuals going rogue to achieve a (arguably) moral aim, I have no sympathy for the steal-first, justify-later model. There’s a better way to achieve our collective goals than that. But could one of the outcomes of this theft actually be an increase in sale of print versions of our stolen books? Could we try not worrying about piracy and learn to love the ease of our books circulating freely in the open web?

Comments (1)

  1. Amen, brother! This is an argument I’ve been making for about three decades now. You’ll find echoes of it in the talk I gave to a plenary session of the AAUP annual meeting in 1991 titled “Back to Basics” (meaning that presses in their efforts to play a broader cultural role as publishers of fiction, regional books, trade books, etc., should not lose sight of their primary mission as publishers of scholarly monographs), in the effort we made in the CIC to start an OA monograph publishing project in the early 1990s, and in the Statement on Open Access (focusing on monographs) I drafted for the AAUP during my presidency in 2007/8. But not many people were listening back then. I also was one of a small minority of press directors who felt that the market model had outlived its usefulness and begun to distort the mission of presses by influencing editorial decisions too much. But the kind of challenges mentioned here should make it clear to everyone that the time has come to shift university press publishing toward an OA model, and fortunately we have more real experiments under way now at Amherst, California, Michigan, and elsewhere. As for value added, I identified nine different ways that acquiring editors alone add value in an essay titled “Listbuilding at University Presses” as the final chapter in the volume “Editors as Gatekeepers” (Rowman and Littlefield, 1994), which is now freely accessible on the web. And that is only one type of value added that presses provide.

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