University Press Week 2015: Blog Tour Day 2: John Sherer: The Case for Financial Support of Your University Press

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University Press Week continues with blog tour day 2’s theme of The Future of Scholarly Communication. Today’s posts in the tour are all linked below our special feature, which comes from UNC Press director John Sherer.

The Case for Financial Support of Your University Press

by John Sherer

When universities are asked to be more entrepreneurial, when costs associated with the system of higher education are under greater scrutiny, and when publishers have access to new digital workflow and dissemination tools that make their work more efficient, it is an appropriate time to ask whether university presses should still be receiving subsidies from their parent institutions. And it is understandable that these questions would be particularly focused on public university presses, where subsidies are especially tied to taxpayer funds.

Of course most university presses already operate as one of the more business-like units within a university. At the University of North Carolina Press, our subsidy is at a historic low-point as a percentage of our costs. But there is a critical aspect of our work that market activity cannot—and should not—be supporting: the system of peer review that is an essential hallmark of university press publishing.

In the case of UNC Press, state financial support is not used to directly support individual titles, or even series of books. Rather, these funds are used to subsidize a crucial set of editorial activities that work to guarantee the exceptionally high quality of our publications. As a result, the Press is protected from an array of potential hazards regarding favoritism toward individual authors, disciplines, or modes of scholarship.

Here’s a glimpse of what that editorial process looks like.

Our mandate for scholarly excellence at UNC Press requires that we reject the vast majority of the submissions we receive. We use a rigorous in-house editorial review process that is paired with a blind external peer review. Often reviewers consider manuscripts in original and revised forms over the course of many months. The process then culminates in a third review by our Board of Governors. No marketplace can deliver an ROI on these multiple levels of review. And no outside business consultant would recommend that we perform these activities if we wanted to improve our bottom line.

So if we’re being asked to operate in a market-driven environment, why do we review manuscripts in this way? It is because the editorial integrity of university press publications is vastly more important than their commercial potential. The process strives to guarantee that all of our publications are thoroughly researched, devoid of self-serving agendas, and on the cutting edge of scholarship in their fields.

The irony is that it would actually be easier and less expensive to run a press that published under-researched, polemical books, the likes of which regularly populate nonfiction best-seller lists. In fact, in many scholarly fields, commercial publishers are reaping windfall profits by reducing editorial quality while increasing prices for monographs and textbooks at rates that far outstrip inflation. But such publishing would do little to serve the university or the people of the state of North Carolina. Libraries, students, and scholars already bemoan the high prices charged by commercial publishers for scholarly publications.

In contrast, at UNC Press we have instituted far-reaching price cuts to our digital editions. We have also created an Office of Scholarly Publishing Services to support new campus-born initiatives in the areas of Open Education Resources and Open Access journals. And we are using a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to create much-needed, scaled benefits in our back-end publishing operations, making our work more efficient than ever. I’ll hasten to add that the fact that UNC Press published two New York Times best-selling books in the past year reflects how well we’re doing at publishing books of exceptionally high quality while also appealing to a wider audience.

But none of these things could happen if we didn’t receive the outside subvention for our editorial review process. Support from the public allows us to serve the public good. And through that process, we endeavor to make the public proud.

John Sherer is Spangler Family Director of UNC Press. Follow him on Twitter @jesherer.


Other posts in the University Press Blog Tour today:

See links to posts from blog tour day 1.

See a complete University Press Week Blog Tour schedule. On Twitter, keep up with posts and events tagged #UPWeek and #ReadUP.