Thursday 12 February 2015

Books and scholarly communities: retrospect and prospect

Richard Fisher, formerly CUP
Academic books are a rather more complex and variegated subset of scholarly communication than is often articulated. Publishing has often remained fragmented and sometimes defiantly artisanal in approach, particularly in the arts and social sciences. Have book publishers drawn the right inferences from the digital transition, and have they forgotten some of the most important early impacts of that transition which nonetheless retain significance today?

Richard Fisher, formerly Managing Director of the CUP's Academic Division considered these issues while looking ahead, to the myriad of disciplinary, institutional, financial and access issues with which academic book publishing is confronted.

He noted that we have a curiously unchanged publisher landscape. There hasn't been a PLOS or BioMed Central in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Why is this? High entry costs relative to publishing opportunities. Long term gestation, scholarly conservatism and the complex interaction of career tenure and the continued rise of American University Presses might be other factors.

Is there a crisis in scholarly book publishing? Monograph outputs have doubled in the past decade. It is impossible to read all of them. So what is the crisis if there is still plenty to publish and read? So far, e-publishing has not yet disturbed the continuum of publishing formats in these disciplines. What has happened to the course-book used for graduate and undergraduate teaching. Small scale adoption is possible with short print runs. The retail presence is chipped away by Amazon. Is this type of research book facing extinction or will it carry on? (He suspects that latter). What caused the shift of focus even more onto the backlist? How much emphasis is placed on the backlist with marketing and sales efforts?

Are these factors indicative of a blip or part of a more fundamental shift and evolution of the research book market? Why do we discuss non-institutional customers so little? The majority of sales come from institutions, and yet we don't engage with the readers/users of monographs.

Is there a transatlantic divide in open access? The role of UK governmental agencies in OA and other initiatives within EU/ESF, HEFCE and RCUK/Wellcome research funding is counter to the international structure of publishers. Academic book publication in the UK is fundamentally an export activity, and potentially only viable in that context. It is often undercapitalised and under digitised. International markets and translations are also at risk with the uptake of Creative Commons.

Fisher cites how emphatically scholarly books can be cross-over trade books. Serious historical research, for example, can have a popular appeal unmatched by any other subject. If you look at the conclusions of the agent Andrew Wylie and HEFCE/RCUK (who both want the widest possible dissemination) they draw vastly different conclusions.

Much of the most powerful and polemical OA advocacy come from those outside the formal academy, or the marginalised within: for those inside, different motivations need to apply. Fisher believes there still needs to be a step change in consumption of and enthusiasm for long form e-outputs among humanities and social sciences scholars. Yet the rate of transition is very slow.

Intellectual Property is a growing arena of contest. It is a huge issue for humanists and social scientists. Arguments are fierce around licensing (including Creative Commons). It's sets authority against collaborative working. You also need to bear in mind that law does not necessarily mean US or California law. US and UK law are very different. This needs to be taken account of.

Fisher is a great advocate for campus calling and going to see people in the institution. We need to look afresh at what we do and ensure that we ask the right questions. In a world of scarcity (above all of time) we must ask ourselves, is it any good?

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