‘University Presses in the Age of COVID-19’

Some mid-COVID changes at university presses, as collected by Ithaka S+R in its latest press directors’ summary:

A move away from print wherever possible, including converting to online submission and contract systems; electronic proofs, review and exam copies; and eliminating the print catalog. 

A pivot to virtual exhibits and disciplinary conferences.   Putting more books into print on demand (POD). One director claimed they moved 2,000 already digitized books into POD in 12 days by remapping their supply chain and changing all of their workflows. Another said they were eliminating all short run printing and going straight to POD.  

The press directors are reporting, unsurprisingly, savage revenue hits:

According to their latest projections for the 2020 close this month, most are expecting to miss budgeted revenue by 5-15 percent, mostly due to poor fourth quarter print sales during the pandemic lockdown.

And they expect worse for FY 2021:

Projections of 20-40 percent decreases in revenue are the norm for the presses we spoke with. All presses expect cuts to library collection budgets and drastic cuts to library book budgets, especially print.

‘Why Rich College Students Are Getting More Financial Aid Than Poor Ones’

Martin Kurzweil and Josh Wyner, in a Times opinion piece decrying the decades-long drift toward “merit” aid (i.e., not based on need) in U.S. higher ed:

Some leaders of colleges have wanted to end this competition by collaborating with other colleges to reserve the vast majority of aid to students who clearly have the need. But these leaders haven’t so far because they fear it would run afoul of federal antitrust law.

We have the discipline of economics to thank for the antitrust orthodoxy of the last 50 years—that consumer prices are the one and only yardstick. This myopic, self-undermining approach—in the name of consumer welfare—has led to all kinds of perverse outcomes. In higher ed, there’s this boost to merit-aid, and, more recently, the gutting of admissions officers’ anti-poaching ethics code.

The Weird Hype around the UC Springer Nature Deal

The headline for a much-shared Wired story on the University of California’s read-and-publish deal with Springer Nature:

Universities Step Up the Fight for Open-Access Research

“Today’s deal,” reads the subhed, “is a big milestone on the path to dismantling paywalls around academic journals.”

Here’s Inside Higher Ed‘s headline:

A Landmark Open-Access Agreement

The Times Higher Education:

Landmark US agreement is hailed as ‘significant milestone’ in shift to open access publishing in North America.

And Publisher’s Weekly:

University of California, Springer Nature Sign Groundbreaking Open Access Deal

The headline hyperbole is, on the one hand, weird: The UC deal, though large, is mostly conventional, of a piece with the deals made by European consortia since 2014.

The headlines, indeed, seem to be lazy press-release mimicry. The UC release:

UC reaches groundbreaking open access deal with leading global publisher

And Springer’s own:

Landmark Transformative Agreement reached between Springer Nature and University of California

There’s nothing groundbreaking about the deal, even for the U.S. The bigger issue is that the coverage is a gift-wrapped present for Springer Nature and the other publishing conglomerates. Read-and-publish deals are about preserving the current subscription gravy train—and they’re succeeding in crowning the thirty-seven percenters as the OA royalty. Deals like this, moreover, promise to worsen global publishing inequalities.

A better headline: “UC Capitulates to Commercial Read-and-Publish Deal.”

The Indebted Mentality

Chloe Reid, in an LSE Review of Books review of Caitlin Zaloom’s Indebted:

For these families, their lives are organised around the problem of paying for college. […] This preparation begins at a young age, with the parents of a two-year-old spending considerable time and energy planning how to fund their education. Such time and effort means that the families in Indebted must speculate whether college will indeed ‘pay off’ for their children.

The return-on-investment mindset that faculty rightly decry among students has, as one obvious source, this decade-plus financial scrambling.

‘Alison Macrina on Library Freedom Project and Tor Browser’

From Logic’s May interview with Alison Macrina:

Q:With both Tor and the Library Freedom Project, you’re making libraries places that are anti-capitalist not just because they’re free, but also because data harvesting won’t work in there. You’re making a Faraday cage around libraries.

Macrina: I love that. I do think of libraries as one of the most socialist institutions that we have in the US in 2020: they are funded with public money. They are not means-tested. They’re everywhere. You talk to the average librarian about why they got into the profession and there is a real love for the public. You can go into a library and you don’t even have to use it for its explicit purpose of looking at books or magazines or computers. You can just go there and be, even if you’re the kind of person that late capitalism has decided is not worthwhile. To the library, you are. And this is a radical idea. Libraries’ doors are still open, even as their budgets get cut. They’re special spaces and I want to help them expand what they’re capable of doing.

The closure of public libraries—a profound and unassailable necessity—has been among the greatest short-run costs of the pandemic.

‘MIT, guided by open access principles, ends Elsevier negotiations’

Huge news from MIT Libraries:

Standing by its commitment to provide equitable and open access to scholarship, MIT has ended negotiations with Elsevier for a new journals contract.

MIT cited its unique Framework for Publisher Contracts in the decision to cancel Elsevier. The Libraries director, Chris Bourg, did not mince words in the Institute’s press release:

I am disappointed that we were not able to reach a contract with Elsevier that honors the principles of the MIT Framework, but I am proud knowing that the MIT community — as well as hundreds of colleagues across the country — stand by the importance of these principles for advancing the public good and the progress of science.

The muscular cancellation is a piece with MIT’s leadership on OA issues, not least with its library’s cross-campus peer, MIT Press.

‘Will the University That Survives Have Been Worth Saving?’

Rebecca Kolins Givan, in a Chronicle commentary:

If our core values are sacrificed to save our universities through a single-minded focus on maximizing revenue, will the institutions that emerge have been worth saving?

Kolins Givan takes aim at responsibility-centered management (RCM):

RCM is, then, a system of values that prioritizes infighting and manufactured scarcity to extract an additional buck more than collaboration and a commitment to mutually beneficial decision-making that puts lives and learning first. Under that “eat what you kill” model, units (“responsibility centers”) compete with one another — it’s a cutthroat game of zero sum. One more student in an Arabic class means one less student in a math course, and the two departments are required to treat each other as mortal enemies. Courses taught at less than full capacity are categorized as wasteful, rather than essential elements of a robust, diverse curriculum.

Cancel ResearchGate

DARIAH’s Erzsébet Tóth-Czifra, urging scholars to shun the VC-backed for-profit sites Academia.edu and ResearchGate:

What we need to realize is that ‘the “everybody” factor’ (as Kathleen Fitzpatrick calls it) that makes ResearchGate and Academia.edu success stories is in fact our own presence. Going against such community practices both one by one and collectively to give rise to and flourish other, more sustainable author-sharing mechanisms is extremely challenging and takes a great deal of courage. But only this will enable us to move away from platforms that do not do any good for fair sharing of our scholarship and replace them to publicly maintained environments/the population of the development of collectively maintained public services, where scholarly communities have a say in which roads should be paved.

There’s an excellent chart and list of alternatives.

‘How the Coronavirus Crisis Makes the Best Case Yet for Free College Tuition’

Claire Potter, in a Times op-ed on rethinking U.S. higher ed for the post-pandemic era:

So what must change? To start, public colleges and universities should be truly public and tuition-free; private ones, a crucial and longstanding resource, should be discounted by the cost of a public education. Federal loans should be generous, interest-free and forgivable, perhaps in exchange for national service. To paraphrase my late friend, the historian Jesse Lemisch, we need a federal New Deal for higher education, supported by tax dollars, that breaks the stranglehold tuition has on American families.

Potter, like Simon Torracinta and Corey Robin, has the crucial point that our current system is anything but natural—the result, instead, of a series of regressive choices over the last fifty years, reversible given the political will.

‘Extinction Event’

Simon Torracinta, writing for n+1 on the impending carnage in U.S. higher ed:

The tsunami wave of the pandemic—genuine threats to the life of staff and students, skittish financial markets, massive revenue shortfall—is bearing down on a rickety edifice. […] Under the cover of the crisis, university administrators will finally undertake the massive restructuring they have dreamed of for years.

The Torracinta piece is the best-informed (and best-written) prognosis of our post-pandemic future thus far. He goes into the weeds, for example, on debt, ratings agencies, and the campus building boom—part of a broader “financialization” of higher ed. And he’s keenly aware that the shock waves will worsen the U.S. system’s already savage inequalities:

The true believers in creative destruction will revel in the carnage that is to come: this is a necessary shakeout in a bloated industry, they will say. But there is no evidence to suggest that a better outcome for anyone will follow from the incalculable damage to hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, and staff, and to the communities that rely on local campuses as economic anchors. The most likely outcome will be further stratification of an already radically unequal landscape.

Like Corey Robin (in the second-best essay to appear on this topic), Torracinta writes that the system’s stratified precariousness is the product of choices we’ve made—bad ones—over the decades. Another system, they both say, is possible.

‘College at a Crossroads: Closures and Mergers’

A chilling, backstage read from Trusteeship, a magazine for university and college trustees:

Sometimes even when an institution is not in financial distress, its long-term prospects for survival are so unpromising that a dignified closure is the best option.

The piece went to press before the full COVID fallout was clear, but it’s getting read by trustees—mostly drawn from the world of business— now charting our post-pandemic future.

Price-Gouging by Frontiers

Heather Morrison, on the for-profit OA publishing group Frontiersmid-crisis price hikes:

A third of the journals published by Frontiers in 2019 and 2020 (20 / 61 journals) have increased in price by 18% or more (up to 55%). This is quite a contrast with the .4% Swiss inflation rate for 2019 according to Worlddata.info ; 18% is 45 times the inflation rate. This is an even more marked contrast with the current and anticipated economic impact of COVID; according to Le News, “A team of economic experts working for the Swiss government forecasts a 6.7% fall in GDP”. (Frontiers’ headquarters is in Switzerland).

Frontiers is controlled by SpringerNature’s parent company.

‘Building Resilient Learned Societies in an Age of Pandemic and Fear’

Trevor Parry-Giles, in a Scholarly Kitchen guest post on learned societies in the age of coronavirus:

For the new normalcy to be truly adaptive and transformative, learned societies must be flexible even as we conserve. The learned society must be self-reflective in its determination of the new normal — making long-term, programmatic decisions in the midst of a medium or short-term crisis is arguably not the wisest plan of action. Crafting a new normalcy must be deliberate, careful, and prudent.

Parry-Giles is executive director of the National Communication Association (NCA)—one of the big associations in my home discipline, communication.

It’s nice to see Parry-Giles call for the conversation, but I was surprised that the post makes no mention of journals or open access.

Like many scholarly societies, NCA has a stable of paywalled journals outsourced to one of the commercial oligopolists—complete with a 18-month preprint embargo.

A transition to OA should be a central aim of any new normal for professional societies.

‘Time for a Boycott’

Mark Bilby, in a powerful post on the publisher lawsuit against the Internet Archive:

The suit brought by the American Association of Publishers in SDNY against the Internet Archive shows a level of dishonesty and callousness that is wholly out of step with copyright law, the special place and protections of libraries under that law, and the plight of library users during our current pandemic. Why?

The Internet Archive is a public library, registered under the State of California. It is also a 501(c)(3) non-for-profit. Their whole organization literally has no commercial interest.

Bilby calls for a library boycott:

But Academic and Public Library Directors and Deans should now go one step farther and utilize our power of collective action and collective bargaining. Boycott all future book purchases and license agreements from the plaintiffs—Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, John Wiley & Sons and Penguin Random House—until the suit is dropped.

As Ars Technica reports, the publisher lawsuit could brankrupt the Internet Archive.

Scholars, too, should refuse to publish with those houses until the suit is dropped.

‘OA Switchboard initiative: progress report May 2020’

From the OASPA’s update on its OA Switchboard project:

[T]he OA Switchboard will be developed with immediate business value: Enabling all publishers to locate central OA funds, and to get publication charges paid from these funds in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

A key question (of design, at this stage) is whether the software will merely aim to clean up the messy APC-collection process, or else facilitate collective payments from libraries and funders as an alternative to the APC scourge.

‘Higher Education in the Age of Coronavirus’

Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, in an excellent, if downcast, Boston Review essay on the post-pandemic costs U.S. higher ed:

The coronavirus is taking a sledgehammer to higher education in the United States, shattering the established configurations, norms, and rituals of colleges and universities across the country. Besides overturning the very structure of education virtually overnight, transforming physical classrooms into digital ones, it will also accelerate a number of troubling longer-term trends, including public disinvestment in state colleges and universities, a growing gap between higher ed haves and have-nots, and the migration of courses and degrees online. Anyone who cares about education as an engine of social mobility and a tool to broaden our horizons needs to pay attention.

Snyder’s piece, though, ends in a whimper—with a wan call to articulate higher-ed’s value to anyone who will listen. So Adam Kotsko’s gentle rejoinder, published in the same Boston Review forum, is a welcome addendum:

The idea that college faculty and their allies have somehow failed to “make the case” for the value of their work is one of the hoariest clichés of higher ed commentary—our equivalent to the legendary “since the dawn of time”-style opening for undergraduate papers.

Kotsko wants a much more muscular response to what he characterizes as “systematic campaign of lies” by conservatives and business leaders:

Strong, fully inclusive unions that fight for decent working conditions for the whole faculty are the only viable way to form an independent power base that gives faculty members real leverage over the administration. Given how entrenched the destructive “best practices” are at most existing institutions, though, more radical measures—such as founding new, faculty-run cooperatives—may be more effective.

Jon Tennant’s Infrastructure Mandate Idea

The late Jon Tennant, in one among a flurry of writings before his tragic death:

the lever here is having research funders helping libraries to guide their funding decisions more wisely and responsibly. One such way could be to stop trying to mandate individuals (i.e., researchers) to behave in a certain way, which is an endless and inefficient task, and does not address either the socioeconomic or technical problems mentioned above. Instead, mandate research institutes to step up their game and provide a modern, sustainable, technical infrastructure that helps to address the issues of reliability, affordability, and functionality that our global scholarship system is facing and in dire need of fixing.

The idea is, in effect, to ask funders (like the Gates Foundation or national research agencies) to make their grants for scholars contingent on their universities’ support for, and use, of a (nonprofit, academy-owned) infrastructure.

This mandate could be the lever to shift the entire system into one that is functional and sustainable, and in the best interests of all parties; except potentially for the profits of the largest publishing houses. It would also simultaneously liberate substantial funds to increase research functionality, reliability, and affordability, and potentially lead to a healthier research culture.

‘The cost of Open Access books: a publisher writes’

Open Book Publishers’ Lucy Barnes and Rupert Gatti, in a remarkable post detailing their book-publishing costs:

[M]any of the conversations about the financial viability of Open Access book publishing are predicated on a single business model—that of the BPC [book publishing charge]—and they assume there will be no revenue when a book is published OA.

Like the other scholar-led presses, Open Book Publishers doesn’t charge BPCs—so they push back against the (understandable) fretting around the steep fees:

[I]f a BPC model cannot support Open Access for books in a fair and sustainable way, it isn’t Open Access that should be thrown out—it’s the BPC model.

Also interesting: Their bottom-line total costs are around $7,000—a fraction of the $30,000 to $50,000 Ithaka S+R found in its 2016 study of university press costs.