Last word: We must e-publish or perish

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Speaking at Sydney University last year Richard Fisher, academic publisher at Cambridge University Press, compared the academic monograph to the Hapsburg monarchy in that it seems to have been in decline for ever.

The present situation in publishing and university institutional settings is certainly Balkanised in terms of the scholarly monograph and the effective global distribution of its content.

If, as the British Academy estimated in 2005, the average global sale of an academic monograph is around 300 copies, then this low distribution highlights the comments made by John Byron from the Australian Academy of the Humanities, last year that “a failure to disseminate research will be read as a failure of quality”.

Many university presses in recent years have moved into trade publications, aimed at widening their audience and increasing their revenue stream. University presses found themselves in a quandary. On the one hand, they had a foundation brief to publish original and often esoteric scholarship, but on the other, they needed to achieve financial viability. They were between an academic publishing rock and a financial hard place.

Trade publishing initiatives, however, often entail a movement away from their university’s core academic business. So do we face a case of book to the future?

The 21st century may be one in which university press publishing goes “back to the future”, in that institutions again assume responsibility for access to and distribution of institutional scholarship.

California eScholarship is now one of the success stories in the distribution of institutional scholarship. This repository is part of the California Digital Library initiative. Research and scholarly output included is selected and deposited by the individual University of California units.

In one week late last month the website recorded 17,199 full-text downloads of repository content, while to date there have been a remarkable 6,587,012 full-text downloads.

And yet publishers continue to comment on the lemming-like rush of doctoral students in the social sciences and humanities to try to get their theses published.

The blunt fact is that the vast majority of students will never see their theses published in monographic form and they would be far better advised placing them in the various institutional and nationally linked digital theses programs.

When it comes to the relationship between publishing and promotion and tenure, academic perceptions remain rooted in historical models. As Richard Fisher puts it, “putting the finished copy of (your book) in the hands of your dean or head of department remains a tangible moment that no click can yet replicate, and one to which tenure and promotional committees in our worlds remain highly susceptible”. Yet the Modern Language Association of America has regularly outlined its concerns on the scholarly monograph crisis and the need for new metrics to demonstrate scholarly value.

A better option will increasingly be to embed the press within the scholarly communication frameworks of a university. ANU and the University of Sydney have moved into the epress and eScholarship arenas, with electronic access being the main provision, supplemented by print copies through print-on-demand.

The aim of ANU E Press is to distribute ANU research globally. It is particularly focused on research publications in the social sciences, humanities and Asian studies. ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Chubb has said the “E Press was a result of a strategic decision to get our scholarship out to the rest of the world free and online”.

ANU E Press complete pdf and html downloads from January to November 2007 totalled 1.16 million.

The top five ANU peer-reviewed E Press titles downloaded from January to November 2007 were:

El Lago Espanol (62,408 downloads); Ethics and Auditing (44,204); The Islamic Traditions of Cirebon (23,507); Indigenous People and the Pilbara Mining Boom (20,2279) and Information Systems Foundations: Constructing and Criticising (18,473).

ANU E Press statistics are significant for monograph distribution, while Queensland University of Technology (QUT) provides the benchmark for national E-Print downloads. QUT’s top 50 academic papers, which are updated weekly in a rolling annual count, reveal their top authors to be getting tens of thousands of downloads from their articles, more than proving the value of their institutional repository.

Real estate agents cite “location, location, location” as the three most important factors in selling a house. Similarly, multinational publishers increasingly endeavour to improve and manipulate (not hard!) their “citations, citations, citations”.

The assessment of research excellence through books, a key issue in the humanities and social sciences, is a relatively neglected topic compared to articles. There are now, however, significant download and usage statistics available from e-presses and institutional repositories that can provide meaningful data for assessment exercises, in addition to the more important issue of more effectively distributing Australian research globally.

A version of this article first appeared in The Australian.

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Updated:  25 March 2013/ Responsible Officer:  Director, SCAPA/ Page Contact:  Director, SCAPA