U-M Press pursues fund-to-mission model

March 2, 2022

According to James Hilton, dean of libraries at the University of Michigan, colleges and universities have a decision to make about how they pay for the publication of research findings and scholarship in the humanities and social sciences: they can fund university presses, acknowledging them as core to their mission, and ensure that scholarship is widely and equitably disseminated; or, they can  pay profit-motivated commercial publishers, and forego their obligation and right to ensure that this research and scholarship is available as a public good.   

"University presses, collectively, are the infrastructure upon which scholarship in the humanities and humanistic social sciences depends," Hilton explains. "The scholarly monographs they publish are mostly written by faculty and researchers at colleges and universities, and the primary 'market' for these specialized books are academic libraries, which buy them for the benefit of their own faculties." In other words, higher education is both the producer and the consumer of the output of university presses; outsourcing this vital endeavor to commercial entities doesn’t make sense.

Hilton adds that it's difficult to make money by publishing scholarly monographs. Sales of print monographs have steeply declined in recent years, and ebook revenue has not filled the gap. So if academic institutions don't fund their university presses, in the end they'll almost certainly be paying more, or losing access altogether if they can't afford to pay, for what is likely to be an inferior product.

"Commercial publishers, who need to make money, will look to cut costs, probably by underfunding the editorial side. And they'll raise prices for consumers, limiting access for many, and raising costs for those institutions, like the U-M Library, that do their best to acquire the publications that large and diverse research communities require," Hilton says.

The University of Michigan has already taken steps toward funding its press to mission.

The U-M Press publishes around 80 monographs a year. The press's innovative fund-to-mission pilot takes a three-pronged approach to funding their publication: stable, base funding from the university; a matching investment from the larger library community; and grants and subventions, obtained by authors from a variety of sources within and beyond the university. 

This model will support the press's specialist monograph program at its current level, and decouple it from a volatile marketplace that makes predicting revenue difficult or impossible.

The fund-to-mission model makes all of the press's scholarly monographs free to read online, which benefits the scholarly community and the public, as well as the authors whose success in academia depends upon the impact of their research and scholarship.

“It’s taken faculty and researchers a while to understand that open access publishing can have the same editorial rigor and integrity as traditional publishing, and has the added benefit of reaching a wider audience," Hilton says. "But we're getting there." 

One example of how beneficial it can be is the U-M Press's decision to make its ebook collection of scholarly monographs temporarily free to read for everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Usage of these works generated more engagement around the globe than sales of these works ever could. If authors want their work to have as much impact as possible, open access is the right choice,” Hilton says.

Read about the library's efforts to negotiate a more affordable open access publishing ecosystem for articles published in scholarly journals.


by Alan Piñon


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