October 04, 2016

Building a new university press

By Michael Fake & Tom Grady, White Rose University Press

White Rose University Press (WRUP) is an open access digital university press, run jointly by the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. It was launched in January 2016 as one of only a handful of new university presses, and the only jointly-run academic press, in the UK. WRUP is first and foremost, an open access digital publisher, intended to support the production of high quality academic works, including books, journals and textbooks - and to make them free to read online. As of today the Press has had a stream of exciting, high-quality submissions, and we’re looking forward to the launch of our first books and journals at the start of 2017.

In this post I want to consider how the Press came about, and why we’ve adopted the approach that we have.

White Rose Libraries

The Press was set up and is operated by the libraries of the three partner institutions. These work together as the White Rose Libraries, collaborating on projects and services in order to achieve things that each library would struggle to do on their own. The partnership has a long history, dating back to the launch of their jointly-run institutional repositories (White Rose Research Online and White Rose Etheses Online), and including early involvement in what is now the Copac Collection Management Tools project, as well as mutual support agreements, shared training activities, and various other regional initiatives designed to pool resources and share expertise.

The limitations of scholarly communication

In 2014 the partnership started investigating the idea of setting up a digital press, with the intention of publishing open access digital journals, monographs, textbooks, and other scholarly outputs. The initial driver for this was strategic. The libraries, of course, were very conscious of the limitations of many of the existing models of scholarly communication: high subscription charges for journals; high APCs for open access articles deposited in hybrid journals; high costs for books; and limited or cumbersome functionality in many commercial ebook platforms - all while commercial publishers put pressure on academics to hand over copyright and agree to restrictions in the dissemination of their work. At the same time the consortium was watching with interest some of the moves that HEFCE and other funders were making around open access publishing - the rules on open access to REF articles was due to come into effect in 2015, and HEFCE were also making noises about possible future requirements for open access monograph publishing, with the Crossick Report being seen as an important weathervane.

In this environment the White Rose libraries were looking to find ways to support alternative models that could enhance the broader open access agenda; that would help scholars publish academic material that was free to readers; and that could reach as wide an audience as possible - all while ensuring that academics kept control over the material they were producing. Developing an open access university press, focused on publishing high quality material free to a global audience, was a way of doing something very practical and concrete in this space, and in late 2014 this vision, perhaps for the first time, started to seem feasible due to developments in publishing technology and workflows.

Changes in digital publishing

Digital-first publishing now means that books can be produced without needing huge investment in paper stock and warehousing of expensive print runs. Online books can be distributed through a variety of discovery channels without building a complex distribution chain from scratch. Even where print production is still desired (and there is still plenty of evidence that print is the preferred medium for academic monographs) the growth of print-on-demand vendors means that a digital press can create ebooks, without needing to second-guess the print market, and without requiring an expensive up-front investment in stock they might never sell. At the same time platforms for managing the process of book and journal editorial workflows have become available as open source software (e.g OJS, OMP), significantly reducing the potential overheads in establishing and running a publishing operation.

Alongside these technical developments, in 2014/15 a new generation of publishing service suppliers were entering the market - most prominently Ubiquity Press - offering a package of production services to new presses, allowing institutions to set up a publishing operation much more quickly, with a full production infrastructure ready from the start. This offered the tempting prospect that we could launch a new press not just with editorial software, a logo, and optimism - but with a whole network of relationships with typesetters, graphic designers, copyeditors, and indexers already established, as well as publishing expertise to guide us through our faltering first steps.

The rise of the new university press

Leeds, Sheffield and York were not quite the first to take the leap into publishing: at the time that we were making the decision in 2015 there were a handful of other libraries/institutions that had moved into the same space: UCL Press is the most prominent example, but also Westminster University Press, Goldsmiths Press, and University of Cardiff Press - along with other experimental publishing initiatives like Knowledge Unlatched and the Open Library of Humanities, which were similarly trying to develop new (mostly open access) models for scholarly publishing. That surge of activity was encouraging, suggesting as it did that we would be joining the vanguard of a broader movement in the development of scholarly communication. Our own research, surveying academics within the White Rose institutions, confirmed that a press would be meeting a perceived desire - with a significant proportion of academics saying that they would prefer to publish through an institutional or consortial press over a commercial press.

Implementation and governance

From idea to implementation took a significant amount of work throughout 2015. In the first instance it meant persuading a lot of stakeholders in academic departments across the three universities: we wanted and needed buy-in from academics, so there was a lot of work in taking the business case to various academic committees and boards, alongside persuading key influencers. However we found there was a real chicken and egg problem. In order to persuade people that the idea was solid and could succeed we needed to point to scholars who had already signed up to publishing with us - but academics weren’t willing to sign up to such an unknown entity without clear institutional backing. In the end the institutions had to take a leap of faith, trusting in the evidence we’d seen of successful initiatives with other new university presses.

The model we adopted was to work with Ubiquity Press as our production partner. This allowed us to tap into an existing infrastructure at relatively low cost, and to prioritise our limited resources into the front-end operations of attracting and working with academic authors and editors. The financial model underpinning the Press is “gold” open access publishing - that is, we levy Article and Book Processing Charges to pay for production - supported by an initial waiver fund put forward by the libraries. Of course, because the Press is not driven by profit, and because we only charge for the services we provide, those APCs and BPCs are as low as we can make them - just £360 for an article, and c.£4 - £5k for a medium-sized monograph.

The final key component was governance - ensuring we had an engaged and committed editorial board willing to hold us to the rigorous academic standards we had set for the Press, and to oversee our quality control processes. We were incredibly lucky to recruit such a distinguished set of academics from across the partnership who have been working with the Press’s operational staff and libraries to ensure that WRUP remains an academic-led and academic-focused initiative. Chaired by Professor Wyn Morgan (PVC for Learning and Teaching at Sheffield), the editorial board is evidence of the serious engagement with the Press that we’ve seen from senior academics across the consortium.

The Press opened for submissions on 4th January and we've had a really inspiring level of interest from a range of scholars and academics. Our first journals and books have been commissioned and are in preparation, and we're looking forward to launching our first publications at the start of 2017!

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