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Scholarly Publishing Initiatives

2007 Annual Report

Donald J. Waters
Program Officer for Scholarly Communications

Joseph S. Meisel
Program Officer for Higher Education


In 2007, the Scholarly Communications and Research University and Humanistic Scholarship programs collaborated in launching two new initiatives in the area of scholarly publishing, one aimed at increasing the capacity of university presses to publish first books by junior scholars in fields where publication opportunities have become constrained, the other at strengthening the substantive relationship between university presses and their home institutions. These initiatives are described in greater detail in the President’s Report (on pages 16 and 22). This essay is intended to provide some background by focusing on the factors that prompted staff to direct Foundation resources in these particular ways. It begins with an overview of the conditions under which scholarly publishing is currently carried out in university presses. This summary is followed by a brief outline of historical concerns about the role and functions of university presses and a discussion of previous Foundation efforts to support scholarly publishing. Finally, this essay turns to the two new initiatives and considers their objectives in the broader context outlined in the previous two sections.

The Current State of University Press Publishing

Apart from the large presses associated with the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford in the UK, university presses are most numerous and active in the US, and the books and journals that they produce occupy a highly specialized niche in the larger world of publishing. During 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) reported that 69 of its full members in the US produced 8,738 new book titles. However, this total represented just 5 percent of the approximately 174,000 new books produced by all publishers in the US. (Note 1) The percentage of total book sales is even smaller. According to statistics produced by the Book Industry Study Group, university presses in the US sold 31.4 million books, or 1.3 percent, of the approximately 2.4 billion books sold by all US publishers. (Note 2) Similarly, in 2005, the AAUP reported that 25 of its full members in the US published 612 journals, or 7.9 percent of the total peer-reviewed periodicals published in the US. (Note 3)

However, the significance of university press publishing is far greater than its niche position in the larger publishing industry would suggest. For example, following September 11, 2001, when the public searched for understanding and context in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the three best-selling books in the US were all published by university presses. (Note 4) Because of the rigorous peer-review process associated with their selection and publication, university press publications play a key role in the promotion and tenure of university and college faculty, especially in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. In the classroom, too, university press books play a disproportionate role. The Mellon-sponsored BYTES (“Books You Teach Every Semester”) study in 2000-2001 found that books published by British and American university presses accounted for two-thirds of the assigned readings in nearly a thousand courses in history and literature at nine universities in the northeastern US. (Note 5)

University presses thus are creatures that are both distinguished and limited by the particular niche they occupy. They are part of the broader publishing field yet also organizationally part of their sponsoring universities. In addition, they are responsible for disseminating scholarly work to a broader public, and by design they publish noncommercial works for markets that are small and not easily expanded.

Finally, they are deeply engaged in processes that certify the quality of their authors’ work. The difficulties and opportunities they face arise from these distinguishing characteristics and have done so since 1878, when Johns Hopkins University President Daniel Coit Gilman founded what is now the oldest continuing university press in the US by declaring that “it is one of the noblest duties of the universities to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures—but far and wide.” (Note 6)

In recent years, the contemporary challenges confronting university presses have been the focus of considerable study and debate. (Note 7) The issue that has received perhaps the most attention is the steady decline in average sales of scholarly titles. Publishing highly specialized academic monographs has always been a challenging business, but in the 1970s and early 1980s, presses could regularly anticipate sales of more than one thousand copies of such books. Now, in many humanistic fields, they typically budget for sales of no more than several hundred. A major cause of the decline has been the dwindling number of sales to academic libraries. Library acquisitions budgets have been severely squeezed by the rapid growth in the number and cost of serials, especially in the sciences, which are increasingly licensed in the form of electronic databases. As a result, fewer and fewer college and research libraries can afford to purchase, as many once did, all or nearly all of the scholarly monographs that university presses publish.

In response, university presses have intensified the scrutiny they give to manuscript submissions, judging not just the intellectual quality of manuscripts but also their prospects for either reaching markets beyond US academic libraries or otherwise attracting funds so that they can be affordably published. The increased scrutiny, combined with decisions of certain presses to abandon publication in entire scholarly fields or subfields, has raised deep concern that worthy manuscripts are going unpublished to the detriment of humanistic scholarship generally. Fields of study cannot advance unless ideas, arguments, and evidence are made available so that they can be debated and their implications tested over time. However, some types of work that deserve publication may not find their “audience” for a generation or two, and others may never find a large audience but nonetheless provide the useful service of clearing a path for subsequent scholars by establishing essential knowledge on limited, even arcane, topics.

Press decisions to restrict monographic publications also deeply affect the rise of a new generation of scholars in the humanities, many of whom need the credential of a university press book to advance their careers. There have been calls for uncoupling tenure decisions from monograph publishing, as well as for greater receptiveness within the academy to emerging new forms of disseminating humanistic scholarship and of peer review. (Note 8) There is some evidence that the criteria for promotion and tenure may be changing in some humanistic fields of study, and there are a variety of experiments underway with peer review systems. (Note 9) Nevertheless, the primacy given to monographic print publication with a university press remains well entrenched and cannot be ignored.

Of course, in scholarly publishing, as in other businesses, scale and the availability of resources matter and so not all university presses have been equally affected by the decline in the library sales of the scholarly monograph. Larger presses, such as those at the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Chicago, and at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and Yale Universities, have diverse lines of publications, including encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other reference works; (Note 10) journals; museum catalogs; scholarly editions; works of regional interest; and so-called trade publications that are aimed at broader, general audiences. These other kinds of publications often generate sufficient revenue internally to help subsidize the continued publication of monographs, and at Cambridge, Oxford, and Chicago, even to return regular and substantial surplus revenues to their sponsoring universities. In addition, some university presses have benefited from the acquisition of endowments, and a subset of these enjoy the benefits of a substantial revenue stream from such assets. (Note 11)

Other smaller presses do try to seek the benefits that accompany more diversified lines of publication, but such presses generally have fewer options and so have had to turn for assistance to their universities. Although institutional support, both direct and indirect, has been instrumental to the ongoing operations of most presses since their origins, there has always been tension about how much support would be appropriate. Faced with deep financial difficulties in the 1970s and 1980s, universities began cutting back and changing the terms of their support for both libraries and presses. By the late 1990s, small presses seeking help found that their institutions were generally no more able to cover chronic losses in publishing than to sustain unremitting increases in the serials budgets of their libraries.

Just as university presses confront substantial challenges in the current period, so too do they encounter significant opportunities. The most significant have emerged over the period largely through advances in applications of digital technologies. Advanced software and techniques for composition, cheaper digitization and file storage mechanisms, sophisticated online content management systems, and short-run and print-on-demand services all can help presses lower costs for new publications and give renewed life to their backlist titles. Similarly, the growth of the Web, powerful discovery tools such as Google and the other search engines, and the opening of new distribution channels such as Amazon.com have made it possible for university presses to reach new markets beyond university libraries.

To exploit these opportunities, however, university presses need help. Some of it is already coming from various alliances between presses and Google, Amazon, and other service providers that are trying to establish and grow their own businesses. Judging from developments to date, such partnerships with large commercial entities will not be sufficient. The small, focused, noncommercial basis of scholarly publishing and its special demands for images, graphics, notes, and other investments in the editorial, design, and production processes are not always easily accommodated in commercial press models, and so other forms of help must come primarily from within the sector. Universities and their presses must together renew and redefine their commitment to scholarly publishing given changes in the wider world of publishing and higher education and then identify the strategic investments they must make in existing and emerging forms of publication. Presses need continuously to review their more specialized processes and make technical and other investments wherever possible to reduce these costs. In addition, presses need to form strategic alliances among themselves to strengthen and improve the publishing services they provide to the scholarly community. The Foundation has already provided substantial assistance in support of these processes, and continued help is much needed.

Recent Foundation Investments in Scholarly Publishing

The 1992 Mellon-funded study entitled University Libraries and Scholarly Communication firmly established the link between rising serials prices and the declining purchases of monographs by libraries, and it noted the beginnings of the rapid fall in the average number of copies sold for scholarly books that subsequently affected university press publishing. (Note 12) Although the study focused more on libraries than university presses, it was one in a long line of studies that has documented the changing circumstances, challenges, and opportunities facing scholarly publishing. (Note 13) These studies date from 1929, a time when higher education began placing increased emphasis on research and doctoral education, and university presses emerged as a significant presence in higher education and publishing. Subsequent studies highlighted scholarly publishing issues in the immediate post-World War II era as undergraduate and graduate enrollments surged with large numbers of returning veterans, and again in the late 1950s and mid-1960s, as US investment in research and higher education boomed in the wake of the reaction to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. In retrospect, the 1960s appeared to have been a “Golden Era” for scholarly publishing. By 1975, the bubble had burst and stagnant economic growth, rampant inflation, and a devalued dollar prompted a National Enquiry into Scholarly Communication. Partly funded by the Foundation, the Enquiry was designed to address “widespread concern in the academic community that a crisis in finance threatened the performance of research libraries and the viability of scholarly publishing.” (Note 14)

Circumstances appeared so dire for university presses in the early 1970s that the Mellon Foundation not only supported the National Enquiry, but also launched a program to support monographic publication primarily in the humanities and, wherever possible, according to the grant recommendation, “to aid younger scholars publishing first or second books.” In three rounds of funding between 1972 and 1982, the Foundation awarded more than $5.8 million to approximately two dozen university presses and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) as a regranting agent to small presses. Funds were mainly for title subsidies, although the grants also helped support technological improvements to reduce costs. Reports to the Foundation indicated that these grants were instrumental in helping presses maintain levels of monographic publication in a time of financial turmoil, but title subsidies did little to change the presses’ underlying financial and productive capacities.

Following the 1992 Mellon report on libraries and scholarly communications, the Foundation embarked on another sustained series of investments in scholarly publishing. (Note 15) Conceived initially as a set of “concrete, practical, and cost-saving projects,” the program supported a variety of experiments in digitizing library special collections as one way of exploring what was then imagined to be an emerging “electronic library.” These projects during the nineties served as early probes into the development of online scholarly resources and, after detailed consultation with experts in various fields of study in the early part of the new century, the Foundation subsequently identified several areas for deeper investment, principally art and architectural history, but also medieval studies, archaeology, musicology, literary studies, and British and American history. In addition, the Foundation launched a series of projects focused on use of digital technologies to facilitate and enhance the publication and distribution of scholarly journals and books, including monographs and documentary editions.

Scholarly Journals

The most successful initiative in the journals field that the Foundation has supported has, of course, been JSTOR, which digitizes back issues of journals primarily in the humanities and social sciences and makes the online versions available for use by faculty and students. (Note 16) It is instructive to recall that JSTOR was initially conceived of in response to the problem of library space pressures; no one then envisioned its emergence as a transformative global scholarly resource. (Note 17) A variety of other projects have focused on ways of making current journal issues accessible online, and even though they did not match the breadth and depth of JSTOR’s impact, these all have had lasting effects in helping particular humanistic fields of study adapt to online publication as the current standard for journal publication. Project Muse at The Johns Hopkins University Press makes the widest selection of humanities journals available online and received Foundation support in its start-up phase. (Note 18) Other journal publication projects have included support for: online review journals in classics, art history, 18th-century studies, and Latin American studies; (Note 19) and programs of online journal publication in the fields of religious studies, anthropology, and mathematics. (Note 20) Based on the software developed for Project Euclid, the mathematics journal publications program, Cornell University, where the project is based, subsequently developed an open source platform that is now being used more generally for the online publication of a variety of journals. (Note 21)

Scholarly Monographs

In 1998 and 1999, anticipating that books would quickly follow journals into online distribution and access, the Foundation funded two electronic monograph initiatives: Gutenberg-e and History E-Books. The initiatives were designed to test the thesis that monographs authored for electronic media would be cheaper to produce than those authored for printed media and so would help ease the difficulties that university presses had in producing monographs, especially in small, relatively underserved fields. Gutenberg-e was intended to give recent PhDs working on their first books an opportunity to produce an electronic book. (Note 22) Over a period of six years, the American Historical Association called for book proposals, and a distinguished panel selected six recipients each year. Great care was taken to prevent the publication process from appearing to be anything but first-rate. The winners each received a $20,000 fellowship to be used toward the production of their books. The awards were celebrated with fanfare; the authors received production assistance from a team of scholars, editors, and technical specialists; and by 2009 all of the selected e-books will have been published online by Columbia University Press.

The History E-Book project was managed by the ACLS and was aimed primarily at senior rather than junior scholars. (Note 23) The goal was to produce a total of 85 electronic books whose authors would be selected in the normal acquisition process by participating university presses and then published online on the History E-Books Web site. In addition, approximately 500 titles would be digitized from the backlists of the presses and made available as part of the Web site.

Both projects have been extremely valuable in demonstrating the capabilities and requirements for publishing monographs authored specifically for electronic media, but neither of them succeeded in establishing the core hypothesis that such books would be cheaper to produce and distribute than those designed for printed media. Instead, the Gutenberg-e project proved far too expensive to sustain. Rather than being published separately, the e-books are being made available by the Columbia University Library on an open access basis, and by subscription as part of the History E-Book project. Moreover, although at least two of the Gutenberg-e authors have been awarded tenure to date, only 12 of the 22 authors whose prize-winning works have been electronically published are now in tenure-track-positions. A major issue is that the Gutenberg-e books have been all but overlooked in the review pages of the relevant general and specialized journals.

The absence of reviews for distinguished, prize-winning books is a critical problem, not only for the scholars themselves, but also for scholarship generally. It is indicative of the transitional state of monographic publishing that review editors who responded to a survey by one of the Gutenberg-e authors were almost unanimous in their request for a printed version of the e-books to distribute for review. (Note 24) Consequently, for all the Gutenberg-e authors that request it, Columbia University Press will now (with Mellon’s assistance) publish short-run, text-only versions of these works which will include information pointing to the full articulation of the scholarship available online.

The History E-Book project has also fallen short of its original goal. After almost nine years, authors have produced only 55 of the promised 85 new e-books. The project is now self-sustaining with more than 500 institutional subscribers, but the primary attraction is not the new titles. Instead, subscribers are mostly interested in the digitized backlist, which has grown from 500 to nearly 2,000 titles, nearly all of them from university presses and in such a variety of fields that the online service now has a new name: Humanities E-Book.

During the period, two other projects that focused on scholarly monographs were the BiblioVault initiative (Note 25) and the TORCH project. (Note 26) BiblioVault is managed by the University of Chicago Press and provides a shared repository for participating university presses to store the digital files used to produce printed books and to make them available through various distribution channels, including online services such as the Humanities E-Book project and short-run printing and delivery. Used by more than fifty presses to store and manage approximately 14,000 books, BiblioVault helps presses save money by avoiding expensive duplication of these storage and distribution services. In the TORCH project, the New York division of Oxford University Press intended to develop an online collection of already published scholarly monographs and reference works that would be contributed by a variety of university presses and focused on specific subject areas in the humanities. A feasibility study was completed but shortly after it received Mellon funding for the development of a business plan, Oxford decided to focus on other priorities and the grant was rescinded. It is fortunate that the further development of BiblioVault Initiative and the expanded coverage of backlist titles in Humanities E-Book have each begun to address the need that TORCH had targeted.

Documentary Editions

On a highly selective basis, the Foundation has long provided assistance for scholarly work on specific, published documentary editions, such as The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, The Correspondence of William James, and more recently the Benjamin Disraeli Letters. There are three projects, however, that are exploring broader issues in how technology and other investments could change how documentary editions, in general, are produced and distributed. The Electronic Enlightenment project managed by the Voltaire Foundation at the University of Oxford has digitized the edited correspondences of leading participants in the transatlantic intellectual debates of the 18th century. (Note 27) The resulting database—comprising hundreds of volumes published by a number of university and other presses—is fully searchable and allows scholars to study the “Republic of Letters” in ways that would not be possible given access simply to the printed editions or even the original manuscripts. In the Stalin Archives project, the Yale University Press is producing an online database of original documents from the archives of the Soviet leader, which will be made available online to colleges and universities for scholarly study and also used as the basis for both a published edition with full scholarly apparatus and a series of monographs. (Note 28) Finally, Rotunda is the electronic imprint of the University of Virginia Press and is building of suite of digital services to help documentary editors, particularly those focused on materials from the US Founding Era and the 19th century, to produce and distribute their editions more efficiently and more widely. (Note 29) Rotunda is looking for productive ways to link the correspondences in its Founding Era publications with the Electronic Enlightenment project and is consulting with Yale to determine if the Stalin Archives project could use the Rotunda technical platform and related services.

These recent initiatives of the Foundation have been designed not to ensure the survival of particular presses, but to help develop and improve the basic technical and other capacities available to them and other scholarly publishers for backfile digitization, file storage, online distribution, and short-run and on-demand printing. These capacities increasingly comprise the core components needed for the production and distribution of scholarly journals and books. It is a measure of the Foundation’s success that, with the exception of the Gutenberg-e and TORCH projects, most of the initiatives that received support continue to endure, many—including JSTOR, Muse, the review journals, Euclid, History E-Book, and BiblioVault—without ongoing Foundation funding for basic operations.

New Initiatives

Clearly, scholarly publishing is fraught with complex problems that require a delicate balancing act as university presses and other publishers must keep pace with rapid developments in the field of publishing and yet also meet their obligations to the academy, in which the processes of creating, organizing, and disseminating knowledge are also rapidly evolving. In this changing and highly competitive environment, it is not certain that all university presses will survive in their current configuration. (Note 30) However, as a species, university presses are and will likely remain for the foreseeable future centrally important to the system of American scholarship and will need help in evolving their role in that system.

As university presses look to the future, and to the forms of publication that scholars will need, one area that is receiving increasingly close attention is how scholars relate their publications to documents, images, data, and other forms of primary source evidence. Some of the leading presses, including, Yale, and Virginia, are reexamining their role in the development and publication of documentary editions, as described above. The Society of Architectural Historians is also addressing this problem by exploring the role a scholarly society might assume in providing evidence in the form of online images and the publication of various kinds of architectural encyclopedias. (Note 31) In the future, the Foundation is planning to consider additional support for practical experiments like these that promise to define and establish new configurations between the scholarly inquiry of primary sources and scholarly publishing. In addition, staff will continue, for at least the next two years, the two initiatives launched tentatively in 2007, one designed to support the production of scholarly monographs and the other intended to strengthen university presses in the digital era.

As already noted, the university press monograph is, and will likely remain for the foreseeable future, a critically important form of documenting and disseminating scholarly research in the humanities, as well as an essential scholarly credential in many areas of humanistic study. Recognizing that limited markets present real obstacles to monograph publication and that university presses confront these barriers in common, the Foundation plans to issue annual invitations to US university presses to outline collaborative projects from which a small number would be selected to accomplish the following objectives:

  • create new opportunities for publication in underserved and emerging areas of humanistic scholarship;
  • increase the attention and value accorded to the publication of monographs by exceptionally promising junior scholars; and
  • expand and encourage formal and informal cooperative relationships among university presses so that the risks (and rewards) of publishing monographs in designated fields and subfields can be shared.


Unlike the program of university press support in the 1970s and 1980s, the current Mellon initiative does not focus on underwriting the work of individual presses, but instead encourages groups of presses to expand publication in fields of overlapping interests and to develop collaborative activities for achieving economies of scale and expanding markets for their titles. While grant funds do support some of the costs of the additional volumes to be produced, they do not do so in the form of specified subsidies designed to plug the gap between costs and expected revenues of individual titles.

The Foundation will also continue to advance the second initiative involving universities and their presses because publishing and disseminating the results of research are essential functions of universities, and presses and their sponsoring institutions would benefit from making joint decisions about their publishing programs. Following extensive discussions with senior administrators, faculty, and the press director and staff at selected universities, Foundation staff plan to invite proposals designed to ensure that:

  • the selected university would identify and pursue significant academic priorities to which its university press could substantially contribute;
  • the press would contribute to the initiative the highest standards of editorial skill, peer review, and marketing ability; and
  • the university and the press would together work to expand the publishing capacity of the press, perhaps by diversifying its publication activities or experimenting with new techniques or processes.


As in the monograph initiative, grant funds in this program would not provide operational subsidies. Rather, they would be offered as working capital for specific, institutionally important publishing activities.

The history of efforts by the Mellon Foundation (and others) suggests that there is no magic philanthropic bullet that will finally and fully relieve scholarly publishers from the problems inherent in the complex, niche position in which they find themselves. Instead, our experience indicates that there is a vital role for the Foundation to play out of proportion to the small fraction its grants represent in the total revenue that university presses earn each year. These two new initiatives, like those that have preceded them and those that are still in development, are intended to encourage experimentation in response to clearly identified needs of the system. In the coming years, as we compile a fuller range of funded projects involving a variety of subject matter and approaches for universities and their presses (and the Foundation), our expectation is that these efforts will each contribute to the Foundation’s overall objective of strengthening both humanistic scholarship and the institutions on which it depends.

April 2008





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