Report urges National University Press Network to boost humanities

Getting humanities and social sciences from the hard drive to the book shelf. Flickr/pobrecito33.

Australia needs a National University Press Network to print book and chapter-length research in the humanities and social sciences - research that, being too long for journals and not commercial enough for the struggling publishing industry, might otherwise never see the light of day.

This is Recommendation 8 of the report released today by the Book Industry Strategy Group, a body established by the Government last year to examine the challenges faced by Australian publishing in the face of the digital and online onslaught.

The Strategy Group recommends the Government contribute $10 million and the universities $6 million towards a press network aimed at boosting the international standing of Australian research in the humanities and social sciences.

“Journals are of principal importance in fields such as economics and psychology, but books and book chapters remain the most influential form in many of the social sciences and most of the humanities,” the report says. “However, a great deal of government-funded and university-funded research remains unpublished, especially when it is not suited to being reported and analysed in (necessarily short) journal articles. This research, much of which takes the form of higher-degree theses, may be found by specialists in digital repositories, but fails to reach a larger readership. A small investment in support of publication would unlock this large investment in research, in terms of both readership and impact.”

The Strategy Group reports that publishers now annually reject 200 or more “valuable and worthy scholarly manuscripts … for economic reasons alone”, severely curtailing the ability of Australian humanities and social science academics to disseminate their research domestically and internationally.

Without intervention, a bad situation can only get worse: “As scholarly monographs become increasingly unviable commercial propositions, so does the public good become equally diminished. This market failure also threatens many specialist and niche forms of knowledge, such as the preservation of Indigenous language and culture. The burden of this market failure currently falls heavily on a declining and small number of universities and their presses.”

Louise Adler, deputy chair of the Book Industry Strategy Group and director of Melbourne University Press, said that Australian scholars hoping to publish their monographs were at a massive disadvantage compared to their well-endowed US counterparts.

“Traditional university presses like Yale University Press, or Princeton, would be pushing anywhere between 200 and 350 monographs across all disciplines per annum,“ Ms Adler said. "Those university presses are sitting on very significant endowments. Yale University Press is sitting on something like a $40 million endowment; Princeton University Press now has something to the tune of a $70 million to $100 million endowment. They’re highly supported by philanthropy.”

“We’ve got a much smaller academic population but we’ve got a very much smaller [publishing] output, and the cost of making those monographs here are necessarily higher because of our smaller population and smaller readership.”

Ms Adler said that disciplines in which research suited publication in short-form were not suffering as badly, whereas “humanities and social sciences publishing in this country have languished because there aren’t the kind of supports that exist for science publishing through journals.”

Within the humanities, some areas need more help than others, Ms Adler said. “If you’re an Australian scholar and you’re working on Europe in the Middle Ages, or its languages, you will find yourself a European publisher because there’ll be a European publisher that specialises in that. This initiative is really about supporting research in Australian issues.”

“As long as the book-length monograph is the gold standard for research in this country, then there is a need for academic publishers to increase their activity and for academics to be supported in that activity,” Ms Adler said.

Read the full report here.

Are you a scholar in the humanities or social sciences who has fallen in a hole between the inappropriateness of journals and trade publishers' commercial imperatives? Comments welcome below.