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University Presses

Historical Background, Types of Material Published, Book Acquisitions Process and Academic Quality, University Presses as Gatekeepers

Established by universities to promote scholarly communication, university presses publish books and related material in a wide range of academic, creative, and professional subjects. They provide college and university faculty and other serious researchers with outlets for specialized works and make new ideas and perspectives available to a national and global audience. The sales of university press books are typically very modest by the standards of trade publications. Overall, however, the works issued by university presses play a significant part in shaping the agendas of many disciplines, especially in the humanities and social sciences.

Historical Background

The relationship between universities and printing dates back at least to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, not long after the emergence of movable type printing. Printing and publishing activities were established at Oxford, and soon thereafter at Cambridge, under the approval and protection of the crown through various royal charters. Centuries later, these enterprises remain a powerful presence in academic publishing.

In the English-speaking colonies of the present United States, some early attempts at connecting the small colleges and printing were also undertaken. Without a compelling need for in-house publishing activities beyond what a print shop could provide, however, university presses, in the modern sense, were slow to develop. It was not until the nineteenth century and the rise of the university movement in American higher education that conditions favoring the creation of university presses emerged in the United States. That era brought an emphasis on original research and new disciplinary specialization. As universities began to replace the older, undergraduate-focused colleges at the center stage of American higher education, demand grew for new ways to disseminate the fruits of research to the growing audience of faculty and graduate students.

Andrew Dickson White introduced the idea at Cornell University in 1869, in conjunction with his plans to train professional journalists. Although the results were only marginally successful and the press was discontinued in the 1880s, it was an important first step. Among those following Cornell's lead was Daniel Coit Gilman, who promoted the establishment of the Publication Agency at the Johns Hopkins University in 1878. Later known as the Johns Hopkins University Press, it is the oldest continuously operating university press in the United States.

American university presses did not immediately achieve the goals that later would be expected of them. Often, the research published was from the faculty of the parent institution, which sometimes limited the ability of the presses to seek out work of a uniformly high caliber. In addition, universities commonly required the publication of doctoral dissertations, and university presses often fulfilled this task, with the authors subsidizing production costs. In these instances again, the presses exercised less critical judgement about what they would publish than in later years.

In the era following World War II, university presses became more prominent and prestigious in the academic world. As American higher education rapidly grew and academic libraries increased acquisitions activities, university presses achieved a greater and more successful position in the academic environment than before the war. Their reputation for quality grew at the same time. University presses blossomed during this period. By the close of the twentieth century, there were more than eighty university presses in the United States.

Types of Material Published

Unlike trade publishing firms, which usually select and develop books for publication based primarily on commercial appeal, university presses have an overarching mission to produce works of scholarly value even though the audience is usually much smaller than that of a trade book. The financial implications for a publishing project are certainly taken into consideration when a university press contemplates publishing a book. However, as not-for-profit entities, university presses have traditionally placed significantly more weight on the scholarly or creative merits of a book, with much less emphasis on potential profitability. By the closing years of the twentieth century, those traditions were challenged, however, as subsidies from the universities to which they are attached often diminished and budget slumps affected academic libraries' acquisition budgets.

A chief function of university presses lies in their role in selecting topics and perspectives to be brought to the attention of the scholarly community. In the humanities and in many of the social sciences, books about specialized topics (often called monographs) remain one of the vital mechanisms for the distribution of scholarly knowledge and critical insight. Such titles continue to be a staple of university press publication lists. (This is less true in the natural sciences, where the more typical mode by which new knowledge is disseminated has been through articles in refereed academic journals.) University presses also have developed strong reputations for publishing in areas such poetry and regional studies.

As universities and academic disciplines became more complex and subject to specialization over the course of the twentieth century, so, too, did publishing programs become increasingly specialized. This specialization was partly due to practical reasons, since it would be difficult for a university press to maintain a high degree of competence across the whole of the academic spectrum. One benefit of specialization is that by focusing on fewer disciplines and subject areas, individual university presses are often able to develop stronger and more national and international reputations. This, in turn, makes it easier to market the books that are published and to attract additional high-quality manuscripts. In any case, the strengths of a university press usually reflect those of the university of which it is a part.

Book Acquisitions Process and Academic Quality

The claim to high quality is closely linked to the process university presses employ in acquiring manuscripts. In this aspect of publishing, the contrast between university presses and commercial publishers is especially sharp. Because the academic value and integrity of works published is a central concern for a university press book, many of these presses have adopted a rigorous, three-part review process to help ensure that the books reaching publication have the characteristics desired.

The process begins with contact between an editor and a prospective author. Sometimes authors send a letter of inquiry–or, more rarely, a completed manuscript–to a publisher, and sometimes the editors themselves seek out possible authors. If the editor accepts a proposed book, the next step is peer review, which is usually not undertaken until the manuscript has been completed. In this phase, the publisher sends the manuscript for independent evaluation by readers who are selected because of their own academic standing and credentials. Typically, the peer review begins with two readers. A third reader may be consulted if one reader approves and the other has reservations about the manuscript.

If the manuscript receives a positive evaluation from two readers, it proceeds to the final step in which it is reviewed by the press's editorial board. This group is a committee of faculty members, largely from the home institution in most cases, with final authority over whether to proceed to publication of the book.

The university press arena is highly decentralized. Though there are many hurdles to publication at any given press, the existence of many university presses means that a manuscript might be rejected at one press yet still find a home with a different publisher that has differing needs and criteria. In addition, there is also a smaller, but important, group of scholarly publishers in the commercial publishing world, some of which have high standing in various academic fields.

University Presses as Gatekeepers

Commentators have noted that university presses serve as "gatekeepers of ideas." Many more books are proposed than are accepted for publication at a university press, and the greater the prestige ranking of a press, the greater the competition to have one's book published with a given press. Decisions about what to publish–and what not to publish–are important in shaping of the academic agendas for many disciplines. For such reasons, the traditional lack of diversity among university press editors has been the cause of some concern.

In addition to the role that university presses play for the scholarly community at large, they also are important to the lives of individual scholars in many disciplines. In fields of the humanities especially, the publication of a book has been an important measure of scholarly achievement. Book publication in such fields, especially by respected university presses, can be extremely important in tenure and promotion decisions and in enhancing a scholar's reputation outside her or his own institution. Beyond simply having a book published, the academic reputation of the book's publisher has a central importance for a scholar, since the prestige of the publisher is often taken as an indication of the quality of the work itself.

Challenges to University Presses

University presses have faced many challenges, a situation that became increasingly acute in the 1980s and 1990s as economic and technological changes accelerated. University presses, as well as the few commercial presses focusing on scholarly works, saw a long period of decline in sales. In part this was due to severe constraints on the budgets of college and university libraries.

Already, some university presses had begun to seek out a broader audience. A prominent example of this impulse was found in Louisiana State University Press's publication of John Kennedy Toole's novel A Confederacy of Dunces, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. When financial circumstances later became more pronounced among university presses, many of them similarly aimed to augment their publication lists with books that could be sold to a wider audience of readers without compromising the scholarly reputation of the presses themselves.

Technological advances, which constitute a major challenge to book publishing more generally, also deeply have affected university presses. The future viability of printed books was widely debated in 1990s, and university presses explored various ways to take advantage of the opportunities presented by new electronic technologies.

Though they have evolved over the years and face many challenges, university presses remain an integral part of the academic world.


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