Research offers ways forward for university presses

The first research to provide an empirically-based overview of African university presses reveals a bleak landscape – but also a group of active presses that are deploying technology to reduce production costs, enhance visibility and widen their reach. It offers ways forward for universities and presses keen to respond to the remarkable growth of research in Africa.

The research was conducted by Francois van Schalkwyk, editor of scholarly publisher African Minds in Cape Town, and Dr Thierry Luescher of South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It is outlined in a just-published report on The African University Press.

It found 1,572 African universities listed in the Worldwide Database of Higher Education Institutions, Systems and Credentials – though there are more, if clusters of new public and especially private universities are included.

Only 52 have at some point in their history been home to a university press. And of those 52 university presses, only 11 were found to have published in the past three years – using the listing of published titles online as an indicator of activity.

“Only one university press in Africa was found that publishes open access academic books, indicating that open access has not been integrated into the operational models of African university presses,” the report says – despite 36 African universities having signed the Berlin Declaration on Open Access, 12 of them included among the 52 African university presses.

Some research findings

A sharp increase in knowledge production across Africa in the past decade may be seen as an opportunity for African university presses – certainly there is no shortage of publishable content, although a major problem is the general preference of African academics to publish abroad.

The report reveals that the number of research articles published on the continent rose by 60% between 2008 and 2014. Sub-Saharan Africa’s share of global publications rose from 2.0% to 2.6% in the same period, and Africa’s gross expenditure on research and development grew from US$12.9 billion in 2007 to US$19.9 billion in 2013, calculated at constant 2005 prices.

Four in-depth case studies conducted as part of The African University Press research found that, with one exception, university presses are “bound by a traditional editorial institutional logic of the press as a site for the production of high quality academic books by a professional publisher supported by personal networks for the creation of a reputable press”.

Only one, the recently founded Wollega University Press in Ethiopia, was found to also have a market approach and to espouse the knowledge commons.

It is the only fully open access university press that has published both books and journals and, says the report, it shares with university management a common understanding of the value of the press in supporting the dissemination of research.

“This finding surfaced the possibility that university presses are more likely to thrive when the institutional logics of the university and that of the press itself are in alignment, and when such alignment is centred on the role of the press as a knowledge disseminator and not as a cost centre and profit generator.

“The case studies also drew attention to some of the areas ‘on the ground’ where African university presses face challenges with respect to the adoption of new technologies: human capacity, technical and legal know-how, and institutional frameworks.”

The research further found a “constant refrain (not always supported by facts) that insufficient funding is the destroyer-in-chief of a thriving university press ecosystem in Africa”.

Generally, however, funding is not the main problem facing African university presses. “There are other problems, such as outdated employment models, procurement systems, a weak research culture, and inappropriate institutional frameworks that are too bureaucratic and not attuned to enabling reputation-building and managing the ‘expanded periphery’ of universities where university presses are located.

“But primarily, it is a matter of being locked into a predominant logic unsuitable to the local context that disables innovation and creates what is seen to be a ‘funding crisis’. In short, the universities are not entrepreneurial, and nor are their presses,” write Van Schalkwyk and Luescher.

Discussing the future of the university press in Africa should therefore be less about funding and more about “re-inventing how the press can operate and thrive given new possibilities afforded by digitisation and the internet”. The research led to a set of recommendations, with the authors suggesting that some might be more effective if implemented in conjunction with others.

For African university presses

The first recommendation is to set up a university press network – a step towards which was subsequently taken by a group of university, research institute and independent scholarly publishers from African countries at a meeting held in Johannesburg to discuss the report.

Previous networks have been created with variable success, the report admits. However: “The benefits of a continental network are numerous: knowledge disseminators have a collective voice, a channel through which to communicate openly, share resources and build skills.

“This does not disregard major differences between publishing industries, states of development and economic and language policies between countries in Africa, but rather sees the opportunity in building relationships with colleagues in different contexts facing similar challenges.”

There have been continued calls by industry experts for networks to be established, and these were supported by university press managers interviewed during the research. They were particularly interested in knowledge transfer, networking and capacity building.

A networked approach, says the report, allows for dispersed and distributed capacity to be harnessed. It could also open up opportunities for co-publication, joint distribution, consortia sales agreements with international university libraries and institutes, and joint marketing.

Second, the value proposition of the university press should be emphasised.

The research found that many academics at Uganda’s Makerere University choose predatory publishers for monographs, suggesting that they “disregard or are unaware of the value added by ‘traditional’ publishers on their doorstep and favour instead ease of publication and listings on websites of international online retailers offered by persuasive European ‘editors’.

“The reason for this shift is most likely a weak academic culture after decades of consultancy-driven research,” the report says.

“African university presses need to re-engage with their clients – academic authors – to counter the perception of push-button publishing and reassert the value that university presses provide in transforming manuscripts into academic monographs that make a valued contribution to the knowledge enterprise.”

Third, funding should be integrated into research commissioning and planning. Studies have shown the extent to which African researchers, in the absence of science councils and university funding for research, rely on donor funding.

“African university presses can unlock funding to support the publication of academic monographs, and particularly of open access monographs, by working more closely with university researchers when they are conceptualising and planning new research projects and are seeking external funding to support such projects.”

For funders

Fourth, the report recommends, funders should take the scholarly publishing ecosystem into consideration when financially supporting African universities.

“Like the unintended consequences of book donation programmes in Africa, the funding of specific elements in the research communication system (such as institutional repositories) without taking into account the impact on the broader scholarly publishing ecosystem introduces distortions and unintended consequences in the academic publishing system.”

The risk of funding being channeled to repositories is that universities do not support their presses because they see the repository fulfilling the role of disseminating knowledge outputs – missing the key roles that publishers play in ensuring quality and acting as a “filter in a world saturated with content”.

The role of the university library is also key. “The viability of an African university press is dependent on guaranteed library sales in Africa for scholarly books, whether digital or in print. If reliable sales exist, as they do elsewhere, they can at the very least provide a stable sales platform for monograph publishers.”

Universities, add Van Schalkwyk and Luescher, should adequately recognise and support presses when disbursing funding for knowledge production.

Fifth, there should be support for university presses that are fit-for purpose. “If the intention of funding support is to enhance the visibility, use and impact of African knowledge by supporting university presses, then funding should be provided to those universities and their presses that understand how to repurpose themselves to achieve that goal," says the report.

“Such financial assistance should focus on enabling universities and their presses to experiment with new goal-aligned publishing models by connecting to and being able to reinterpret (innovate) existing expertise in the field.”

For universities, and for funders

Sixth, universities should be clear about their key mission – broadly, the pursuit of scholarship – and remind themselves that the original purpose of the university press is to “ensure quality and to disseminate knowledge, both within communities of scientists and to the public”.

Seventh, alternatives to the university press as the best-placed disseminator of knowledge should be considered. “It may not always be the case that the university press is best-placed to fulfil the role of academic publisher.”

The research showed that when the expectations of the university management and press were aligned – for example, regarding the role of the press as a knowledge disseminator and not cost centre and profit generator – then it was more likely that the press could effectively fulfil its role as publisher.

“If there is no alignment, then an independent academic press may be a better solution," the authors suggest, while stressing the need for further research to examine the complementarity of university presses and independent academic publishers in particular country settings.

Finally, there was a need to focus on core publishing processes.

African universities planning to revive dormant university presses appeared to be focusing on the production side and not on the press functions that add the most value and contribute the most to building the reputation of the press and the university. This was possibly because printing services generate immediate financial returns and overseas machinery suppliers are keen to support printing facilities in new markets.

However: “The heart of the university press and the crux of its value lies in the functions that are the most expensive and the most difficult to outsource: the commissioning of new titles and the editorial process that follows in the transformation of submitted manuscripts into published academic monographs,” conclude Van Schalkwyk and Luescher.