Several years ago, a university press director wryly observed that the crisis in scholarly publishing had reached its twenty-fifth anniversary. Today it has surpassed the thirty-year mark, yet university presses continue to hang in there, experimenting with new business models and new formats for presenting their offerings, working with each other and with other units within their home universities, and increasing the number and accuracy of metrics to measure their performance. They do this despite being caught in a vise of decreasing sales on one side and decreasing financial support from their home institutions on the other. At least two presses came perilously near to being closed in recent years and one faces that peril right now, but somewhat miraculously three new presses have come into existence in the same timeframe.

That is to say, like all things having to do with the humanities and social sciences in American universities in 2016, innovation and crisis mix. University presses are the main outlets for disseminating book-length social science scholarship as well as many of the journals that contain shorter-form articles, so how this all plays out has important implications for any social scientist who hopes to disseminate scholarship and/or create teaching materials for students.

University presses have sometimes been accused of sticking too closely to the models that worked in a print-only world where university budgets allotted more funding to both presses and the libraries that frequently bought their books and journals. At one point, the accusation had some truth, but no university press in 2016 has failed to engage some combination of innovations. Let’s review a few.

Open access

No single thing has roiled the waters of scholarly communication more than open access since the turn of the century. It began as a response to increasingly out of reach and out of touch journals pricing, but has taken on the air of a moral crusade among its advocates. Happily, we’ve moved past the inaccurate—and incompletely quoted—mantra that all information wants to be free to the more pragmatic and better question of how we create business models that allow end users to view materials freely while recovering the costs involved in publishing a work. “Gold” OA involves charging the author, via her institution or grant or another source of funds, the cost of publication, but obviously raises questions for authors researching in subjects that don’t generate the very large grants involved in STEM research. How do scholars from poor schools obtain the funds they need to allow their work to be published in an open access form?

The answer to the question of cost recovery in an open access world remains open and is likely to turn out to offer multiple options depending on local circumstances. But presses (and others) have been trying out many possible solutions, often with grants of their own. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has funded projects that are trying to establish what an “average” monograph costs to publish and how to calculate that cost at specific presses—a much more difficult question to answer than one might think—as well as projects that allow the conversion of university press backlist books to open access format. That is to say, like all things having to do with the humanities and social sciences in American universities in 2016, innovation and crisis mix.The University of California Press Luminos Books imprint strives to divide initial monograph costs among presses, libraries, the researcher, and her university while also recognizing the need to reserve funds for authors who are genuinely unable to contribute to cost recovery. Space doesn’t allow the listing of other initiatives, but it is worth mentioning that many new books are being published in a hybrid situation where library purchase of an e-book that provides unlimited simultaneous access creates a de facto community-wide open access book.

Inter-university press efforts

University presses have also been working to improve cooperations amongst themselves. For years, organizations like the University of Chicago Press’s Chicago Distribution Center and the University of North Carolina’s Longleaf Services have helped small presses band together in a far more cost-effective effort to distribute their products. Now they are also actively looking at other potential areas of cooperation, including production and marketing functions. The Association of American University Presses (AAUP) has led efforts to create a university press–wide search engine where scholars can find literally all the university press books available in a given subject. And, an example of many such efforts, the University of Minnesota Press and the City University of New York’s Digital Scholarship Lab are, with the help of another Andrew W. Mellon grant, looking to create new, hybrid forms of scholarship that combine a print book with an electronic version that can be combined/supplemented with datasets, sound, video, and other digital content. A similar project has the University of British Columbia Press and the University of Washington Press developing multimedia books in indigenous studies. Critically important to scholars, the Association of American University Presses has just issued an important white paper, Best Practices in Peer Review, that incorporates the issues raised by new forms of scholarship.

Intra-institutional efforts

Perhaps the area where university presses have strengthened most dramatically is in creating initiatives that create partnerships with units and people within their home universities. Among the many cooperative projects involving multiple university departments (most often including the university library) are the University of North Carolina’s Publishing the Long Civil Rights Movement; the University of Virginia Press’s Rotunda, which focuses on documents involving our country’s founders; and California’s Mark Twain Project Online. Some, such as Columbia’s CIAO (Columbia International Affairs Online) and MIT’s Cognet, a cognitive and brain science website that is both inter- and intra-institutional, go back well over a decade now. A useful, if somewhat dated list of university press digital projects, usually involving various kinds and degrees of collaboration, can be found at the AAUP’s Digital Projects Directory.

University presses reporting to university libraries

The growing trend toward university presses reporting directly to university libraries constitutes one of the more interesting developments in scholarly communication, along with library publishing (with or without university press partners) in general. Many innovations are beginning to emerge from these sometimes voluntary, sometimes forced associations.

A recent conference of presses that have institutional reporting lines into their home libraries included twenty-five such pairings, and there has been in recent years a definite trend toward having presses report to university libraries.Full collaboration combines the press staff’s professional publishing expertise with the library’s deep recognition of faculty and student needs. The strength of the tie varies, from simply listing the press as a line in the library portfolio with a fully walled-off budget to a much closer integration where the press is not only fully involved in all of the library’s scholarly communications efforts, but holds a seat on library senior management boards. The new Amherst College Press even originated in the library. While the presses reporting to libraries are mostly smaller and medium sized, the range is wide and includes a press as large as MIT.

What have these new presses enabled? In the cases of Purdue and Michigan, full collaboration combines the press staff’s professional publishing expertise with the library’s deep recognition of faculty and student needs, technological expertise, and greater investment capital resources to allow a range of activities, from something as basic as the university’s institutional library to various grey scholarship activities such as conference papers and smaller local initiatives to small but interesting journals to full-blown monographs to the multimedia projects described above. As librarians and press staff interact more and more, they gain greater information and ability to combine, for example, sophisticated use of metadata with more traditional marketing efforts on behalf of a monograph. Combine that with the tendency to push toward open access to their joint publications and scholars may well see increased dissemination of their research.

One example of multiple institution library-press cooperation is the relatively new Knowledge Unlatched (KU) in which over fifty scholarly publishers and hundreds of academic libraries participate. It starts with a publisher who has a forthcoming scholarly monograph it would like to make available via open access, provided it can recoup the costs incurred in the publishing process. The publisher calculates that estimated cost, submits the project to KU, and once accepted, KU lists it in a seasonal group of titles offered to libraries. If enough libraries “subscribe” to the title, the cost per library can be very low and the publisher gets its money back. If an insufficient number of libraries subscribes to allow the cost per library to fall below a certain minimum, the title then goes back to the publisher, who is then free to publish the work using any sort of pricing scheme. It’s a young project in only its third year, but so far has allowed close to 350 titles to be published as fully open access while allowing publishers to recover their costs.

Initially small-scale projects like KU allow for greater experimentation with forms of scholarship, working with faculty who are engaging in such activities. And as libraries become more comfortable and more engaged in publishing, they’re even launching new presses of their own. The previously mentioned Amherst College Press is one; this year a consortium of four-year liberal arts colleges have banded together to form Lever Press. Both these new ventures are committed to open access dissemination.

Open access textbooks

The last innovation we’ll touch on here is the development of open access textbooks, first for local use, but also freely provided to other institutions that find them appropriate. The library publishing efforts have led the way here; with notable exceptions like the University of Florida Press through its Orange Grove initiative, university presses have lagged behind. This is probably a function of too little staff, too little time, and insufficient cost recovery for stand-alone presses. But the presses now working within libraries are beginning to join this initiative. Again, Purdue and Michigan have been leaders, but others are beginning to engage as well. Interestingly, some of the library-only efforts have begun to discover the difficulties in cost recovery for open access textbooks even if they receive some institutional funding to seed projects. And so what are called affordable textbooks are beginning to appear alongside fully open access ones, on the theory that saving students 75% of their current costs, while not as good as 100%, is surely a worthwhile service that pleases students, their parents, university administrators and boards, and the faculty willing to undertake the effort to create such texts. Such a service can create, if not monetary reward to press and library, a significant deposit of institutional good will!

We can see, then, that while university presses operate in a deadly vise of shrinking income and shrinking institutional support, they nevertheless are, to a greater extent than we often realize, laboratories of scholarly experimentation. If necessity is the mother of invention, that status is unlikely to change any time soon.