AAUP President's Talk

2007 Inaugural Address

Sanford G. Thatcher, Director, Pennsylvania State University Press

Thatcher, 2007-2008 AAUP President, delivered his inaugural speech to the AAUP in Minneapolis on Saturday, June 16, 2007.

Before beginning my talk, I would like to pay tribute to my two predecessors for their leadership in getting AAUP's house in order. The revision of the bylaws, which Penny Kaiserlian masterfully oversaw this past year, was a necessary first step toward implementing the new strategic plan, which was largely developed during Lynne Withey's term in office. It will be an important part of my job as president this year, and Alex Holzman's next year, to carry forward with the work defined by the strategic plan, and it is great to have the framework brought about by the AAUP Board of Directors under Lynne's and Penny's leadership in place now for me and Alex to build upon.

As an acquiring editor whose favorite subject is political philosophy, I am often tempted to think about what is happening in our sphere of economic activity through the eyes of one or another of the great thinkers of the past. So let me begin this talk with a quote from Marx: "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." Oops, sorry, that was the other Marx, Groucho, speaking! Here is the quote from Karl I want you to ponder, from the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or—what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes the period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.

What strikes me about this quote is how uncannily it seems to portray the situation in which we exist today in scholarly publishing, with the legal regime of copyright as a form of private "property" under widespread attack as imposing "fetters" on the further development of the "forces of production" unleashed by the Internet, which is heralded by many as ushering in a new "period of social revolution" manifested most recently by the advent of the Web 2.0 generation and its practices of communitarian collectivity. The authors of a new book titled Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (2006) put it this way: "Leaders must think differently about how to compete and be profitable, and embrace a new art and science of collaboration we call wikinomics. This is more than open source, social networking, so-called crowdsourcing, smart mobs, crowd wisdom or other ideas that touch upon the subject. Rather, we are talking about deep changes in the structure and modus operandi of the corporation and our economy, based on competitive principles such as openness, peering, sharing, and acting globally." In Marxian thought, technological advance is seen as the engine of economic change, and the Internet is a prime example of a "force of production" setting in motion a revolution in the "relations of production."

Although some interpreters of Marx have viewed his as a philosophy of technological determinism, with a fatalist tinge to it, others emphasize his political activism, perhaps best summed up in this pithy quote: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." This is the message that we in university press publishing need to heed. It is all too easy to feel beset on all sides by forces in our environment, both within the academy that informs our values and within the industry that shapes our economic well-being, over which we have little or no control, and then to resign ourselves to passive acceptance of our fate. But this is the road to perdition, and if we acquiesce, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

A key to escaping this pessimism and beginning to take our fate in our own hands, I believe, is thinking systematically—a lesson I learned many years ago from my mentor in publishing, Herb Bailey, director of Princeton University Press for forty years and author of one of the most insightful analyses of our business, in The Art and Science of Book Publishing, originally published by Harper & Row in 1970 and currently in its third edition available from Ohio University Press. Among his many accomplishments were the launching of the effort to use acid-free paper for the production of books, the instigation of the National Enquiry into Scholarly Communication in the late 1970s (which was the last attempt to investigate the whole system thoroughly), and the report he prepared in the late 1980s for the ACLS on the rate of publication of scholarly books in the humanities and social sciences. It was with Herb's encouragement that I first became involved with copyright, joining the AAUP's Committee in 1972, just as the debates over photocopying leading up to the passage of the 1976 Copyright Act were heating up. As the basic legal regime underpinning the entire publishing industry and affording protection for academic writing, copyright proved to be a wonderful introduction to the systemic nature of scholarly communication. It was also a lesson in the value of mentoring and of voluntary service in our profession, I might add—a lesson that I hope many of the young people in this room will take to heart, as they consider what opportunities they might have to contribute to the work of the AAUP while advancing their own careers.

The challenge of "open access" is presenting us now with a reason to think systematically. The debate in this arena is all too rife with narrow-minded perspectives. Understandably, librarians are concerned about their budgets, under severe stress from the ever rising costs of STM journal subscriptions, and they have pressed their case for change vigorously, with assistance from SPARC and other organizations. Disappointingly, however, administrators at the top levels, where one might expect thinking systematically to be part of the job description, have been prone to propose solutions that are narrowly tailored to solving the STM crisis, with little regard to how those solutions might affect the functioning of the rest of the system of scholarly communication, including university press publishing of both books and journals. The impetus for the AAUP Statement on Open Access was precisely to open some eyes at these levels, and among faculty also, about possibly deleterious consequences to the system as a whole of various solutions being proposed. Even more recently, we are witnessing a wave of advocacy by university administrators of faculty retaining most rights in their works when they sign contracts with publishers, with little understanding of how the granting of only nonexclusive rights, for instance, undercuts the economic basis of our publishing operations. I am encouraging the AAUP Copyright Committee over this coming year to draft an advisory notice in response to such ill-considered proposals, which while purportedly aimed at correcting problems with STM publishing are being written in ways that do not limit their application to just STM journals or even to just journals but encompass books as well.

We need to get our own house in better order, too, if we are to respond knowledgeably and persuasively to such challenges. I take this to be one principal message of the soon-to-be-released Ithaka Group report on "University Publishing in the Digital Age," which has been shared in draft form with press directors but once distributed in final form should be read by all press staff. Because the staff in journals departments of presses have already been exposed to the challenges of operating in a digital arena far more than their colleagues on the book side have been, I believe it is imperative that we not allow their knowledge and experience to be undervalued and underused. I will therefore be proposing to the AAUP Board of Directors tomorrow that a Task Force on Books and Journals be established to provide a stimulus for thinking creatively about how to bring books and journals staff together for fruitful exchange of ideas at AAUP annual meetings, in professional development workshops, and in other ways. It would be most unfortunate for us to allow a new "digital divide" to widen even further between book and journal content in academe, and this Task Force can help us look for opportunities for building bridges between the two. This effort should be one way of implementing recommendations of the Ithaka Group, which has raised the alarm about this "digital divide" and is seeking ways to help presses do something about it. As Peter Shepherd, the head of COUNTER (the organization that has set standards for usage statistic for journals and is now working on standards for e-book usage statistics) said in a recent issue of Against the Grain, "it is clear that in an online world, many of the traditional distinctions between books and journals are becoming blurred, not only in terms of technology, but also in terms of business/distribution models, which will have implications for how publishers and librarians organize themselves." Here it is worth noting also that in the AAUP Statement on Open Access we were able to provide financial data only about member presses' book operations; the absence of data about journal operations was conspicuous and embarrassing. I am asking the new Task Force also to work with the Scholarly Journals Committee and the Business Systems Committee in studying the feasibility of renewing the collection of journals operating data annually, last done systematically in the early 1990s.

Another manifestation of the failure to think systematically in higher education is the plight of the revised dissertation as the typical first book of many junior faculty in the humanities and social sciences. The recent MLA Report noted the problem in passing toward the end, but offered no ideas for dealing with it, other than its overall emphasis on reducing the emphasis on the monograph as the "gold standard" for promotion and tenure. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: P&T committees "rationally" decide to make completion of a book or two a sine qua non for career advancement; librarians "rationally" decide not to order books based on dissertations through their approval plans because they already have access to the dissertations through the ProQuest subscription database; ProQuest "rationally" decides to maximize its income on dissertations by licensing their sale through Amazon; and university presses, faced with expected lower sales of dissertation-based books, "rationally" decide not to publish them. Each individual decision is "rational" for the particular actor involved, but when combined the decisions add up to an irrational and dysfunctional system. As a first step in getting a better handle on this problem, I am proposing that the AAUP include in its annual survey of titles published a line that calls for each press to identify the number of books published that derived from dissertations. And, perhaps with support from some other organizations like the ARL and the MLA, we might collect these data retrospectively over the past five years to get a trend line for analysis of how big a problem this is getting to be. Ideally, this could even be broken down by discipline. The new initiative announced last month by the Mellon Foundation to help with the problem of publishing first books and books in fields underserved by publishers now, it seems to me, cannot adequately deal with the problem until we have such data and a better grasp of the special problem affecting books based on dissertations.

Karl Marx may have failed at predicting the downfall of capitalism, vastly underestimating its adaptability to every sort of seemingly revolutionary challenge and its ability to coopt radical strains in society (from Haight Asbury to P2P file-sharing), but he did teach us the value of understanding our world in holistic terms and thinking about it systematically. To survive in the "brave new world" we now inhabit, the AAUP needs to keep its vision trained on all the elements of the system of scholarly communication of which we are a part and to keep open our dialogue not only with our fellow publishers (whose views on copyright, for instance, we mostly but will not always share) but also with the administrators, librarians, and especially the faculty with whom we have common cause in serving our mission of "disseminating knowledge...far and wide."