Christie Henry on the Ecosystem of University Presses

 

Adapted from a presentation given at UGA by Christie Henry, Director, Princeton University Press

I have had the incredible fortune of living in the university press ecosystem for several decades, having moved in the fall of ‘17 to Princeton University Press, after twenty-four years with inspiring colleagues at the University of Chicago Press. University presses and the universities with which we partner are part of what I would describe as a metacommunity of ideas and knowledge—that is, a set of interacting communities linked by the dispersal of multiple, potentially interacting species.

Publishers do like to interact with species of students and academics; in fact we depend on these interactions. And it’s quite well known that each of our ecosystems draws resilience and sustainability from one another; most often our relationships are mutualisms.

As within ecosystems, there are vital nutrients that flow through our systems, among the most important of which is knowledge. Universities are the deep-sea thermal vents of knowledge, pumping it out in amazing quantities at highly concentrated sites. And university presses help create a pelagic zone for this knowledge, putting it into circulation across the globe.

Like organic nutrients, knowledge is created, consumed, processed, recycled. And we must be aware of its potential to get stuck in dead zones, or in massive clumps of plastic debris. As a vital nutrient, knowledge is also essential for us to conserve, ideally to grow.

Currently our ecosystems are facing unprecedented climate change—we can consider it our own Anthropocene. How we define “anthro” in this case varies. But we certainly don’t want to be having conversations years from now about how to clone an extinct idea or population of knowledge, much as we are now having conversations about cloning mammoths and other extinct fauna.

Strategic plans for conservation depend on an understanding of threats and challenges, and especially the climate disrupters. Those inhabiting our ecosystems will find this overview familiar terrain, I suspect, but I think it’s important to trace the contours of our current stressed landscape.

The worlds of research and knowledge are experiencing fluctuations in funding that are as erratic as global temperatures, though not trending on an increase as global temperatures are. Just as increased snowfall doesn’t negate the reality of global warming, we know that increases in the population in higher education don’t mean our system is showing signs of health and well-being. Reductions in funding, and university budgets, have run like a rhizome through our communities, have disrupted library budgets, and in the university press world have resulted in events such as the recent University Press of Kentucky battle for survival under proposed state government cuts.

We have seen massive influxes of what I could call invasive species—those that disrupt or harm our systems, the economy, and even human health. Email, many say, is one of these species. So is fake news. So too is the volume of information, which is impacting attention span, and certainly causing some concern among book publishers of all species.  Some of these influxes are leading to an extinction of time, and this has a ripple effect, with impacts on critical system operations like peer review. And even if altruism has been recognized in dolphins and scrub jays, we know there are limits. There is less time for writing, and for reading. Though some positive trends outside of the academy point to growth of reading time, it’s not necessarily time spent with books, or with long-form writing.

There are also arguably more predatory species in our communities, from rapacious journals to those attempting to extract nutrients from our systems: the tyrannical form of the assault on higher ed. And some of these predators are known to live in the Amazon, but this verdant jungle is also important to visit from time to time for all that it harbors.

We know that species diversity drives ecosystem health and stability, and another threat is the lack of diversity in our ecosystems. We are at risk of genetic bottlenecks, those major events that decrease diversity and the gene pool—immigration legislation is among the most acute recent examples.

There are pressures to grow the reach of our ecosystems, our nutrient output, while at the same time reducing incoming nutrients. Open access expectations in the book world pose one of these pressures for university presses. So does the tenure and credentialing process in those disciplines that quantify book output as a key metric.

Okay, enough of the gloom and doom. Many historical moments of massive disruption are followed by a burst of evolutionary adaptations that lead to greater diversity. And I think there is a chance we are now in our own Cambrian Explosion, amidst great radiations of knowledge and books. We will need to be intentional about supporting and preserving these ecosystems.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribunewas titled “University Presses Deserve Protection,” much as ecosystems around the world need conservation and management.

Another recent publication from the science literature shifted the foci of biodiversity from mass of species to the diversity of functional traits of species in an ecosystem as a measure of resilience. This study focused on pufferfish, and one could argue we have some of these swimming in our collective waters. But universities are growing innumerable new functional traits, as are university presses. I’d argue we in the AUP world were preadapted to this need for an array of functional traits, as our lists of book species are diverse—we publish course books, textbooks, popular books, reference works, regional works, and monographs. And we as a community function much like a honeybee democracy, which in the face of threats takes the form of an incredible superorganism—without needing to sting.

New modes of communication have also increased outlets for knowledge sharing, and we just need to learn the best ways to research and curate these. Blogs have become a flagship species in our ecosystems, inspiring books, and have provided new platforms. There was a great article in Natureyesterday about the first science conference proceedings published in graphic form, a genre we all know could benefit from evolutionary change.

Libraries and publishers are working to coevolve, crafting aggregations of content, and partnering on joint publications and initiatives.

Some evolution is at a slower pace, in the best of ways. The price of university press books in real dollars, accounting for inflation, has not increased in measurable ways at all. The nonprofit mission and ethos have been in a state of equilibrium, only rarely punctuated.

Technology is leading not just to artificial intelligence, but to new and real knowledge. Open peer review is using technology to bring in a wider range of reviewers, particularly more global ones. A recent great example is Bit by Bit: Social Science Research in the Digital Age:author and sociologist Matt Salganik worked with the Sloan Foundation to create the Open Review Toolkit. This platform facilitated feedback from around the world, at various scales, and generated a database of interested readers.

Technology has also helped to grow our landscapes, to aid in bringing our content to readers the world over on new platforms. New digital initiatives, from digital humanities, sciences, and social sciences, are animating scholarship, and the book.

And publishers are also focusing on the diversity of species—of readers, of authors, of reviewers—and that will ultimately drive our resilience, as it will the university’s ecosystem.

There are many compelling reasons to be part of the circulation and exchange between our linked metacommunities.

As I think about a field guide for those of you coming new to the AUP land, there are a number of entries in the field guide index I would point you to:

  1. Find your niche. Know your audience, especially the difference between a dissertation committee and a book readership.
  2. Look for conspecifics. Identify those species of books that are like yours, as there is strength in being part of a family. And then see where those species tend to gather, under which imprints.
  3. Think about your plumage. This includes your proposal, a vital signaling tool, but also your platform. What type of author species are you? What are the novel traits you contribute to the ecosystem? We look for functional diversity on our lists. But we are increasingly looking for how well your plumage works in the world—what we call your platform. Social media, while causing a lot of information overflow, has also become a vital signaling tool in the world of publishing—for scholarly and trade alike. Many of the signaling forms of earlier geologic eras, like print advertising, are not resonating—they are being replaced with Altmetric badges and Twitter followers, and these new efforts depend on partnerships between presses and authors.
  4. Think like bowerbird. Look for the houses that are constructed and decorated in ways that sing to you. Each publisher has its own niche, and we usually do a pretty good job of signaling that ourselves. Visit websites; visit booths in exhibit halls. And your journey should explore not just the construct of our houses, but how we get our birdsong out into the world—are we visible? are our prices reasonable? do we appear on syllabi? are our books translated widely?
  5. Sensory ecology is a wonderfully exciting field. Embrace the ways in which you can adapt this to publishing. Listen to your peers; listen to yourselves as you teach, and the books you use. Listen for the authors and books that are being mentioned in your own niche.
  6. Circulate like plankton. Find ways to share your ideas. If at conferences, be sure to test them out with publishers on-site. Though also be mindful of the conservation of energy rule for publishers—try to make sure the engagement is focused and meaningful.
  7. Be active foragers—do your research. There is so much information on press websites about their own DNA. Their priorities, strengths, weaknesses. The more you can align your approach to these strengths, the better.
  8. Be clear signaler, not stealth like anglerfish. Communicate with publishers with clarity and transparency, from the proposal to the project’s main hook, to your aspirations as an author, to the way to engage your readers with story.
  9. Prepare to be challenged by your conspecifics and your competitors. Peer review is critical by nature, but it also evolves stronger life-forms of books.
  10. Be a patient species—we know the book world sometimes seems to move at geologic time scales, but the results can be structures as magnificent and multilayered as the Grand Canyon.
  11. You may also occasionally need the tenacity of a bulldog.
  12. And nothing ignites the senses better than reading or listening to books—please make time to do so. It’s the best way to find models for different forms of writing, and to support the ecosystem with which you are now coevolving as academics.

Another reference to a recent article in Nature:

“Ecological theory suggests that large-scale patterns such as community stability can be influenced by changes in interspecific interactions that arise from the behavioral and/or physiological responses of individual species varying over time.“ Please be those individual species that respond and behave in ways that will stabilize knowledge, and so too the evolution of the book.

 

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Presenting the trailer for “The Serengeti Rules”— a new documentary based on the bookMark Serreze: The Value of Climate Science >>