Response to Proposal to End University of Western Australia Publishing Operations

In early November, the University of Western Australia (UWA) Deputy Vice Chancellor for Global Partnership, Tayyeb Shah, released a memo entitled "UWA Publishing: Proposal for Change." The proposed change involves dismissing all UWA Publishing staff and winding up any contractual oublishing commitments. While the memo makes reference to "Global Partnership's strategic vision to provide open and digitised access to information and knowledge in its support of the University's academic writing and research," it is unclear how shutting down a prestigious regional university press and dismissing campus publishing experts will further such a vision. UWA Publishing is not a member of the Association, but through their well-regarded literary and scholarly lists they fulfill a common mission with AUPresses and all of our members. The Association has written to the University to argue against such a drastic and harmful move, and to offer the expert resources our extensive global community can share. Read more about the proposed closing in the Conversation and the Guardian. Individuals, particularly those with a connection to the UWA region and community, can also sign a petition online.

November 15, 2019

Dear Deputy Vice Chancellor Shah:

I write today on behalf of an international community of more than 150 mission-driven publishers committed to the highest caliber of research-based scholarship to register our deep concern over the recently announced plans to end the operations of University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP).

The coincidence that this news was released during University Press Week 2019, as our community celebrated university presses' important contribution to understanding critical and complex issues, is particularly disturbing. Our theme for the week – Read. Think. Act. – encapsulates the important message that peer-reviewed scholarship, nurtured and published by university presses, is essential in moving national and international conversations forward. UWAP, while not a member of the Association of University Presses (AUPresses), obviously understands and embraces this foundational idea: as its website states, "We believe in the power of a good book to inspire important conversations."

The proposal to close UWAP overlooks the numerous ways in which this operation elevates civic dialogue and uniquely serves its region's and nation's citizens as part of a vibrant university community. Further, while it nods at the university's desire to seek "open and digitized access to information and knowledge," the proposal offers no actionable suggestions or even guiding precepts for how open access (OA) publishing might be undertaken in the wake of UWAP's closing. Indeed, the specifics that are offered concern instead the elimination of all UWAP staff, the very publishing experts on campus who are likely able to undertake such an effort.

UWAP and all university presses are at the center of the global knowledge ecosystem. They perform services that are of vast benefit to a diverse scholarly network—researchers, teachers, students, librarians, and the rest of the university community. Their work also reaches out to a broad audience of readers, and ultimately to the larger world that depends on informed and engaged peer-reviewed scholarship published to the highest standards. These services and benefits are equally a part of both open-access and market-based university press publishing. AUPresses' statement, "The Value of University Presses," explores the myriad contributions of UPs to society, scholars, and universities further. 

What's more, as a press associated with a major public university, UWAP rightly champions the diverse and distinctive local cultures and landscapes of its home state and region. It makes a fundamental contribution to its parent institution's service to the local and regional community. Together, a public university and its press can work as an engine of regional economic opportunity, innovation, and cultural celebration. The impact of UP work is even more significant in areas such as Western Australia, where the vitality of the culture, history, economy, and ecology outstrips commercial publishing opportunities.

UWAP obviously has taken its regional responsibility seriously. Its unrivaled Western Australian studies list includes well-received and -respected books about Noongar medicinal and food plants as well as the biodiversity of the Southwest; historical works that consider the wheat belt and the Kimberley frontier; and hard-hitting works about natural resources in the region such as Running Out? Water in Western Australia and The Coal Truth: The fight to stop Adani, defeat the big polluters and reclaim our democracy that bring academic insights to bear on important conversations.

In addition, UWAP's publications have garnered positive attention in several regional and national award competitions, including most recently winning the 2017 Miles Franklin prize (novelist Josephine Wilson, Extinctions) and the 2019 Western Australian Premier's Book Award for an Emerging Writer (poet Reneé Pettitt-Schipp, The Sky Runs Right Through Us) and being shortlisted for the 2019 National Biography Award (Rosanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored?) and the 2019 Prime Minister's Literary award, Australian history category (Anna Haebich, Dancing in Shadows). While it is appropriate for a university and its press to maximize mutual impact by aligning areas of interest among their scholars, schools, departments, and publications—and this can be an ongoing process and conversation throughout the life cycle of a university press—taken as a whole, UWAP's current list is enviable.

To return to the idea of open access (OA): All university-press published works—hardcover, paperback, e-book, interactive web projects—are the products of collective efforts of editors and peer reviewers, copy editors, designers and compositors, marketers and salespeople. As I wrote in Wonkhe last year, understanding the value that university press practices bring to scholarship and quantifying the cost of those actions are essential first steps for any university and university press seeking to adopt OA publishing strategies. 

A number of AUPresses members have sought proactively to rise to the challenge of OA monograph publishing and are investing significantly in the creation of infrastructure to make long-form scholarship more widely available in a variety of ways, frequently exploring hybrid print/open forms and paying careful attention to user analytics from a variety of audiences. UCL Press in the UK and National Academies Press in the US are engaged exclusively in open-access OA publishing, benefiting tremendously from the mission-driven support of their parent institutions, while the experiences of the University of Adelaide Press offer a more cautionary tale. There is, quite clearly, no single "right" way to proceed into the new frontier of OA publishing.

Closing down UWAP's current operations would result not only in silencing a vital champion of your region's culture and its concerns, but also in dismissing the very publishing professionals whose experience and input will be vital to achieving the university's OA ambitions Endeavoring to modify the press's subject areas, to add value to the products of your university's scholars, and to increase open and digitized access to these high-quality products without engaging their publishing expertise defies both our community's understanding of best business practices and, frankly, logic itself.

We encourage you to consider more deeply the decision to end the operations of University of Western Australia Publishing. Further, we urge you to include nonprofit scholarly publishing expertise in your future decision-making. The leadership and staff of the Association of University Presses stand ready to consult with you on such an approach in any way possible.

Sincerely,

Peter Berkery
Executive Director