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Changed priorities ahead: scholarly publishing and Covid-19

A COPIM Work Package 3 blog post on the final Redux 2020 webinar 'An Altered Landscape: The Impact of Covid-19 on University Presses' (Thursday 30 July)

Published onAug 17, 2020
Changed priorities ahead: scholarly publishing and Covid-19

“The ongoing Covid-19 crisis poses a significant financial risk to the UK higher education sector. Universities are facing big losses across a range of income sources and investments. These losses could cause serious financial problems, including – in the extreme – insolvency. “

Drayton & Waltman, Institute of Fiscal Studies, 6th July 2020

The last of the excellent ALPSP/CUP Redux Online webinars on Thursday 20 July made for a sobering afternoon. Discussing a publishing and library landscape altered by Covid-19 and the potential impacts on university presses, it seemed at times like a case of “do you want the bad news or the bad news?” However, the three speakers all succeeded in offering some useful pointers on how scholarly publishing might meet the challenges, if not actually inoculate itself against Covid-19.

The view from Goldsmiths… and beyond

First up was Prof. Sarah Kember (Director of Goldsmiths Press - Goldsmiths, University of London) who gave a wide-ranging talk that introduced many of the themes for the afternoon. In summarising the challenges facing Goldsmiths she neatly highlighted many of the things keeping others in HE awake at night:

  • Recruitment and pay freezes;

  • Closures of courses and departments;

  • Ending contracts for fixed term employment (disproportionately affecting BME colleagues);

  • Government strengthening the links between employment and (mostly) STEM education - and at the same time branding arts and humanities degrees as somehow ‘lower value’;

  • The Secretary of State for Education’s plan to abandon Blair’s target of 50% of young people going to university.

Sarah summarised the bigger picture too:

  • The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimate that UK HE‘s losses will be between £3 billion and £19 billion in one year;

  • The biggest losses will most likely be from a drop in international and EU student enrolments;

  • Cost cutting alone won’t be enough - university redundancies are here now.

University presses find themselves affected by and navigating this environment in a bid to stay afloat - and relevant - while still grappling with OA policies and structural inequalities that even prior to the pandemic were already problematic. Sarah offered that “our building is on fire and we need to re-examine and rebuild foundations, not just walls and windows.” She suggested that in order for scholarly communication to survive we need to “rebuild... across teaching, research and publishing, across STEM and AHSS and by means of closer collaboration between specifically UP publishers and the academy.” She closed by saying that scholarly publishing is not yet broken and that to say so is to allow us to quit and throw our hands up in defeat - rather, she suggested “it is breaking, being dismantled and effectively asset stripped. We should make these assets our own.”

The Lancaster Library view

The second speaker was Andrew Barker (Director of Library Services & Learning Development - Lancaster University) who had some pretty tough messages on how much spare money the library has (none), and the health of Norman, the famous library tree (dead). Happily Norman has been replaced but Andrew reiterated that there is no magic money tree and the Library is facing some very difficult times in trying to balance competing challenges, including:

  • Social distancing for staff and students in the Library buildings;

  • The possibility of a second spike on campus and the possibility of further lockdowns making it harder and harder to justify buying print (publishers take note);

  • Working from home, furloughing staff, and scenario planning around budget cuts (Andrew echoing the earlier point about a predicted drop in international and UK students);

  • Digital transformation and a dual approach to course provision.

And all this alongside some interesting stats on how essential the Library services really are, as evidenced by 1000+ interactions on Lancaster’s online chat service since April, and May requests for full-text access at 334,000 (which is 79% up on last year).

And the view from Cambridge University Press

The final talk at Redux2020 was delivered by Mandy Hill (Managing Director, Academic Publishing - Cambridge University Press) who talked about how Covid-19 has changed strategic priorities at CUP. Also echoing one of the first talk’s points, Mandy outlined how even before Covid-19, publisher business models were already being disrupted by Open Access considerations, an increasing move towards online learning and open educational resources, and the contraction of the textbook market. This last point about the pressure on traditional textbook revenue was backed up by some interesting figures: Cengage down 6% in the US; McGraw Hill down 7%, Pearson down 9%. CUP see all of this disruption being accelerated by the pandemic.

Mandy also drew attention to other points touched on by Sarah and Andrew: publishers and institutions are aware that they need to do more to support diversity and inclusion in their workplaces and in their publications. She made the point that publishing works of significance and impact is likely to get harder:

  • Books/journals that were marginal before, may not be viable with the reduced sales expectations;

  • Library budget cuts likely to hit books and journals, especially anything considered to be discretionary spend;

  • Journals highly dependent on traditional subscriptions will be hard hit;

  • The accelerated shift from print to digital book sales is reducing revenues faster than expected;

  • Commissioning titles could be affected by reduced travel (though too early to tell yet).

... but that publishing these works has also never been more important because “solutions to the current crises (clinical, social, economic) will only be found through research, an evidence-based approach, and diversity of thought.”

CUP have been working on meeting these challenges by accelerating the launch of their own textbook platform, being open to the possibilities of open research and OA (but noted “it must be done right”), and exploring the benefits that print-on-demand can bring. Mandy’s summary of the picture from CUP perhaps gives us a useful summary for today’s session in general: Covid-19 hasn’t necessarily altered strategy, but it has accelerated change and made the context more difficult.

COPIM in the context of Covid

The session closed with a wide-ranging discussion between all the speakers on: freezes in recruitment/promotion and how this might affect the urgent need to address a lack of diversity; the funding of OA in AHSS disciplines; how Covid-19 has affected human interaction in scholarly publishing (conferences, sales reps, meetings, book launches etc.); the future of print; and the future of subsidised university presses.

It’s fitting that today’s session was the last of the Redux2020 webinars since the conference itself was affected by Covid-19: originally planned as a two-day event in Cambridge, many speakers and attendees had their trains, planes and hotels already booked when the organisers made the (correct) decision to pull the plug. It feels a little bit like Redux is itself a case study of how we might start to find solutions to Normal 2.0: flexibly adapted online, the challenges of running it/presenting it/delivering it/accessing it all enthusiastically (and successfully) taken up by the organisers and participants.

One Twitter user following the event on the #Redux2020 hashtag summed it all up nicely: “how do we deliver all the new things our users/customers need, with dramatically reduced resources? But what we do has never been more important.”

This is the context within which COPIM is working. It's clearly a tough time economically for everyone, including transformative open-access projects like ours. With libraries looking at potentially making savings, we have some interesting conversations ahead if we want to discuss collaborative funding models, for example. Covid-19 may make these conversations more difficult, but at the same time the pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the merits of, and urgent need for, greater open-access.

Picture credit: Changed Priorities Ahead sign by R/DV/RS, on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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