By Emily Gold Boutilier
In addition to being the head librarian at Amherst, Bryn Geffert is a scholar of Eastern and Russian Orthodox Christianity and the author of a recent book on the subject. Last year a graduate student in Siberia emailed Geffert to inquire about the book. The man’s library didn’t carry it. He couldn’t afford to buy it. But he really wanted to read it.
Geffert had access to a digital version, but sending it would have violated the copyright of his publisher, the University of Notre Dame Press. Making a scan was not an option either, for the same reason. So Geffert shelled out $60 of his own money to order a copy of his own book, which he then mailed to Siberia.
What’s wrong with this picture? In Geffert’s mind, practically everything.
Geffert is an amiable Midwesterner who is unsparing in his critique of modern scholarly publishing—an industry that, he says, does “far more to lock down information than to disseminate it to those who need it.” At the extreme is the journal Brain Research, which costs $24,038 a year. More common are four-figure journal subscriptions that deplete library budgets for books, which themselves are no great bargain. For its size, Amherst has a library budget that is much larger than the national average. “Yet we’re cancelling subscriptions left and right,” Geffert says.
As a result, academic librarianship threatens to become “a profession of malcontents,” Geffert says. “But malcontent doesn’t accomplish anything.” He began to wonder: “If libraries can’t afford to buy this stuff, why not think about producing it ourselves?”
So he convinced Amherst to just that. In late 2012, the college announced that it will launch a new Amherst College Press, which, operating under the auspices of the library, will publish scholarly books using the “open-access” model—online, with unrestricted access and at no cost to readers. In a video announcing the endeavor, Geffert pointed out that professors worldwide produce reams of scholarship each year: “We at Amherst and our peers at other institutions give that scholarship away, without compensation, to commercial presses. These commercial presses [usually] pay our authors nothing—not a cent—and they send Amherst College nothing in return. But here’s what’s particularly galling: When these commercial presses then publish that scholarship, they demand that Amherst College buy it back.”
He asked viewers to imagine a better way. What if Amherst launched an academic press whose books were electronic and available for free to anyone with an Internet connection? What if this venture aimed to rival top university presses in quality?
“Isn’t this endeavor wildly idealistic?” asks the final FAQ in the announcement of the press. The
one-word answer: “Yes.”
Idealistic may not be quite the right word. The new Amherst College Press is at once self-interested and altruistic, Geffert says. The self-interest is in helping libraries and authors—and, by extension, students. The altruism is in its potential reach, particularly to underserved students, faculty and institutions in the United States and abroad.
Most of the world’s population lacks access to scholarly publications. Over the past 30 years, academic presses have dramatically reduced the number of copies they print per title—typically from a few thousand to a few hundred.
Books by Amherst College Press will be available to read online and in formats suitable for download on most e-readers. At the outset, the press will publish solely in the liberal arts, with a special focus on the arts and humanities. These are the areas in which the college sees the most need, in part because the open-access movement has so far been centered on the sciences and also because the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has identified a number of humanities fields as underserved by quality presses. The press will also host an online, free version of The Common, a literary magazine based at the college and published in print twice yearly. The Common has expanded its website to publish original content four days each week.
Geffert is now seeking a director with expertise in academic publishing. This person will face the daunting task of “convincing authors that a new, untested venture is a worthy place for their manuscripts,” Geffert says. To that end, he hopes that several factors will work in Amherst’s favor. One is the college’s name. Another is its ability to promise something that traditional presses cannot: unlimited readership.
Editing will be another selling point. As university presses—“the last great bulwark against slipping standards,” Geffert argues—cut back on the number of items they produce, many scholars have turned to commercial presses that do little or no content or copy editing. In contrast, Amherst College Press will treat manuscripts as raw material, employing peer review and close editing. The new director will hire two editors.
With no need to pay costs related to printing, shipping, inventory and accounting, expenses will be comparatively low. The college is raising money to endow the directorship. Funding for the two editing positions will come from the library, through the repurposing of jobs that have opened up as a result of retirements. Operating expenses will come from the library’s existing endowments.
The library hopes to have a director in place by fall semester and to have that person start reaching out to authors shortly after being hired. Those authors—at least at first—will probably not include Amherst professors; this is out of caution, to avoid being perceived, even unfairly, as a vanity press.
Amherst is not the first school to experiment with open-access scholarly publishing. Rice University launched a similar press in 2006 only to shut it down in 2010. There are lessons to be learned from that failure: Unlike at Amherst, Rice relied in part on sales of print editions to fund operating expenses. “The advantage of our model,” Geffert says, “is that it is not dependent on revenue. We are not under pressure to turn a profit.”
Also, unlike at Rice, Amherst College Press has the strong backing of the administration. “There are not as many online venues for high-quality writing and scholarship in the humanities as there are in the sciences,” says President Biddy Martin. “Our open-access press will place Amherst at the forefront of a movement that we hope will be embraced by leading scholars in the humanities.”
Amherst takes inspiration from the University of Michigan, which in 2009 merged its press with its
library and increased its focus on free, digital publications available to all. “Michigan did this,” Geffert says, “without any promise of compensation from other institutions. That altruism inspired me.”
Michigan’s Shana Kimball, head of publishing services, outreach and strategic development, says digital publishing “democratizes the access to scholarship.” She describes the Amherst venture as bold. “We’re in a moment when we’re hearing more about presses closing than presses opening,” she says. “Scholarly publishing is in trouble, and Amherst is trying to help it in this really enlightened way.”
Geffert imagines a future in which many colleges and universities follow Michigan’s and Amherst’s lead. “We look forward to a tipping point,” he says—a time when libraries and the global reading public have access to a large body of information that they no longer have to buy. But until then, at least Geffert and Amherst can make a dent in the problem, providing free, high-quality, important scholarship to anyone who wants it, even in Siberia.
Emily Gold Boutilier is the editor of Amherst magazine.