Is prestige a problem? Considering the usefulness of prestige in academic book publishing

Academic Publishing Mar 05, 2020

This is the full draft of an article published in Research Europe's 05 March 2020 issue. The edited article is free to read on Research Europe's website, and they kindly agreed that we could post the full draft version here under our blog's CC BY licence.

At the 14th Munin Conference in November last year, prestige was raised on multiple occasions as a drag on progress in Open Access (OA) publishing. Traditional legacy publishing—the model by which academic books and journals are published in print or closed-access digital formats at high cost and low volume—plainly does not take full advantage of digital developments that enable us to distribute content much more efficiently and effectively to many more readers. But authors, by and large, value these more prestigious legacy outlets extremely highly, particularly when it comes to books–those presses with the longest histories, the most stellar backlists, and the highest rejection rates.

Although such publishers have made gestures towards Open Access, they tend to be highly conservative in their approach: slow to adjust their business and production models to embrace OA, offering only a limited version (e.g. a PDF of a book designed for print), and imposing exorbitant charges on authors (prices vary, but between £10,000-£15,000 is common for an academic monograph to be published Open Access under a Book Processing Charge model).

While authors continue to flock to the legacy presses, there is little incentive for them to change their approach, regardless of its effectiveness.

There is, though, an alternative ecosystem of non-profit, scholar-led and university presses who have embraced Open Access for books (in fact they are often born-OA publishers). Adema & Stone (2017) note the existence of four Open Access university presses and thirteen scholar-led Open Access publishers operating in the UK or publishing for the UK market.

These are presses invested in getting high-quality research to as many readers as possible, and in developing business models such that cost is not a barrier either for readers to read, or for authors to publish. Examples include Open Book Publishers and punctum books, who have a growing reputation for innovative processes and publications (whether in terms of business model, content, or format), high standards in research and production quality, and a focus on the wide dissemination of academic work in the service of the scholarly community.

This non-profit and collaborative approach has led easily to cooperation, and therefore to the creation of partnerships like ScholarLed—a consortium of five academic-led, non-profit OA book publishers developing powerful ways for small-scale OA presses to flourish—and the COPIM project, a major £3.5 million international partnership of researchers, libraries, the ScholarLed presses and infrastructure providers, which is building  open, non-profit, community-governed infrastructure that can support a wide range of publishers of different sizes to create a resilient and diverse ecosystem for OA book publishing.

Notwithstanding these encouraging developments, publisher prestige continues to act as a powerful restriction on author choice. Many researchers who might otherwise wish to publish with an OA press think twice because of a concern that they or their work will be judged negatively in consequence—that their CV won’t look as gilded in comparison to colleagues; that they will be overlooked for prizes and promotion.

What do we mean when we talk about prestige?

There are several threads woven through the concept of prestige. One is quality: a prestigious publisher will have published research of distinction in the past, and their books might have high production values. Another is reputation: they are known for their previous good work, and they have attracted more talented authors as a result. Prestigious presses are often attached to renowned universities, with acclaimed academics participating in their peer-review processes. Their reputation has grown to such a degree that they are taken as a byword for excellence.

The problem with prestige, however, is that it has the capacity to overwhelm continued critical engagement. Prestige is a kind of currency, with transferable value for others—for those authors, say, whose work is published by a prestigious press and therefore judged more favourably in a competitive research environment.

It also sets the conditions of its own value. A press might have a record of past distinction, but is it continuing to maintain that record in the present—or has it, by virtue of the prestigious reputation it has acquired, created the conditions for its activities to be seen as the best or only proper way of proceeding?

Prestige is necessarily restrictive; it dilutes as it is shared. In signalling to the overburdened academic community what is supposedly the ‘best’ work in the field, it performs a winnowing function—but in a research environment in which more and more monographs are being published (indeed in an environment that incentivises this activity, thanks to the emphasis universities place on the monograph when hiring) how much work is not being given its due because it is published by a less prestigious press, or, worse, not published at all?

Of equal concern, particularly given that most legacy publishers are so unsatisfactory when it comes to Open Access and other innovations in publishing, is the imposition of artificial scarcity when it comes to the author’s choice of publisher: I feel I must publish with a more prestigious outlet, even if my work will be much less widely read or appropriately presented. There is a kind of ‘Matthew effect’ in action as authors choose the more prestigious press, even if it dissatisfies them.

The veneration of prestige in academic publishing therefore limits the choice of authors and the accessibility of research; in signalling that a publisher will be valued today on what it achieved in the past, it deadens innovation. What might we replace it with?

Borrowing the term from Moore, Neylon, Eve, O’Donnell and Pattinson (2017) in their discussion of the fetishisation of excellence in higher education, I wonder if we might do better to think about the ‘soundness’ of a publisher—to focus on practices, rather than prestige. How is research chosen for publication by the press? What are its editorial and production standards? How does it engage with new developments in book production? How widely are its works disseminated, and is its business model sustained by hefty charges levied on authors or readers?

These are all valid ways to begin to think about the qualities of a press—although each one might be contentious to evaluate. But the point is precisely that they should be up for debate—that we are critically engaging with the terms on which research is distributed and assessed, rather than embracing the inertia engendered by a reliance on prestige.

Lucy Barnes

Lucy Barnes is an editor at Open Book Publishers. She is also completing her PhD at the University of Cambridge, studying nineteenth-century theatrical adaptations of novels and poetry.