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by Alison Shaw
9th December 2019

The daily news unveils the latest social problems from the impeachment of the US president, violent clashes in Hong Kong, the devastation of the Amazon rainforest, to Britain’s divorce from its closest trading partner.

Given this, recent debates about the role of university presses could seem rather inward-looking, but there is a link. I believe that university presses (UPs) can use their privileged position within the publishing and scholarly ecosystem to bring about positive social and cultural change.

I write this after recent articles in the Times Higher and the book trade magazine The Bookseller explored the role of UPs, and Anthony Cond provided a thoughtful reflection on the question as Liverpool University Press celebrated its 120th birthday.  The question of what role a university press can/should play in public debate was raised and this is a question I will be addressing with others at the next University Press Redux conference in March next year.

Given this position, I was pleased that last month’s  University Press Week focussed on the role of UPs in amplifying unheard voices through a campaign called READ. THINK. ACT. The Association of University Presses said:

University presses have an important role in moving national and international conversations forward on critical and complex issues. This year we encourage readers to explore research on topics that affect everyone and to reflect on what they read, in the hope that the work of university presses bringing scholarship to readers will stimulate positive conversations and actions in the world.

As a press focused on influencing social change since its inception, I was delighted to see this. We established Policy Press in 1996 with a social as well as a scholarly mission and this continues under Bristol University Press today.

The role of university presses in public debate

Social media has enabled widespread participation in public debate, but this positive can be drowned out by the rise in misinformation and fake news, with invective becoming commonplace and shrill rage normalised. Our need to access well-considered evidence, analysis and interpretation has never been more vital and the university press has an important role to play.

At BUP we not only publish work that extends knowledge, but we actively encourage engagement with the published work to help create social change. It’s not just publishing for publishing’s sake. If we are not making visible new thinking that challenges injustice and inequality within and beyond academia, then we are not doing the job we set ourselves.

Our imprint Policy Press was established to work across the boundaries of scholarship, policy making, practice and user engagement.  We aim to play a very direct role in shaping policy, practice and cultural change by publishing on social issues that affect individuals, from health services, social care and education, to housing, crime and poverty reduction.

Publishing work that reaches a non-specialist audience is core to engaging in public debate.  University presses are effectively publishing in this ‘scholarly trade’ space and our Big Ideas collection is an example.  Given the rise in significant global challenges from climate change to migration crises it is ever more important that we provide accessible, authoritative work that draws on solid research from around the world to make a difference.

Our role within the academy

As well as providing rigorous, peer-reviewed research and holding a deep commitment to advancing ideas to support social change, university presses can be foundational in their areas of scholarly focus.  They are ideally placed to support the evolution of new fields and approaches, for example at BUP we are working with the University of Bristol and various external partners to explore what truly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary publishing could look like.

UPs are embedded in the scholarly communities they serve – often quite literally as in our case in the heart of the University of Bristol campus – and as Anthony Cond says in the article above, a university press “takes nothing out of its community” and instead, like its host institution, exists to serve knowledge.

Alongside this contribution to knowledge, university presses are powerful ambassadors for their university, helping to represent what they stand for on a global stage. This does not mean replicating specific university policy and academic priorities but operating within the spirit of the university’s values and broad scholarly strategy.

I want the University of Bristol to be proud of its press and the contribution we are making, just as all the other university presses want to make their university’s proud of their contribution.  BUP’s strong focus on global social challenges and diversity and inclusion reflect Bristol’s own aspirations for example.

Our community

I ventured into university press publishing in October 1989 by disseminating the research of a university department, in the same spirit as the ‘new’ open access (OA) and scholar-led presses publish today like UCL, Goldsmiths, Westminster, Huddersfield and White Rose.

Over those 30 years I have witnessed the fluctuating interest in university press publishing in the UK moving between investment and support, to withdrawal and disinterest, and back again, somewhat dependent on HE policy and commercial press interests.  As a sector, UPs are currently in a growth phase as the open access debate provides new possibilities for universities to disseminate their work and the impact agenda encourages wider community engagement.

However, I am concerned that university presses can weather the ups and downs of institutional interest and thrive over the long-term whatever the policy direction.  In the UK, we have two of the oldest UPs Cambridge (est 1534) and Oxford (1586), as well as the ‘Mid-sized 5’ – Liverpool (1899), Manchester (1903), Wales (1922), Edinburgh (1940s) and Bristol a mere youngster (1996 for Policy and 2016 for BUP) – who combine OA with more traditional book and journal publishing.

The ‘Mid-sized 5’ have all had their own ups and downs over their history of course but now they are thriving and contributing to scholarship in some exciting ways.  They are succeeding because of their mixed income models and we should be wary of any restrictive publishing mandates, for example in relation to Plan S, that might disrupt their ability to contribute in future.  We also must ensure that the exciting ‘new’ UPs are able to continue should OA policy change in a way that is negative for their publishing model in the future.

University press publishing is global in nature with presses in mainland Europe, South America, China, Australasia and East Asia. North America’s long tradition of UP publishing with over 120 presses is wide ranging and goes way beyond the well-known presses of Princeton, Chicago, MIT, Yale, California and Harvard.

On a personal note, over the past thirty years I have been incredibly touched by the way that our community shares their expertise, supports each other and encourages new presses.  UPs genuinely want to contribute to scholarship and broader intellectual endeavour.  I, and our team, could not have achieved what we have without the friendship and genuine support of many other UP press colleagues.

University presses are a community to be treasured – old or new – and should be enabled to flourish so they can continue to make a real difference to scholarship, to the translation of ideas, and to policy, practice and cultural change.  We can challenge the current anti-expert populist stance, promote diversity and inclusion of content, ideas, authorship and readership and through the quality of our scholarly contribution make a real difference to our world.

Find out more about Bristol University Press and Policy Press on our website.

Image credit: Ian Schneider on Unsplash