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Amherst College responds to ‘crisis in academic publishing,’ starts online press

  • The head librarian of Frost Library Bryan Geffert poses for a portrait in front of his extensive Russian history book collection. Geffert is heading up a high quality digital academic press at Amherst College.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    The head librarian of Frost Library Bryan Geffert poses for a portrait in front of his extensive Russian history book collection. Geffert is heading up a high quality digital academic press at Amherst College.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • The head librarian of Frost Library Bryan Geffert poses for a portrait in front of his extensive Russian history book collection. Geffert is heading up a high quality digital academic press at Amherst College.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    The head librarian of Frost Library Bryan Geffert poses for a portrait in front of his extensive Russian history book collection. Geffert is heading up a high quality digital academic press at Amherst College.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Common, a literary magazine, struck an agreement with the head librarian of Frost Library at Amherst College, Bryn Geffert, to make their information available online as part of a digital academic press Geffert is starting up.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    The Common, a literary magazine, struck an agreement with the head librarian of Frost Library at Amherst College, Bryn Geffert, to make their information available online as part of a digital academic press Geffert is starting up.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • The head librarian of Frost Library Bryn Geffert poses for a portrait in front of his extensive Russian history book collection. Geffert is heading up a high quality digital academic press at Amherst College.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    The head librarian of Frost Library Bryn Geffert poses for a portrait in front of his extensive Russian history book collection. Geffert is heading up a high quality digital academic press at Amherst College.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • The head librarian of Frost Library Bryan Geffert poses for a portrait in front of his extensive Russian history book collection. Geffert is heading up a high quality digital academic press at Amherst College.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • The head librarian of Frost Library Bryan Geffert poses for a portrait in front of his extensive Russian history book collection. Geffert is heading up a high quality digital academic press at Amherst College.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • The Common, a literary magazine, struck an agreement with the head librarian of Frost Library at Amherst College, Bryn Geffert, to make their information available online as part of a digital academic press Geffert is starting up.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • The head librarian of Frost Library Bryn Geffert poses for a portrait in front of his extensive Russian history book collection. Geffert is heading up a high quality digital academic press at Amherst College.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

Publish or perish: It’s the old axiom about academia that says professors must regularly publish new work if they want to sustain their careers.

But as Bryn Geffert sees it, publish or perish might be the new watchword for college libraries as well. The cost of many academic journals and other research materials is soaring, Geffert says, and unless libraries and schools find a way to produce information themselves, they’ll be hard-pressed to meet the needs of faculty and students.

Geffert, the head of Frost Library at Amherst College, is the force behind a new venture at the college that aims to address that issue by setting a precedent in academic publishing: doing such work online and making it available free to everyone.

Though Amherst College Press is still in the planning stages, officials say the college is committed to the effort, pledging to invest $1 million over the next five years and to hire a director and two editors. At the same time, organizers will reach out to scholars in this country and abroad for manuscripts in fields such as literary studies, political science, history and anthropology.

Geffert and other Amherst College officials say they’re hoping to start a trend that will spur other schools to embrace the idea.But the move is not without some risk, they add.

“This is really a leap of faith,” Geffert said. “We’re going to see if others choose to leap after us or leave us suspended in midair on our own.”

Geffert stresses that the press will largely be supported with existing funds at Amherst, including money from the library budget. The school has begun a $3 million fundraising campaign to create a new endowment, with some of the interest going toward the salary of the director of the press, who would report to Geffert.

In the last several years, Geffert says, Amherst has embraced the idea of serving underrepresented populations, by expanding enrollment of minority students, for example. A college press with free online availability to all, he adds, could serve a similar role in a more general way — giving a student in Africa, for instance, access to the same information an Amherst student has.

“This notion of making literature available to a much broader audience meshes quite nicely with Amherst’s overall mission,” Geffert said.

Crisis in publishing

Geffert, who came to Amherst in 2010 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where he was library director and an associate history professor, says he’s been thinking about this issue for several years.

“It gets down to what we think is a real crisis in academic publishing,” he said. “It’s increasingly difficult to afford the materials we need to buy for students and faculty.”

The root of the problem is multifaceted, he said. For example, a few commercial publishing firms have cornered the market on scientific journals and charge up to $24,000 for annual subscriptions. Meanwhile, traditional academic publishers struggle with limited budgets and produce fewer books, driving up the cost of those titles to as much as $300, Geffert says.

As a result, he says, college libraries have less money to purchase the broad range of materials needed for students and faculty, and per-student costs for such material have soared. At Amherst, it’s about $1,400 annually — the highest ratio for any liberal arts college in the country, Geffert says.

More to the point, the system by which academic materials are published is at fault, he says. Colleges subsidize their professors’ research through salaries, travel costs, and administrative support, “and then the professor sends the manuscript to a publisher, who sells it to us,” said Geffert. “It’s this crazy model of us producing the information, giving it to publishers for free, and then buying it back.”

And, he added, “Many people never have access to these books and journals — a few hundred libraries maybe buy copies, and that’s it.”

Geffert says he first pitched the idea of creating an online publishing arm at Amherst when he interviewed for his position, and that then-president Anthony Marx liked the idea and encouraged him to develop it. Geffert was inspired by the University of Michigan, which merged its press and library in 2008 and began publishing free books online.

Amherst’s new president, Carolun “Biddy” Martin, has also embraced Geffert’s proposal.

“There aren’t as many online venues for high-quality writing and scholarship in the humanities as there are in the sciences,” Martin said in statement. The college press, she added, ideally will place Amherst “in the forefront of a movement that we hope will be embraced by leading scholars in the humanities.

To get to that point, Geffert acknowledges, Amherst College Press will have to overcome the mind-set among some academics that publishing exclusively online is less prestigious than doing so in a traditional print format.

“It is a real prejudice,” he said. “It’s less of a concern today than it was five or six years ago, but it’s something we’ll have to overcome.”

To meet that challenge, Geffert envisions the press director and its two editors initially “beating the bushes” for scholarly manuscripts, using networking and academic conferences to talk to professors doing research and pitching Amherst College Press to them. Among their selling points will be exposure to far more potential readers than a print format can provide, as well as a rigorous peer-review process and strong editing and copyediting.

“We want good prose to be a hallmark of this press,” he said. “We want to show that free can also be good.”

Geffert says another selling point is that the Amherst press will be on a solid economic footing, since most of its funding sources come from college departments. The two editors will assume two vacant Frost Library positions, for instance, and funding for outside copyediting services will come from existing library endowments. The college’s information technology network, meanwhile, will provide the framework for publishing online content.

Bruce Wilcox, the head of University of Massachusetts Press, says that online publishing has greatly expanded among academic presses, including his own. Given that, he says, there could well be a receptive audience among scholars for an open-access model like that of Amherst College Press.

“If Amherst can afford to make this work by giving away content for free, then it could be a successful model,” Wilcox said. “The substance of a book is what matters, not necessarily the means of delivery.”

Geffert says “modest” payments will also go to some authors even though most academic writers get paid little or even nothing for their work, as compensation comes from salary increases and promotions.

“You’re usually writing to advance your career,” said Geffert, who has published books on librarianship and Russian history.

Amherst College will also expand another of its publishing efforts as part of the new venture.

“The Common,” a biannual literary journal founded in 2010, will now publish its short stories, poetry, essays and other works online for free, while continuing to put out a print edition. The journal will receive additional funding from the college to make those changes, Geffert said.

The college will soon begin searching for a director for its press and hopes to hire someone by summer or early fall. That director will determine the subjects the press will focus on.

“You don’t want to spread yourself too thin. Most academic presses are known for a speciality,” Geffert said.

Ultimately, he adds, Amherst College Press will only work if other schools, particularly large universities, follow suit and make research available electronically.

“At some point, the money you spend to produce your work will be offset by the money you save by getting free stuff yourself,” Geffert said.

It’s an approach he believes is necessary.

“The current model isn’t working — we need to acknowledge that, take some pain up front, and hope to solve this down the road.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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