Last week, Alliant International University (AIU), a private US college announced an intriguing scholarly publishing partnership with Author Solutions, the self-publishing arm of Penguin Random House. Together the two organisations said they were creating Alliant Press, a university press that would be built using Author Solutions infrastructure and be dedicated to publishing “academic works of AIU students, scholars, alumni, staff and other select authors”.
Author Solutions’ official announcement presents this partnership as a “new model of academic publishing”, and it’s certainly innovative from several different points of view. Yet whether it truly does present a model that could be applied more widely across the scholarly publishing sector is open to debate. AIU has been open in saying that it signed a partnership with Author Solutions instead of investing in the considerable infrastructure required to set up a university press from scratch. The deal will allow AIU to leverage the systems and workflow of a publishing services company to produce and distribute content for publication. By making use of on-demand resource, Alliant Press will therefore hope to keep its start-up costs under control. What’s more surprising, however, is that AIU chose as its partner a company that specialises in providing services in the trade publishing sector rather than a scholarly publisher.
Perhaps the explanation for this lies in AIU itself. It is a private university mostly run as a for-profit institution, meaning that it will always be looking for new and innovative ways to monetise its activities. This partnership suggests that it sees its university press as being in the business of producing books, probably as short print runs of content authored by its student and faculty body where publication is supported or funded by the author. At a very superficial level this bears some small similarities to open access monograph publishers already active in the market, in that here authors and/or their funders pay a publication fee to publish their work. Yet an open access monograph publisher, such as Palgrave Open, and Alliant Press actually have very different in aims and objectives, even if they’re both trying to solve the same problem: that of providing researchers with a path to publish their content in a challenging scholarly book market.
To use Palgrave as an example again, its open access monograph program is primarily about dissemination and revenue. As a publisher, it is asking how it can they continue to provide new long-form scholarship in a universe of shrinking budgets. It has settled on open access as a way of closing the gap between the researcher’s need to publish and the publishing market’s ability to bear the cost of publication. Alliant’s program, however, seems at this point to be mostly about attracting new authors who may not have published scholarly works before. Another key difference between Alliant’s model and many open access publishers is peer review. Palgrave Open submits all of its open access monographs to the peer review process, whereas Alliant Press has (so far) only stated that work for publication will be selected by “an editorial board of scholarly experts”.
Alliant Press’ vision of a university press enabled by self-publishing seems well placed to fill a particular gap in the scholarly content market not currently served by either traditional scholarly publishers or open access publishers. As the growth of self-publishing tools and platforms increasingly makes publishing something that anyone can access ‘as a service’ in the trade sector, it makes sense for some institutions to leverage these to offer publication as a kind of value-added service to their students and faculties. Whether this takes the form of a really high quality binding for a dissertation or the publication of a monograph it provides a service to researchers who need to publish in order to progress their careers, and allows universities to generate revenue on that activity.
The Alliant model is certainly not the university press as we know and understand it. And whether it can scale much beyond the particular needs of private universities with particular institutional needs it’s too early to say. But it is an interesting example of how the ideas and principles behind self-publishing which are changing the trade publishing sector might be starting to affect scholarly publishing too.