Q&A With Patrick Alexander, Director, Penn State University Press

Academic Publishing Questions Answered

Patrick Alexander, Director of Penn State University Press, sat down with Avi Staiman on the New Books Network podcast Scholarly Communication Podcast to discuss his role as director of a leading academic press and the future of Open Access publishing. We invite you to read Patrick's responses to a number of key topics and questions raised during the interview.

Tell us about the moment that you fell in love with academic publishing.

I fell in love with academic publishing when I realized that editors—as advocates for both the researcher and the reader—play an indispensable, if invisible, role in the larger enterprise. To work with incredibly talented and smart people in order to help them best convey their message to an eager audience still gives me incredible satisfaction. That sense of satisfaction continues whenever I have the opportunity to work closely with an author or scholar on a project.


What might not many people know/ surprise us about the role of a director at a university press?

Because academic publishing is evolving so quickly, a director can only hope to know a little bit about a lot of the moving pieces in the scholarly ecosystem. Directors must surround themselves, therefore, with colleagues who know their own areas of expertise intimately and at the highest level, whether it’s sales, marketing, and publicity, finance, design, editing, or IT. Directors must also strive to pay attention to what’s happening in the larger publishing world. Where will AI take us? Will open access impact the humanities and social sciences to the same extent it has transformed STEM publishing? What are the implications of the consolidation of the industry at so many levels: distribution, printing, metadata, sales channels, online retail, declining and reorienting library budgets. How can we better serve a global clientele?


What differentiates Penn State University Press from other academic publishers?

University presses distinguish themselves by emphasizing their core values, and Penn State University Press is no different. We are committed to rigorously peer-reviewed research. We follow carefully trends in humanities and social science research in order to advance our understanding of humanity and the world. We ensure editorial, material, and aesthetic quality in all our publications. Scholars and students know that they can trust the information in Penn State University Press publications. We compete at the highest level against larger publishers with more resources and highly prestigious reputations.


Where does funding for OA for HSS books come from?

If I knew the answer to that, I’d be publishing more OA! We see the UK and other European countries leading the way via government- and funder-supported initiatives like PlanS or PALOMERA–Policy Alignment of Open Access Monographs in the European Research Area. Much funding, however, focuses on journals for the time being. For OA books, we seek support from colleges or departments within our parent institution, or if a scholar’s institution wishes to support OA we do our best to comply. OA monograph programs like T.O.M.E. (Toward and Open Monograph Ecosystem) moved the needle only slightly. A few publishers are experimenting with new models for funding OA books. MIT Press’s D2O, for example, opens books with “generous support from the library community.” Ultimately, though, to move books to OA we need more funding from the U.S. government or from foundations. As nearly as I can tell, with the latest U.S.’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (the so-called Nelson Memo), HSS researchers, societies, universities, and institutions should seek funding from the most obvious source: Congress.


What are the effects of OA on individual copyright rights?

This is a tricky question. OA allows the creator to retain copyright while licensing content under a Creative Commons License. This gives the creator more control on the one hand, but, on the other, the responsibility to record copyright—and thus secure protection—remains also with the creator. We see Faculty Senates embracing OA policies, and yet it is not clear—to me at least—how can an OA mandate compel an individual to give all rights under copyright to an institution? (See the language in Harvard’s model: “Each Faculty member grants to [university name] permission to make available his or her scholarly articles and to exercise the copyright in those articles. More specifically, each Faculty member grants to [university name] a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide license to exercise any and all rights under copyright relating to each of his or her scholarly articles.


How can OA pose a solution in specific areas such as archaeology more than other fields?

Archaeological reports are chock-full of visual data, such as drawings, transcriptions, photographs, and other renderings of material discoveries, whether bone, glass, pottery, metal, and so one. The book form is not an ideal medium for making that visual material culture available to other researchers. An OA database, with rich metadata, would allow for stronger taxonomies, more comparative analysis, and would expand the value of the recovered material cultures exponentially. The “book” piece would still exist, albeit in a briefer and less expensive form, with narrative, interpretation, and documentation, but the book would be more of a companion to the material discoveries, which, thanks to technology, are seemingly increasing every day.


Do you think OA should be the standard or an ‘add-on’ for specific titles?

Philosophically, OA sounds like it should be a standard. Financially, however, OA faces practical challenges. Costs remain a reality, not just in the creation of content but in maintaining it as well. Who pays for making work available? And while OA offers “access” to research, does OA unfairly favor those who have access to funding to support their work, by that I mean especially Western European and North American researchers?


Do you think there should be a minimum threshold of copies sold to justify publication or should we look primarily at novelty/contribution?

My short answer to this is “no,” but it’s complicated. University publishers are increasingly being asked to “break-even” or “not lose money.” They’re also asked to fulfill a mission within higher education by publishing research. Threading that particular needle can be tough, especially since the audience or market can be incredibly small and not necessarily financially viable.


How can we get more global voices represented in academic publishing?

First and foremost publishers need to make it possible for global voices to be heard. For many researchers around the world, English may be a third or fourth language. In fact, studies have confirmed that “In contemporary academia, multilingual scholars using English as an additional language (EAL) are actively engaged in knowledge construction producing more research texts in English than native speakers (Hyland, 2016)”. This begs the question: shouldn’t publishers be doing more to work with these academics to ensure their research has a voice? Moreover, the canonical Western conventions (or “disciplinary norms”) of publishing, like citations, style manuals, attribution practices, may not have been part of a researcher’s training. So, again, what role can publishers play in addressing this? And then there’s the unavoidable and perhaps larger question, how can publishers afford to do this?


What do you perceive as the main challenge for EAL scholars to break into university publishers?

Funding. If university publishers had the resources to meet the needs of EAL scholars, I have no doubt that presses would embrace this task as part of their mission to ensure that EAL scholars’ voices are heard.


Patrick H. Alexander joined The Pennsylvania State University Press in 2007 and was named director in 2009. Involved in academic publishing for more than thirty years, he began his career in the mid-80s as an editor. Later he oversaw the North American offices of Brill Publishers (2000–2005; Leiden, The Netherlands) and De Gruyter (2005–2007; Berlin, Germany). Alexander has served on the executive board of the Association of University Presses and the executive board and council of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (UK). He serves on the advisory board for Qatar University Press, having worked to establish that press in 2017–2018. He has co-edited two books and has also written or presented for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Insights, the Journal of Electronic Publishing, the Scholarly Kitchen (with J. Kostova), SSP, AUPresses, and Against the Grain. Alexander has been conducting publishing and writing workshops throughout his career. Developing business models for arts and humanities publishing that promote both access and sustainability and integrate new forms of technology figure prominently in his professional objectives.

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