The new era of the university press: The critical role of established presses



Key points

  • Cambridge University Press is the oldest and one of the largest university presses.
  • CUP's mission is to unlock people's potential with the best research and learning solutions by working closely with academic communities and delivering high-quality products.
  • Our environment is changing and so must publishers, including established university presses.
  • CUP's heritage and position in the academic community enables it to provide answers and new ways of supporting scholarly communication needs.


Cambridge University Press (CUP) has an enviable position amongst university presses: boasting 60 Nobel Prize winners amongst our authors; world class book and journal lists across the humanities, social science, and STM; global sales reach; and a brand new online academic content platform. But it is clear that even with all of our success, we do not have an automatic right to a secure future: we have to stay relevant to researchers today if we are to support the mission of our parent university, to disseminate knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning, and research.

We are neither as big as the largest STM publishers nor supported by generous subsidies as some other university presses are, but we need to compete for both library budgets and the best authors. As library budgets tighten (often flat or declining in real terms and needing to stretch across more content, products, and format), researchers have increasingly polarized needs depending on whether they are behaving as an author or a reader, and also have new routes (that exclude publishers entirely or undermine our business models) for content dissemination and sharing, so we cannot rest on our laurels and rely on an impressive history and reputation.

This means change for us and, as we all know, change takes time, patience, and money. Whilst focusing on change, we also want to hold on to what is most important to us and so we cannot lose sight of our core values whilst we move into this new world.

Change also presents many opportunities. I am firmly of the belief that this really is the era for university presses, and we can provide some answers to the intensely challenging questions being posed of our industry.


We are a department of the University of Cambridge and are guided by the university's mission, and every book and journal we publish is approved by the Syndicate. We are one of the world's largest university presses, publishing globally across Academic, English Language Teaching, and Education.

In our academic publishing, we publish ~1,500 books and over 370 journals a year across a wide range of subjects, and our reputation for high-quality publishing is the bedrock of everything we do. Our titles span subjects from Classics to Physics, Political Science to Medicine, and History to Earth Sciences, and represent the highest quality of scholarship from around the world. This focus on quality was recognized and celebrated once again in 2016 by numerous awards, including our biggest ever success at the PROSE awards; winners accounted for one award for excellence; 10 subject category winners, including Classics, Cosmology and Astronomy, Earth Science, Art History and Criticism, and Law and Legal Studies, and numerous honourable mentions. And once again, 2016 saw good increases in impact factors across our journals programme.


As a broad academic publisher, we are working across a number of markets, all of them presenting both challenges and opportunities for established and engaged university presses.

In the research market, we have, for a number of years, seen a tightening of library budgets, with journals growing at the expense of books and libraries changing their book buying patterns as a result. This means that whilst our journals programme has been growing, books sales across the academic publishing industry have been getting tougher for a number of years; monographs that would have sold over 1,000 copies a decade ago may now sell one third of that. This has been compounded further by the increasing drive towards digital books. As a result, many distributors are holding less stock and shifting towards print on demand. This contributes further to lower upfront sales for publishers.

The journals market has been more robust, and we have grown year-on-year across all regions of the world. This is one area where our scale, with sales teams around the world, combined with quality and flexibility really makes a difference. As well as organic growth through gaining new customers and increasing penetration into new markets, we have acquired, and retained, high-quality society contracts across a range of subjects, and supporting those society journals and helping them meet the needs of their communities is a key role for us.

Even journal publishing is not without challenges, whether it is competing with the big deals, engaging in open access (OA) debates and transitions, or finding scalable ways to meet the ever-changing needs of users in relation to online functionality. All university presses have smaller journals lists than our large STM competitors, but we have been able to address these challenges with successful global consortia sales, growing OA journals, and our new online platform, for example, precisely because we are close to the academic community and retain the flexibility to adapt to customer needs. We can also use our position to engage in the issues with a different perspective that can help to drive new solutions and ideas.

OA has of course been a major shift in the market over the past decade and continues to impact everyday discussions and long-term planning. It is clear from our mission that we want our content to be as widely accessed as possible, and the OA principle can help us fulfil that ambition. But as well as wanting to support many of the OA ideals, our drive is to ensure we find sustainability, so that academic publishing needs can continue to be supported. Sometimes, publishers can be seen to focus on the very real challenges, but there are many more exciting opportunities, and I think established (like new) university presses can work collaboratively with the academic communities to deliver change.

This evolving market gives us the opportunity to work with our customers to look for new models (such as evidence-based acquisition in books or new approaches to OA funding) to meet their needs. Whilst we need to make a profit, this is not our ultimate goal, and I think this enables us to work differently with our customers.

Our academic users are also changing, both as readers – using Scholarly Collaboration Networks (SCNs) such as ResearchGate for sharing of content – and as authors, having to think about the impact of their work, not just its publication. There is a definite window of opportunity for all publishers to rethink how we can best support researchers’ needs, and I know university presses are well placed to do this. Most publishers support sharing in a variety of ways (e.g. green OA policies and specific functionality) but also worry about the unintended consequences of illegal sharing. We are keen to work with researchers to ensure that we can support their needs without undermining journals’ sustainability. At present, it is hard to predict what this will lead to, but we are actively involved in discussions with both the STM and the academic community.

As the needs of authors have grown in scale and complexity, we are developing a range of author services and a dedicated online ‘Author Hub’, which provides information to keep authors better informed at all stages of the publishing process.

Higher education markets are shifting, with enrolment rates in the US dipping significantly in 2015 and rental and second hand copies continuing to impact print sales. Increasingly, the emphasis is on adaptive learning, modular products, open education resources (OERs), and online courses, but students often still want print. In this environment, some key players appear to be withdrawing from some sectors, especially in the upper undergraduate space. For a university press with an established, but relatively small, HE list, this feels like a great time for us to work much more closely with the education communities to investigate new ideas, whether that means new business models or types of product.


In today's environment, where many new university presses are being launched, being new can be seen to be more exciting than ‘established’ or ‘traditional’. But nothing could be further from the truth, and we have an important part to play.

Whilst we continue to focus on quality and breadth, new publishers are starting with a blank slate and are tending to work more narrowly by serving just one community. Working across so many subjects means we have many author groups with diverse needs to satisfy. But this breadth is also our strength, and as well as giving us scale, which enables our global reach and investment to allow digital development, it also enables us to support areas of interdisciplinary research, for example, climate science, and use the experience from one area to feed and inform another.

User expectations have developed significantly in recent years, and the push to make more content available online is ongoing. In developing our new platform, Cambridge Core, we have carefully researched the needs, expectations, and ways of working of researchers, authors, librarians, and our publishing partners. We are now able to combine all our journals and books content (which were previously on two separate sites) in one place, making it more accessible and easier to navigate for our readers and customers. This will enable us to maximize the benefits of our full backlist and support real user journeys, recognizing that readers often want ‘content’ and do not start out thinking they want to access either a book or a journal. We could not have made these developments if we did not have both our scale and ability to invest. But what makes this most exciting is thinking about what this new platform is going to enable next and the new types of publishing we will be able to support. The flexibility of developing and maintaining our own platform brings real advantages to us, our publishing partners, and our customers as we can keep on adapting to the changing needs of the communities we serve.

One of the biggest challenges facing any established publisher is the need to change systems and processes to reflect changing digital requirements and market realities. This type of transformation is hard and puts pressure on people, costs, and sales. No two publishers are the same, so we are all going through the changes at different paces and in different ways. New entrants to the world of publishing often will not have these challenges as their customers may not have the same expectations, and they will have designed their processes and systems from scratch for the digital world.

Being a university press with our heritage creates a huge responsibility – academics expect, and have a right to expect, values and service from us that they would not necessarily get from our commercial counterparts. The reality of needing to make money if we are going to develop and innovate so we can continue to be at the forefront of publishing, whilst also continuing to fulfil our mission, means we need to tread a path few others will have to travel. Living up to these expectations is certainly challenging, but it also helps to drive our passion and evolution.


For some people, the idea of university presses making money is wrong. I disagree for two key reasons. Firstly, we need money to invest and respond to the changing markets. If publishers had not made profits in the past, journals would not have gone online when they did, and there would not be the ongoing development to meet changing user needs. Secondly, I believe that a reasonable drive for profit can help to prevent complacency as it ensures that we are delivering products and services that customers really want and need. OA, therefore, in my mind should not be seen as a way to eliminate profit from publisher activities, although in some cases, it can help to drive open conversations about levels of profit and costs.

OA means different things to different people: a moral right, a quick way to get content out to everyone, or just another business model. For me, it is a mix of all of those. When OA works, it is clearly consistent with our mission, so is central to our plans for the future. Similarly, many of the new university presses have identified the correlation between OA and a university press mission and have been launched under full OA models, often subsidized by their parent university. However, a need for surplus also makes us think about sustainability, which I think is essential in finding a new way forward that is really going to deliver the benefits everyone wants. And for me, sustainability does not mean just covering costs as we will have to continue to invest and develop to ensure we stay relevant and useful.

Many of the most radical OA journals and services (including SCNs) do not have sustainable business models, so what happens when their funding runs out? Who does it help if their drive for revolution destroys established publishers, but there is nothing left to fill the void? University presses, working with other departments in our universities, have the opportunity to think about these challenges both from the perspective of the publisher and the university. So whilst I am very keen that, at Cambridge, we prioritize new ways of thinking about OA, it will always be through a long-term lens.

Some within universities feel that green OA is the answer, but I can see many potentially significant long-term consequences for existing journals and publishing models, and we need to tread carefully. If we get this balance wrong, usage on publisher sites will be eroded with a potential impact on brand, positioning and revenues and even journal sustainability. I welcome the plethora of new models that are emerging, including those being run by new university presses, and this is going to be massively important for all of us to learn from. By having proper engaged debate, informed by evidence, we can find good solutions that really do serve academia. One tangible example of this having an impact is our ‘double-dipping’ policy, which came after discussion with librarians, but for me, this is the tip of the iceberg.

OA is one example of where I hope university presses can do something really different because of our mission. At Cambridge, we have launched a number of OA journals, converted one from subscription to full gold OA this year (Annals of Glaciology), and are working increasingly closely with the Cambridge University Library to consider options for the future.

For me, new OA solutions are not just about doing what we have always done and seeing how cheaply we can achieve it, although that might be part of it. It means looking at really different models, thinking about what our mission means in today's world.


Academic publishing is going through a huge transitionary phase that will undoubtedly affect many of us in the industry. But this is a time when we can either be bystanders or active participants, and bystanders risk being left behind and becoming irrelevant. By being active, we take control of our destiny to shape a more forward-looking university press while contributing to the development of scholarly communications.

Our world has changed, and we need to change too. It is not enough to shout about how important academic publishers are; we need to work to remain relevant to the communities we are here to serve. We need to do things that matter to them and that we can do better or more easily than they can do themselves. To get this right, we need to understand our customers and the ecosystem we are working in. It does not happen by osmosis however; we have to actively work at it, including the use of market research and increasingly looking for ways to tap into the wealth of data we now have.

Of course, there are many examples where commercial publishers are working incredibly hard, and successfully, to understand the needs of academics and their scholarly communities. By doing this, innovative products and services are being brought to market. But however well this is being done by the commercial publishers, I am confident that university presses have an immensely important role to play because we think differently and are driven by different goals.

Unlike traditional ‘for profit’ publishers, we were created to support our parent university's mission through ‘disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence’ (CUP's mission). Interpreting this for the 21st century means looking beyond the traditional roles of publishers. How can we work differently with the library community, who are also going through their own evolution, to meet the changing needs of our shared patrons; how can we support academics wanting to share content; how can we open up access to content so that it really supports better research? We are working actively to find answers to these questions, which will take us to a stronger, more proactive place in the future.

I firmly believe that CUP has a key role to play this new, exciting age. On the one hand, there are great commercial publishers who have the resources and drive to innovate and often do so well, but their motivations will always drive conservatism, and perhaps because of this, many of the most radical innovations come from outside the established industry. On the other hand, there are the new presses, who have no baggage, so are able to look from a different perspective, but also have no heritage. CUP has centuries of valuable content that will continue to be important for researchers for decades or centuries to come, so how we exploit this and make it accessible is important. We have lived through the long evolution of publishing, adapting along the way to changing technologies. We also have a global profile and reputation, which means we can get our content to readers in corners of the world not easily reached by the new players. And finally, we have exceptional people who know about academic publishing and know how to support authors and listen to customer needs.

Fulfilling these ambitions and opportunities may sound daunting, but the experience and passion of our colleagues and partners, combined with our heritage and content, surely gives us the opportunity to do something amazing.


This paper is based on a talk given at the University Press Redux Conference, Liverpool, March 2016.


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    M. Hill