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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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The economy of prestige in academia is odd. We often like to think that the prestige of our institutions – whether that be a university or a publisher – is not made on the basis of a monetary or financial decision. But I think there are lots of things that give the lie to this.

Consider the debate around new open-access book publishers. One of the arguments I have heard against going with such publishers is that we cannot guarantee their permanence. That is, the “risk” for a scholar is that they publish with a young OA publisher who then goes bankrupt. I have also heard people say that this is a particular risk for Early-Career Researchers (ECRs).

Why? In these instances, the work will remain available – certainly in digital form via digital preservation structures. There is also very little difference to the print copy being unavailable from a more traditional press, who previously may have let titles go out of print (although in the era of print-on-demand, this is slightly altered). It does not seem, then, that the worry is that the publisher’s demise will mean that the work is not available.

Rather, it seems to me, especially regarding the “particular danger to ECRs”, that what seems actually to be happening is that the solvency of the institution (the publisher) is a factor in how work is judged. As though, somehow, giving one’s book manuscript to an entity that subsequently went under was a type of “poor investment” that reflected badly upon the character of the individual bestowing it. Indeed, I take the “this is especially dangerous for ECRs” line to be a tacit admission that institutional solvency is implicitly embedded within the academy’s systems of evaluation.

A similar argument has circled around the potential bankruptcy of UK universities (with the Office for Students saying that it will not bail out such institutions). Consider, for instance, the rhetoric of the campaign against the HE Bill in the UK, which stated that “graduates of low-quality and/or defunct ‘universities’ risk being left with poor-quality degrees, awarded by defunct institutions that employers do not value or recognise”. Certainly, the and/or does not quite equate low quality with defunct (and the scare quotes around universities is here meant to refer to alternative/new providers), but it comes close to this equation, and it certainly notes that employers are bestowing value through brand recognition – and a university that has gone bankrupt is excluded from that space of recognition.

Certainly, the correlation between finance and prestige is not a direct conversion (“X University Press has more money than Y University Press, so X is the more prestigious”). But there is a nonetheless economic correlation based on scarcity – the more scarce is a resource (or the harder it is to get a place at a university/publish a book with a press etc.), the more prestige it will hold. It just so happens that those institutions with greater financial clout/solvency can afford to be more selective. (A good example is the UK context, where universities depend on tuition fee income, and those further down the food/prestige chain must become increasingly non-selective in order to have enough students to finance their operations.) There are economic models that are more resistant to this correlation: consortial funding for OA (my personal hobbyhorse, I know) is a situation where we can be highly selective despite the fact that we do not have the same level of financial stability as major older publishers, precisely because our income is not tied to the output; indeed everything we publish is an expenditure. But, in general, wealth facilitates selectivity, which breeds prestige.