Opening Scholarship to the World One Book at a Time

2018 University Press Forum

[Editor’s Note: This essay also appears as part of the annual University Press Forum in the May issue of Choice and on]

The most valuable books intellectually are frequently the least valuable commercially. Hence the need of an endowed press, that the fruits of research may be given to the world.” —E. A. Zadig, Cornell Daily Sun, 1921 

Dean Smith, Director,
Cornell University Press

When I arrived at the nation’s first university press in the spring of 2015 as its thirteenth director, I became immediately aware of a deep and rich backlist that dated back to the origins of the press in 1869. Cornell University Press had published Anna Comstock, Linus Pauling, A.R. Ammons, Harold Bloom, Barbara Kingsolver, David Lehman, and Carl Sagan, among many others. A two-story plywood cave in our warehouse on Cascadilla Street included one copy of everything we published. Wearing goggles and masks, we hand-counted and catalogued 6,000 titles—a legacy of carefully curated scholarship spanning more than one hundred years that was, for the most part, inaccessible.

I came to Ithaca, New York, from the Johns Hopkins University Press, where I had been director of Project MUSE. I’d spent the last six months there with a team of colleagues helping to write a grant for a project called MUSE Open. I first encountered Cornell Press at MUSE through their Open Access (OA) monograph program in German studies called Signale, in which the books became OA after four years. Cornell launched the series in 2010 with a Mellon grant to support a discipline under threat.

While I was at JHUP, I heard about the new NEH Humanities Open Book grant program that would fund activities associated with bringing classic out-of-print works back as OA titles. Fast forward to Cornell, and still in grant writing mode, I contacted my colleagues in the Cornell Library to see if they wanted to collaborate on this project. Kizer Walker and Oya Rieger were instrumental in helping to secure the first two NEH grants. Walker devised a selection methodology based on circulation statistics, citation counts and recommendations from subject area specialists. We selected fields that the Press played a significant role in shaping over the last half of the twentieth century: Slavic studies, German studies, and literary criticism. Our staff developed a rights clearance workflow and a production process that would make these books available on Project MUSE, JSTOR, Hathi Trust, and on our own internal site entitled Cornell Open. We also included free Kindle versions on Amazon. A print paperback is available for purchase, and we’ve sold 200 copies across 20 titles.

In addition, we participate in the Knowledge Unlatched (KU) open access program. Collections of titles are “unlatched” after a revenue threshold is achieved. This program allows for both frontlist and backlist titles to be included. We have included more than twenty books in KU thus far. This program was well received by both backlist authors and those with forthcoming books, prompting us to consider our own frontlist program for new books.

The name Cornell Open encompasses all open access activities at Cornell Press. In February, we launched the new program to complement the NEH initiative. After undergoing the same rigorous peer-review process, Cornell Open authors and their sponsoring institutions provide a grant to ensure that the manuscript will be published open access from the beginning.

Cornell Press strives to be a laboratory of experimentation when it comes to OA, and scholarly monographs are ideal candidates for global discovery and widespread dissemination. The current business model for monographs doesn’t allow for maximum discovery and access—something these works really need. We will never waver from our mission to publish the highest quality scholarship and serve the academy, and we need new models to remain sustainable.

The results from our NEH Open Book program and the Signale series have been encouraging thus far. Signale titles, open after four years, generate three to four times the usage of their closed counterparts. In 2017, readers accessed more than 100,000 chapters from twenty NEH titles on Project MUSE and JSTOR, and downloaded more than 7,000 Kindle versions at no charge from Amazon. Our own Cornell Open marketing website recorded 10,000 chapter downloads. JSTOR reported usage activity in 125 countries encompassing more than 12,000 institutions. Established platforms like JSTOR and Project MUSE are discovery engines for these titles, and Amazon also maximizes discoverability.

In the fall of 2016, the marketing department at the Press came up with a revision to a radio ad the university created to develop a new slogan. The slogan, “Changing the World One Book at a Time,” substituted “book” for the word “idea” originally used by the university. University presses traffic in ideas and in solutions for making the world a better place through scholarship. Our classic titles now have the chance to engage new generations of scholars around the world. Our new books have an opportunity to reach a global audience upon publication.

These grant-funded OA efforts have ignited our imaginations, and we are exploring ways to digitize most of the titles once imprisoned in the plywood cave. We’ve learned a tremendous amount about rights clearance, and our authors are pleased to have their titles back in circulation. Our goal is to publish 150 open access titles before the end of our 150th anniversary in 2019. Imagine a new world in which university presses play a lead role in extending their university’s brand on a global scale through the release of open access monographs. It’s happening now.

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About the author:

Dean Smith is Director, Cornell University Press.