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Deciding on an Open Access Book Publishing Platform: Ubiquity and the Start of Open Access Book Publishing at the University of Westminster Press by Andrew Lockett

Welcome to a series of blog posts by publishers, talking about the platforms they use to publish their open access books. In these posts, a range of different presses tell us what platform they use, why they chose it, and how it fits (or occasionally doesn’t quite fit) their work.

The second post in the series is by Andrew Lockett, who was Press Manager at the University of Westminster Press from February 2015 to August 2021. He is a freelance publishing consultant and editor working across trade and academic sectors including via Reedsy, for non-fiction and fiction book titles. Most recently he guest edited a special issue of Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture on ‘Publishing the Internet and the Commons’ and has written several journal articles on publishing and media topics.

 In July 2023 it is surprising in retrospect to consider the University of Westminster Press as an established New University Press, with its first book published as far back as 2016. The platform it used then and uses now is courtesy of the even more venerable Ubiquity, which celebrated ten years of operation in 2022 having published their first book as service provider for Stockholm University Press in May 2013.

My time at the University of Westminster Press as its sole – and initially part-time – employee spanned a timeline from February 2015 to August 2021. It may be useful to state that the decision to work with Ubiquity using their books platform predated my arrival and was confirmed early in September 2014 by a Westminster University steering committee. It is not entirely unusual for scepticism to exist about a commercial provider of services in the open access field amongst staff tasked with the job of publishing open access books. And I was no different, discovering at my job interview that the Ubiquity ‘solution’ was a decision that had already been taken.

But these were early days and for a New UP to choose Ubiquity was in effect not selecting candidates from a very wide field; it was choosing pretty much from a viable field of one. This was especially the case if such an operation wanted to publish books and journals from the same website and present both in an integrated fashion. Here I note it is not uncommon for such a decision to remain open ­whilst a new publishing entity commences activities and before it discovers what demand from researchers exists for publishing books as opposed to journals. Or whether both arise equally. So it made sense to keep options open then … maybe it still does in comparable circumstances?

Ubiquity were relatively new in 2015 as publishers, but in many respects were better apprised of the contemporary concerns of librarians and academics alarmed at the growing problems of access than their established competitors. Many of those who did not actively like a model of high prices, high title output and low sales were bereft of much enthusiasm for any change to that back then. Ubiquity saw the need for open access alternatives and were and are impatient about achieving a new landscape for scholarly publishing. The other option at the time for UWP was possibly to try work with university IT tech services and various forms of bespoke options for elements of its publishing but given the university’s multiple other higher priorities this was a correct call to make.

So it was on Day One on 23 February 2015 as Press Manager I inherited a templated Ubiquity Press built beta website for University of Westminster Press website, echoing that already launched by Stockholm University Press. In large measure the underlying site architecture and appearance of UWP’s site is still rather similar and is used by numerous members of Ubiquity’s Partner Network for the same purpose in an updated version that retains a lot of continuity with the original. Eight operations with ‘University Press’ in their name are currently in this network, and many more new university presses (as per the definition restated by UCL Press’s Lara Speicher in a 2016 article) in all but precise name. Being able to compare notes with such similar operations at different stages in the New UP journey has been a valuable element of working with Ubiquity. It likely still would be, particularly for those starting from scratch. That body of parallel presses has certainly made the journey less lonely, and less ‘in the dark’ than being the only publisher working with another provider, or even more so just toiling away within a university’s own complex structures.

Much later, after its second procurement review in January 2021, UWP’s journals moved from being handled via Ubiquity to Michigan Publishing Services/Janeway as a result of a structured University procurement process for UWP’s publishing needs. The book publishing stayed with Ubiquity, as did the front end that has served UWP during all its existence in which it has progressed from an idea to publishing over 50 original book or policy publications from that system, netting from those a total ‘readership’ of 1.35 million views and downloads in addition to thousands of paperback book sales.

Why Ubiquity then? Firstly the system and Ubiquity’s staff proved functional from the beginning and, in terms of production expenses, cost-effective and flexible when it came to operating economically in terms of accommodating a variety of ways of working with, for example, book indexes and formats (amongst other things). Ubiquity are proud of their service offering and had a dedicated account manager as a point of contact; there was a human element to their digital offering. They have throughout the period also been actively involved in the development of protocols around open access publishing; both setting agendas and consultative about those. They provided myself (a very experienced book publisher, much less so in journals) with advice on such matters as titles indexing, ethics and metadata. And so (as often) where an operation might consist of a single person (or not even) employed amidst a sea of academics or library staff (not publishing people) this was useful and necessary, especially at the early stages. Ubiquity’s management team has been remarkably stable from inception and compared to the restructurings of, for example, many universities and some major publishing companies that has proved a blessing.

For novice operations they definitely have the advantage of providing back-up that does not require the reinvention of publishing wheels whilst also offering some of the curiosity and tech start-up adaptability around processes which legacy or traditional publishing has found much harder to do. Unlike Jeff Pooley (in this blog series) as an occasional researcher but also as a publisher I think there is much life still left in the PDF, still preferring it to the digital dependence of HTML formats and for its solidity and fixed nature offline. The PDF offers the option of offline disengagement from wi-fi and the internet of a sort that is becoming humanly vital and ever more rare. There are good reasons for preferring a published title as a completed event rather than an endlessly iterative process even if few of these are philosophically compelling. In this respect Ubiquity were attuned to publishing norms but also keen to look beyond them technically and also in terms of book formats and presentation. This balanced approach I think suits current needs as opposed to that of many commercial and established university presses who have still a job to do to shrug off their retention of a deep aversion to any form of flexibility here, and to any compromises to an old and very weary business model when it comes to monographs.

By 2020, when the University of Westminster was reviewing its future choice on book services provision, a more formal procurement process was undertaken. The details of these necessarily have to stay confidential. By this time alternatives (some no doubt to be discussed in this blog series) had proliferated and it was practical to consider book and journal services as potentially separate services related to a third – the provision and support of the UWP website as a showcase and vehicle for content delivery or redirection. However the principles behind the procurement exercise meticulously mapped and assessed financial and non-financial factors. Within the non-financial elements, baseline practicalities and the effects of the three decisions on internal overheads needed to be considered when contemplating any change, as well as the continued smooth running of the whole of the UWP operation in endeavouring to publish books and journals. And so approaching August 2023, two years after my leaving, the University of Westminster Press continues to work with Ubiquity for its book publishing and to support the publication of its current titles and backlist, which attract new readers every day.

Ubiquity has subsequently been acquired by De Gruyter who have agreed to the key principles of its customer charter committing it to principles of open access, open source and ‘unbundled products’. Any responsible consideration of a book publishing platform should, I think, consider Ubiquity as an option as one of the most experienced providers of services in this sphere to independent publishing entities, especially in the University Press sector. It has always been defined as a commercial operation and likely will operate even more so in the future under De Gruyter, yet I think over time Ubiquity has proved quite untypical in nurturing elements of a sector needing support – a sector that seems to be moving more towards a variety of public infrastructural channels subsisting in the shadow of controversially profitable large organisations that have found their own moneymaking ways of adapting to open access (though more so in journals than in books so far). There is a big debate to continue to be had about public and private sector approaches to publishing, scholar-led approaches and university presses with a variety of levels of independence to their parent university, and also about scale, in which Janneke Adema and her COPIM colleagues have led a cogent fightback urging small scale academic publishing with ‘care’ as against those prophets emphasising the sole viability of large scale ‘solutions’ whether offered by Big Tech or Big Publishing.

Ubiquity have played a pivotal, perhaps even historically significant role in open access book publishing ­– certainly as far as UWP have been concerned. In 2023 they should merit consideration as a book publishing platform to use afresh, albeit alongside some of the newer channels for publishing open access books that have surfaced since 2015.

Read the other posts in this Publisher Spotlight series on the platforms presses choose to publish their OA books: https://openaccessbooksnetwork.hcommons.org/category/publisher-spotlight/ 

CC BY 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.