Understanding academic authors in the humanities and social sciences

November 20, 2019

Photo of open book

Written by guest blogger Dr Agata Mrva-Montoya.

The question of how the book publishing process could be improved was the driving force behind our research project into the publishing experiences, motivations and needs of academic authors working in the humanities and social sciences in Australia. I work for Sydney University Press and we are always looking at ways to improve our processes and workflows in response to the changes in academic performance assessments and opportunities created by digital technologies for faster, cheaper and more dynamic publishing strategies and publication models.

In our quest to streamline and improve the publishing process we have come across design thinking and lean, two approaches which provide useful frameworks for organisational change and product development. These approaches have lots in common with agile workflows, user experience design and a host of other trends sweeping the business world. While all these methodologies focus on different organisational needs, they share certain aims, such as to help teams work out how to do things better, how to collaborate, and how to use iterative processes to improve current products or services, or develop new ideas. Seeking input from the end user in order to arrive at the right outcomes is a key tenet.

As academics are at the core of our publishing process – they are the authors, series editors, peer reviewers, readers and final judges of the books that we publish—we wanted to understand them, their behaviours, and motivations. In our survey we focused on academics in Australia who had published a book in the last five years, and asked them: How did they choose where to publish? How did they understand the division of responsibilities throughout the publishing process? And how did they evaluate the success of a published book? Finally, we asked about their past publishing experiences, and asked for suggestions for improvements.

The results of the survey revealed a number of contradictions and tensions within the scholarly communication landscape. We discovered that academic authors have really high expectations from publishers. They want fast turnaround, high-quality editing and production values, and cheaper books, all at the same time, which runs up against three principal constraints for all scholarly publishers: quality, time, and cost.

The way that the respondents to our survey attributed responsibility for the different aspects of the publishing process was very insightful, with the publisher’s perceived responsibility gradually increasing as a manuscript advances through the publishing process. At the same time, the differences in how our respondents divided responsibilities between author and publisher show how intensely collaborative the publishing process is, and how incredibly divergent the expectations of authors and their experiences with publishers are.

As the way things are done can differ significantly among publishers, even the most experienced authors may be left confused. What it means for us, and for other publishers, is that we need to communicate better what we do, when, why and how, and what are the expected responsibilities of authors. The need for more effective and timely communication is one of several interesting findings with practical implications for authors and publishers, as well as for grant funders and university administrators, that came out of this project.

Dr Agata Mrva-Montoya is Publishing Manager at Sydney University Press and Honorary Associate in the Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney. She is commissioning editor for SUP series in animal studies and archaeology. Agata is interested in the impact of new technologies on scholarly publishing, editing and books in general. She has written articles for scholarly journals and industry publications, and posts for various Australian and international blogs. In pre-publishing life, Agata completed a PhD in archaeology. She can be found on Twitter as @agatamontoya. Her latest article in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing entitled “Understanding Australian Academic Authors in the Humanities and Social Sciences:Their Publishing Experiences, Values, and Perspectives” (with Edward J. Luca and Henry Boateng) is free to read for a limited time.

The UTP Journals blog features guest posts from our authors. The opinions expressed in these posts may not necessarily represent those of UTP Journals and their clients.

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