By now you are probably aware of the ongoing discussion about the fate of Ashgate Publishing, which was acquired by Informa (Taylor & Francis Publishing) last summer. The news has been actively discussed in various blogs and lists, including CAAH-L. Our colleague Doug Litts of the Art Institute of Chicago posted the news on ARLIS-L (Friday, November 20), where he quoted an Ashgate staff member’s statement that Ashgate is in fact being “absorbed and dissolved”. Last week Ashgate closed its North American office in Vermont and it seems that the fate of Ashgate’s UK offices remains uncertain or will similarly dissolve very soon, depending on which report one reads.
For many years I have looked forward to seeing the latest titles from Ashgate come through the Getty’s acquisitions department. Over the years Ashgate has increasingly become a respected venue for art historians, especially younger scholars publishing their early books on diverse and often groundbreaking topics organized–as the press matured–into a variety of interesting series, such as Women and Gender in the Early Modern world, Visual Culture in Early Modernity, or the more general Ashgate Studies in Architecture, Checking in the Getty’s catalogue, I found that the Getty Research Institute library owns 168 Ashgate titles published in 2014 and 2015 alone; of these, 25 % are currently checked out by users—a usage figure that in my admittedly unscientific survey seems quite high for a research library holding well over 1 million volumes.
At the GRI, the Getty Library Research Grants committee has just met to make decisions about the next crop of grantees. The Ashgate story has very real consequences for many of these applicants, whose early-career and often esoteric research ranges from the ancient world to medieval architecture to 15th century Italy to technical art history to Latin American surrealism. While the GRI will publish some articles from grantees in its journal, it does not have the capacity to publish many more print monographs. As it is now, if the grantees have not already secured a publishing contract, it seems clear that they will no longer be able to look to Ashgate as a likely venue.
Late last week the president of the College Art Association issued this statement in CAA News regarding Ashgate:
CAA acknowledges the concern of many of its members regarding the acquisition of Ashgate by Informa, the parent company of Taylor & Francis. The Ashgate art and humanities publications series have been a critically important venue for art history and critical scholarship because of their high quality production. Ashgate’s art and humanities series have also increased in value as the opportunities for scholarly monograph publishing diminishes. CAA has conveyed the concerns to Taylor & Francis that the high quality of the editorial process at Ashgate be maintained by Taylor & Francis and the art and humanities series continue to publish as fully as in the past. (CAA News, December 1, 2015, http://www.collegeart.org/advocacy/2015/12/01/caa-president-dewitt-godfrey-releases-statement-on-ashgate-acquisition/)
Then Steve Kolowich’s article of December 2nd from The Chronicle of Higher Education, “In Fight over Academic Publishing House, Fear of Corporate Values,” (http://chronicle.com/article/In-Fight-Over-Academic/234413) engendered some interesting comments from scholars as well as some librarians. As librarians we are all too familiar with the scenario where a large company buys up a smaller one and then proceeds to make changes which affect both quality and access. In the case of Ashgate and Taylor & Francis, the concerns most often cited are that there is not a real understanding of the arts and humanities by the acquiring party, and that the prices will increase. It seems that the price for most Ashgate books will increase to $149 in 2016. One commentator asks if libraries will be willing/able to “recommend the purchase of Ashgate books at this new higher price…” Others responding to Kolowich’s piece note the pressure libraries are under to keep purchasing no matter the price or the publisher, if that is where their constituents continue to publish. Still another thread discusses the importance of increasing open access publishing, yet acknowledges the enormous challenge this possibility poses in the current academic tenure environment.
The Ashgate saga will continue. Hopefully the petition and statements by professional organizations will have a positive outcome. A statement from ARLIS registering the concerns of art librarians and urging Ashgate to reconsider its plans might be appropriate.
Moreover the Ashgate story is a compelling reminder of the need for advocacy and action by art librarians in their local sphere, particularly in the move toward more open access publishing. It may not be in the interest of scholarship for our libraries to stop purchasing or licensing resources from the major publishers such as Taylor & Francis in order to make a point, even though this choice will be a reality some must face due to the increasing costs of publications in our field. However, art librarians can actively make the decision to validate open access publishing by identifying relevant open access books and journals and including good records for them in their catalogs and discovery systems, and finally by referring researchers to them, as they would any other publication. We can furthermore initiate and encourage dialogue with our various user groups about the importance of contributing to open access platforms in order to ensure their development into viable, trusted, and accepted research destinations. While it may seem a bit of a stretch to suggest that open access publishing of a first art historical monograph could be a viable option for young scholars who in the past might have worked with Ashgate, it is indeed a moment to consider again how our libraries might contribute to a wider acceptance of this alternative. ——-K. Salomon (firstname.lastname@example.org)