Everywhere we turn these days, authority and knowledge are under fire. Authority, of course, should be challenged. It needs to be earned and re-earned, constantly. In this particular moment, when we are being tested as a society both by a pandemic and by the metaphorical virus of systemic racism, the peer review system that defines mission-driven university press publishing—whereby scholars review the work of other experts prior to publication—seems particularly fit for its purpose of ensuring the publication of high-quality content.
Too often, peer review is valorized as unimpeachable or vilified as inherently flawed. In reality, peer review in the humanities and the social sciences is not a formulaic, objective method but rather an organized means of smoothing multiple opinions and subjectivities into a coherent view. Call it quality control, call it market research, call it the scholarly equivalent of a cultural sensitivity read, call it the worst possible system except for all others—it is irrefutable that peer review consistently helps make better books.
If we’ve learned anything as a country in recent years, it’s that the lived experiences of others constitute a form of knowledge that must be absorbed and reckoned with by those with different life experiences. Like many institutions of knowledge, university presses are subjecting ourselves, as Princeton University Press director Christie Henry describes it, to a form of organizational peer review. We are changing how we hire, whom we hire, how we publish, whom we publish, and compelling ourselves to ask hard questions about the best ways to do our work and about our responsibilities to our constituents. And we’re pursuing these changes at a time of great uncertainty and turmoil—in retail, in textbook publishing, and in higher education overall.
At Oxford University Press, we are revisiting our diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) objectives by conducting bottom-up listening sessions and workshops, while taking a top-down approach on accountability for fostering an inclusive workplace. By committing to necessary and intentional actions to expand our workforce and authorship diversity, we hope to harness the power of difference to advance our mission.
Even as we university presses set out to remake ourselves as more representative organizations and as increasingly digital publishers, it’s worth pausing during this week’s annual celebration of University Press Week—with its theme of “Raising UP” underrepresented voices—to consider what our presses have contributed to the knowledge landscape over the years. This isn’t a self-congratulatory or nostalgic exercise but a reminder of how important it is that we get these changes right and ensure our mission prevails.
University presses published the early work of such towering figures as Robert Bellah, Rachel Carson, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Henry Louis Gates, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stephen Hawking, Zora Neale Hurston, Barbara Kingsolver, Marshall McLuhan, and E.O. Wilson (oh, and Tom Clancy, Billy Collins, and Naguib Mahfouz). University presses pioneered archivally grounded scholarship around LGBTQ experience and have long cultivated the recovery of lost history, repressed voices, and forgotten experience. University presses have published books that influenced social policy (Nudge), jump-started the environmental movement (A Sand County Almanac), helped free the unjustly convicted (Justifiable Homicide), catalyzed international debates about inequality (Capital in the Twenty-First Century), and informed how we assess human personality and psychology (The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory).
In recent months, the contributions of university presses to public debate have been particularly conspicuous. Books at the intersection of technology and racism (Algorithms of Oppression), about lives lived at the margins (Invisible People), and about the fight for reparations (Sweet Taste of Liberty) have all found new readers. And the gallery and reading list that our community has curated to celebrate University Press Week provide other vivid examples of the ways in which mission-based publishing combines relevance with commerce.
As a newcomer to the industry and a 30-year veteran of academic publishing, we see great promise in the current landscape of challenge and turmoil. The fall/winter 2020 catalog of Texas Tech University Press puts it nicely: “In the face of uncertainty, humanity depends on reliable knowledge.”
Niko Pfund is president of Oxford University Press U.S.A. and president of the Association of University Presses. Ola Ogunsanya is regional head of HR, Americas, of Oxford University Press U.S.A.