Discussion paper

A new future for scholarly books?

17 Apr 2007

Dr Robin Derricourt says one small modification to the research funding model could deliver major gains in impact and productivity for Government, universities and individual academics alike.

At first appearance the numbers seem stark. Government is investing more and more public money on research: $8.3 billion over 10 years. Defending taxpayer interests, Government wants to ensure a return on this investment and has systems intended to review quality, quantity and impact of output. Universities, which receive a significant portion of the research funding, collect publication data to measure output. For one category of publication – research monographs (books) – these figures suggest that the investment is failing and that universities have been unable to deliver ‘productivity’ in response to the increases in their research grants.

If correct, that is a problem for Government, and a problem for universities too, as they have to justify the research funding they receive. The university sector competes for its share of public expenditure on research; universities compete with each other for research funds; faculties, schools and individual researchers all have to compete for their share of resources.

It is not a problem for Australian publishers, since there are no Australian publishers who rely on specialist scholarly and scientific monographs for their survival. Nor is it a problem for overseas scholarly and scientific book publishers, since their impressive profits are based on more than enough books supplied by overseas scholars, and sold in the overseas market.

But it is an issue of public concern. And in one area – that of monographs on Australian topics – there is a relatively simple low-cost solution. A tiny proportion of the dollars invested in research could free up actual or potential research monographs in as large a number as their quality demanded.

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