Pressing Needs

When three major international academic publishers take a photocopy shop located in the Delhi School of Economics to court over copyright infringement issues, it does seem a trifle excessive, using a sledgehammer to swat a fly. But it is more than breeze in a teacup- the issues are germane to a wider audience, and that includes us.

The facts, such as they are, are simple enough. On the D’School campus, the Rameshwari Photocopy services provides ‘xeroxed’ course material, and that includes chapters from books, articles, notes, what have you. In the strictest sense of the phrase, there probably is copyright infringement. But this has been going on ever since photocopy machines became easily available, and generations of students will testify to the absolutely crucial role that photocopied material has played in their education, augmenting (or even bypassing!) taught material. Not to mention research…

But this post is not just about the controversy- Lawrence Liang has written very forcefully on it, as has Sudhanwa Deshpande, in response to a poorly argued opinion piece in The Hindu a few days ago, all of which is worth a read. And all also skirt around a somewhat more serious issue, that of academic publishing in India, particularly that of book and textbook publishing.

There are any number of reasons why it is absolutely necessary to used photocopied material when studying for a degree in India. The scarcity (and the high cost!) of books, the paucity of textbook copies in even the best libraries, the poor availability of journals… The list goes on. However there are two other reasons that any good student would need (rather than choose) to photocopy material, particularly from books.

1. Most textbooks written in India (and I mean most in the sense of the majority of) are of very poor quality. They tend to be extensively plagiarized and frequently are written by people who do not really seem to know the subject at all. There is an infamous series of books by an author, Sa*sh, who has written on essentially every topic in undergraduate and graduate physics. This versatility is not just impressive, it is impossible. Needless to say, all the books are unreadable cut and paste trash, even if they are much better than even worse tripe that other less ‘well-known’ authors are capable, of churning out.

Most of these books are also poorly produced- a step away from pulp, even when new!- and seem to be just money making vehicles. Given the large numbers we need to educate, this is a double tragedy.

2. Even well-known Indian scholars prefer to publish with publishers outside India. This is not just in journals (it is well known that selection committees ask candidates how many publications they have in international journals and how many in Indian ones) but also with respect to books. OUP, CUP, Sage, Harvard, Duke… All these publishers are typically seen as preferred and prestigious destinations for manuscripts. And since all these publishers will have Indian editions, the Indian market is not totally ignored, but still the books tend to cost a bit more than they would have, had the primary publication been with an Indian publisher.

To be sure there are good reasons for this, and one can understand an author’s position to some extent. The royalties with an international publisher sometimes work out to be more lucrative. On the matter of distribution, again the international publishers score, so that visibility, both at home and abroad is not compromised. A more serious reason is that the books tend to get better critiques and better reviews, so an author finds his or her work being taken more seriously. For the most part, that is.

But a given, as a consequence, is that most Indian students do not have access to high quality textbooks that are produced and published in India in most subjects. Many international publishers do have Indian editions, but the number of local authors who write good textbooks that are first published here? Rare.

There are exceptions, of course, but these only seem to reinforce the rule. Many of the boutique presses in India tend to have high production value, but they also are tied into co-publication with University presses abroad for their financial models.

Which brings me to the final point of this post: Why has the University Press culture in India died out so decisively? There was a time- when the world was younger- that textbooks from Andhra University Press or Madras University Press, for instance, were treasures. Bhagavantam and Venkatarayudu’s Theory of groups and its application to physical problems for instance. Most of these presses are now gone, but even if extant, for the most part they seem to churn out the most mundane bulletins and reports. The exceptions are few like the Calcutta University Press. Or that of the MS University in Vadodara, which has recently brought out the Gopinathasaptasali  for their Oriental Institute. But even their other activities are more along the usual lines- the printing of question papers, under conditions of very high level of secrecy, for the University Examination, Senate Proceedings, Minutes of the Syndicate Meetings, details of Establishment, Annual Accounts, Budget Estimates, Questionnaires, Magazines, Pamphlets, Certificates, General Forms, Prospectus, Admission forms, Examination forms, Letter heads, Receipt Books, and different kinds of job works of the different Faculties and Institutions of the University,  the University Diary, University Calendar and other publications. Is that all a University Press is set up for?

It’s time to change that now. What we need urgently is a University Press in India that will produce high quality books in both print and electronic form, written by academics with serious concern for pedagogy in the local context.

Why a University Press? Although one cannot guarantee it, we need a publisher who is not entirely governed by sales and one who can support purely academic imperatives. One who is not afraid to take a chance on a book because of poor markets, or because it ruffles some feathers… Or worse.

There is enough reason to have a local emphasis. Not every subject is context free, and although π  will always be irrational and will always be further away no matter where one is, some things are better taught with local references, and keeping the local backgrounds in mind. Furthermore, for many of the subjects that are taught here, some global international benchmark textbook is simply not available.

The fact of the matter is that there are remarkably few academics in the country who give serious thought to the production of serious textbooks in virtually any subject. At the tertiary level, the problem is worse than it is at the primary and secondary levels, for which there are excellent books- the NCERT series, for instance. But college and postgraduate books? The shelves are bare.

This deserves a longer discussion, so more on this, and on a reachable pipe-dream, the Golden Threshold Press, in a subsequent post…


15 thoughts on “Pressing Needs

  1. Though Aakar Patel is contemptuous of the idea, I think online publishing is the way to go and Indian authors should spend effort in improving Wikipedia articles and contributing to Wikibooks (and, of course, uploading textbooks to the arXiv). This could even be formalised, along the lines of the PLoS meets Wikipedia initiative.

    Of course, some fields are much further along in this than others. Also, while a “local emphasis” is pretty irrelevant in the sciences, it is important in other fields.

  2. Once Universities “were” the centers of excellent book publishers in India. So also the world leading Universities who still continue to publish excellent monographs.
    Two things seem to have made Indian University publications an endangered species:

    1. Economics (forget about budget for publications, in all UGC cuts, the Libraries are the worst hit)

    2. Progressive erosion of autonomy in University environment in deciding the “quality” of the work. In addition, the selling issue has turned out to be the core problem.

    The former VC, Prof. Hasnain, came up with the idea of University of Hyderabad co-branding its intellectual output with Cambridge University Press (printed books in India with print-on-demand for the world and journals from Cambridge, UK) and we did sign a MoA. Had it been implemented it could have made a difference: instead of the publisher, university would have provided ground for attracting good manuscripts – textbooks, research monographs, etc.

    Unfortunately, it is you, Prof. Ramaswamy who have shelved the idea. Even if we can ground an idea of “Golden Threshold Press”, in HCU, there would three issues:

    1. Economics

    2. Support from the system – the existing administrative system in HCU can never measure up to its needs (the nightmare we the lesser mortals go through every day with the non-cooperative, non-transparent and non-accountable work culture of finance department and Registrar can never think of creating empowering environment in this university).

    3. The biggest problem thought would be the continuity of the idea: the next VC may think it is a waste of money and close it down.

    I normally would not like to respond to these posts because, for unless the responses are “positive” they go into a black hole. But in this case I thought it is worth putting once time in penning a response. Let us look at the past one year’s ‘history’ of our university:

    The University of Hyderabad, I assume through its Statues (I know for sure there was EC mandate) started a Campus School, to provide education to the children of the employees. It has done good service for the last 26 years. My two sons studies in our school and they have done well in life, though it is not a ‘corporate’ school. It is the only wing of our University that provides good education to all the neighboring underprivileged, first generation children, apart from the children and grandchildren of our employees (even if the number has dwindled, it is still worth the service). What we have done to it? Unable to take a call on the bad management and change it, the VC has decided (through the so-called Prof.Appara Rao committee) to hand it over to KVA as a “project school”. Though it is baffling how KVA norms allow such an arrangement.

    The point I want to make is about the system: the University system reached a point where it does not respect and try continue with its own good organs, and how can it think of starting another organ “university press”? To me it is a fancy idea and like all fancy ideas, it will have a very short life.

    Murali Atlury

    • Let’s keep the discussion on University Presses and not the campus school or the registrar and finance officer, although I would welcome an objective look at the past year’s “history”. The MoA between our University and Cambridge University Press is still extant. Why has not a single academic in the university activated it? Many colleagues have published since the time the MoA was signed in 2010, with Routledge, OUP, Blackswan, Permanent Black… Why not with CUP/Foundation? There certainly has been nothing done officially in order to discourage them or to `shelve’ the idea.

      A little objectivity would not be amiss. Giving CUP the right of refusal for a manuscript from the University effectively gives them a right to judge our work. I have nothing against peer review, but it had better be that, namely a review by peers. And say what you might, the scale of operations of CUP/Foundation puts us out of their league. I don’t know if you have tried talking to them- many of their officials are blissfully unaware about the existence of this MoA.

      When and if the GTP comes about, it will only be possible if there is ownership of the idea and a level of commitment internally that goes beyond the administration.

      • After signing the MoA, the Registrar in consultation with VC was supposed to form the internal committee to take forward the work. Despite my repeated requests nothing was done in the following few months. Without any internal structure we cannot ground the MoA. Though I had headed that committee on co-branding, once the MoA was done my role was over. CUP in fact, wanted to take it forward with a workshop on issues related to academic publishing with the University community but I was helpless. Had we operationalised the MoA we may have achived a good visibility by now.

        The clause in the MoA on the peer review to be done by the publisher is kept keeping in view the tradition of publishing and the problem of handling it in the university. In the first draft I had suggested that the university should have a seperate wing to handle peer review on the quality of the work, but it was changed keeping in view the handling problem. In any case the peer review of the work is done by the academic community only, whether we do it or they do it.

        The MoA was signed by the head of India office, along with the officer who handles academic publishing wing along with Pro. Rajeevan handling the ELT publications in Hyderabad branch. Everybody is aware of it, including the peopele in UK.

        Lastly the MoA was thought of as a vehicle to reach the academic market sice the CUP has good market reach. The ownership of the “ideas” are still with the authors, and not that of CUP.

        Kindly do not misunderstand me. I am strongly in favour of University publishing, and the initial route we took was through co-branding with Cambridge University Press, whose academic reputation is not in question. Setting up of a wing in the university to take up academic publications involves money and human labour exclusively dedicated to the work. The most important is market reach and realisation of money invested in the publications. We cannot achive success unless we make the university publications at least even economically if not profit making to stat with. I am very much familiar with the publishing industry and the economics of it.

        Well some of us are publishing with CUP (Foundation no longer exists, it is completely CUP India, a subsidery of CUP UK), my book is in the copy eding stage and I am also a General Editor of “Culture and Environment of South Asia”, pub by CUP. Why others have not published with them, I assume it is their choice.

  3. Dear sir,
    Your article is an interesting one, and I hope you will write more often on such issues. As I am from the discipline of English Language Teaching (ELT), I can talk about English textbooks. The so-called ‘very good’ ELT textbook designers in the country are happy to be completely enslaved by OUP and CUP. The state board designers are pathetic, to say the least. I think you can really help a lot of students by encouraging teachers to design textbooks for state governments. You may have to think about some incentive for teachers nonetheless. Finally, your idea about a UNIVERSITY PRESS is adorable (if at all you really intend to have one)!

  4. I will cite one more reason for presence of International (I would like to say ‘reputed’ as some Indian publishers like Narosa/Hindustan are also good) publishers in the Indian market. And that is the quality of teachers/teaching. I have witnessed some extremely egregious mistakes made by instructors even at reputed institutes/universities. I will recount examples only from schools, not wishing to ruffle proud feathers of some esteemed university.

    1. One of the history (for some reason, trash tend to collect much more extensively in social ‘sciences’) teacher didn’t know what Akbar’s Navaratnas were. She thought it was a collection of precious stones which Akbar valued very highly.

    2. OK, to level off … one physics teacher : One of the teacher thought that 4D space time was 4 axes (instead of 3) somehow cramped into the 3D space.

    3. One more physics example – one of the teacher explained that displacement current was air molecules jostling and physically moving from one plate of the capacitor to another.

    By denying quality books as well as xerox, we are actually denying quality education to the students.

  5. The primary reason we don’t have a thriving University publication culture is that we don’t have many people who produce quality work. And one equally important reason is our neglect of the economics of publication. We seem to think that book publishing should be divorced from the commerce aspect of it … and we lecture endlessly about how this is a social service. This socialist thinking would have been cute if it was 1930s … now it is just hollow stupidity.

    Economics demand a critical mass for sustainability. A critical mass of quality home grown authors from the university which aims for such a project.

    Till we get it, let us tie up with some good Indian publisher like Hindustan and start writing. Printing books can wait.

  6. To Prof. Murali :

    Why should economics be an issue ? A publication unit of any university/institute/department/corporate/blah must be financially self sustaining. Why should UGC bear the cost of publishing books, if no one among the public considers them worth paying for ? Is it going to be a ego massage vehicle ?

    • Economics is always an issue. Ego is always an issue. Ego and Economics are not negative words, they drive academic excellence.

  7. Let us not make it a personality issue. The reality is that there was a move to start a UOH press, I recived a circular that I was on the commitee, but there was only one meeting. Let us revive it. Good ideas are independent of the personalities of their initiators. Newton was not a “nice” man, but his ideas are what keep us going. It may be good to start with lecture notes and monographs.

  8. If HCU takes it forward it will be an initiative to watch for. In the USA many of the quality text books come from publishers like Pearson, Prentice Hall and Wadsworth. The quality of the books are outstanding in terms of content, lay out and design. They also regularly update the text books and incorporate new information, recent data and recent articles.

    Students today deserve good quality text books that kindle interest and not text books that read like lecture notes. I would suggest that some of these text book can be suitably modified for Indian students and in the Indian context and used to develop text books that have new content as well as modified content. For example a book on environmental and resource economics can have examples relevant in India while the core theory can be kept as in the original. If all the Central Universities agree on a core syllabi in some disciplines and agree to use common text books as the key resources in teaching then it makes sense to develop common text books.

  9. Pingback: An Economics Sūtra | A central Central University

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