Questions for Maize Books at University of Michigan Press

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Maize photo: Wikimedia/Sam Fentress

As an open-access advocate and co-editor of a forthcoming book from the University of Michigan Press, I was delighted to read their recent announcement about Maize Books, a new imprint that offers a “lean, responsive model for publishing scholarly and creative works.” Rethinking the routines of academic publishing is wise, but brief announcements from innovative publishers sometimes raise unanswered questions (see a similar exchange with Anvil Academic in October 2012). For the benefit of all prospective authors and the future success of the Press, here are questions currently on my mind. Feel free to comment or clarify below, or add a link to responses on your own site.

How to interpret ‘peer review when desirable’? The main selling point of Maize Books, according to this announcement, is that “titles will be evaluated by the acquiring editors and Editorial Director of the University of Michigan Press. They will undergo peer review when desirable, including experimental forms of peer review designed to suit the requirements of individual publications.” Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s recent book, Planned Obsolescencepersuaded me to consider alternative models of peer review, including the “open peer review” model of designated experts and general readers that co-editor Kristen Nawrotzki and I organized with the University of Michigan Press for Writing History in the Digital Age. But what does “peer review when desirable” actually mean in practice? Given the higher value that scholars — and tenure committees — place on peer review, will books published under this imprint be viewed differently than others issued by the Press? Will each Maize book include a clear statement that describes what kind of peer review, if any, was supervised by the Press? (Picture a kosher stamp of approval, or digital badge if you prefer.) 

Which imprint is preferable? The more I ponder the flexible options promised by the Maize Books imprint, the more I wonder: wouldn’t every prospective University of Michigan author want this? The benefits include “fast turnaround times” for “distribution both online and in print”; the latter will be “high-quality, low-cost print editions produced on demand.” (Do any authors really prefer slowly-produced, higher-priced editions?) Furthermore, Maize Books offers authors the option to distribute via “freely accessible open access publication as well as via recognized sales channels,” which reinforces this  flexibility. Unless there are some hidden downsides that I’ve overlooked, my conclusion is: which authors wouldn’t want all of these options? Taken a step further, what author would submit a manuscript via the “traditional” route at Michigan (or whatever you wish to call it). Part of the answer depends on if/how the Maize Books imprint is described on the general “information for authors” page of the Press website. It’s not there yet, nor do I see any mention on that page of digitalculturebooks, another open-access & paper imprint of the Press. How the publisher spells out these subtle differences will influence prospective authors. Does the Press portray Maize Books as a normal route — or an alternative way to publish? (And if you didn’t detect the status implications in that question, go back and read it again.)

What’s up with the Maize metaphor? Tell us more about the name choice and the vision it signifies. Should we picture a sustainable grain product that takes root at Michigan and spreads widely across the Americas and the globe? Or will Maize come to represent lower-track scholarly publishing, similar to corn syrup? I’m clearly rooting for the success of the former, and encourage the Press and its prospective authors to work together to clarify and shape the robust future of this promising imprint.

5 thoughts on “Questions for Maize Books at University of Michigan Press”

  1. Jack, I would add to your question of “How to interpret ‘peer review when desirable’?” the question: desirable by whom? If peer review has been a main way presses seek to exert quality control over the manuscripts they choose to publish, will it still be the press’s decision as to whether peer review is desirable, or the author’s? On what grounds? [Now that I’ve read the announcement a few times, I’m unsure whether I’ve been reading it correctly. Should I instead understand this as “When the titles are deemed desirable by the press, they will undergo peer review”? If so, my questions above would be moot.)

    On the matter of “Maize”, I too would be interested in hearing more about a guiding metaphor, though I suspect it may be as simple as their drawing the name from the University’s official colors of maize and blue (or yellow and blue, as in the Michigan alma mater).

  2. Today this thoughtful response to my queries appeared on the MPublishing: University of Michigan Press blog:

    And here’s the comment I posted in response:
    Thanks for these very helpful clarifications about the Maize Books announcement, and for engaging in a public dialogue about new directions for open-access publishing. For me, the most important take-away is the difference between the opening lines of the original May 1st announcement:

    “The University of Michigan Press, a unit of Michigan Publishing, is committed to producing and disseminating high-quality scholarship. As part of that commitment, we’re proud to announce Maize Books, a new Michigan Publishing imprint.”

    versus this line on the May 10th post:

    “As a point of clarification, we should note that Maize Books is not an imprint of the University of Michigan Press. Rather, it is an imprint of Michigan Publishing, of which the University of Michigan Press is an integral unit.”

    Since both appear on an entity titled “The University of Michigan Press Blog” (with a small MPublishing logo), it’s hard for some of us to follow which initiatives are led by the Press, or MPublishing, or both. Looking forward to learning more.

  3. See also Barbara Fister’s May 13th Inside Higher Ed blog post about Maize Books, including comments by Sanford Gray Thatcher. Here’s a copy of my response:

    Sanford, I appreciate your clarification of the status differences between university entities that publish works with (or without) formal approval from a faculty editorial board. That distinction should have been made clearer in Michigan’s initial May 1st announcement about Maize Books, which I raised in the comments in their May 10th follow-up.

    But I disagree with your view that the university press “brand” is the most important factor for tenure and promotion of junior faculty. Tenure committees at institutions like mine rely primarily on the detailed reports of their appointed external reviewers to judge the quality of scholarship. It’s not simply the mark on the outside, but the content inside that matters most. If tenure decisions were based solely on whether one had published with brand X or Y, that would be equivalent to outsourcing our most important decisions to economically challenged publishers and the market forces that surround them. University presses have warned academics not to rely on their commercially driven enterprise as a proxy for quality.

    I sense that we both value thoughtful peer review. What interests me are richer models of open peer review (sometimes referred to as hybrid models), where both appointed experts and general audiences comment publicly on the manuscript. When judgments about quality are more transparent, and we can all read the evaluators’ overt and implicit criteria for what makes good scholarship, this improves our entire system. If Maize Books can thoughtfully manage this type of open quality review, then I will recommend it for consideration by junior and senior scholars.

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