There was a time when university presses, defined not as enterprises but as simple printing facilities, had as primary function the publication/diffusion of research texts produced at the university with which they were affiliated. One of the primary text forms to be published was the doctoral or magisterial dissertation.
The range of readers and buyers of dissertations and other such academic texts has never been very wide, and that posed a series of problems for these academic labels. Should they be self-sustaining and thus work commercially, or should they be financed by the universities themselves? If the latter, should they only publish works produced at the respective “mother” university, or should they be open to research coming from outside? If the former, how can they find a market that would make the publishing profitable?
Looking at the situation today, it comes out clearly that the British and American university presses have chosen the path of the markets, whereas the Swedish ones have remained connected to the university milieu. Let me give you an example. As a Ph.D. graduate from an American university, I know that in order to see one’s dissertation published in book form and not just as an electronic document available through libraries or databases, the fresh Ph.D. must find a publisher oneself. The process is strenuous, and includes revising the text into a more reader-friendly format, pitching the book to publishers, and in case they take the bait, waiting and waiting and waiting for the peer review process to return the manuscript with further changes.
In Sweden the doctor of philosophy does not face the same challenge. The academic writing follows the same standards and the same high demands as elsewhere, with the manuscript being critically evaluated several times and by several readers before being approved. Once the thesis is deemed ready, the doctoral student sends it for publication at the university printing facility, which does not carry the name “university press” but the name of the institution where the dissertation belongs. Every dissertation gets to be published as a book (according to all the standards of the trade). The costs of the publication are covered by the university – in other words, the scholarship that every Ph.D. student in Sweden receives includes a special sum reserved for the thesis publication at the university printing facility.
The Swedish universities have thus the obligation of publishing and distributing the research produced at their departments and colleges but, for the most part, do not have their own publication strategies or thematic series. They most often publish doctoral dissertations, which are then distributed within the national library system. However, this is not a disadvantage in terms of domestic publicity around university research. The Swedish mass media is also often paying attention to new dissertations that get space in national newspapers and radio stations.
The Anglo-Saxon university tradition points to competition as the best way to ensure the quality of academic publications. Not all dissertations get to be books; it is assumed that only the best (or those among the best that have the potential of a wider readership) will be published by academic presses. However, as far as I know, the attention that Ph.D. theses get in the American and British media is bordering on null. I also am left to wonder if there is still a link between a university and its press. Is it so, for example, that researchers based at Cornell University publish their work via Cornell University Press, scholars from the University of Manchester choose (and are chosen by) the University of Manchester Press and so on? My feeling is that this link is very weak.
As a conclusion, the Swedish publication strategy for Ph.D. dissertations is egalitarian and inclusive. Universities here do not have a well-established and separate entity called university press. This can be partly explained by the small market, whose dimensions are restricted by the Swedish language (although this has changed radically since the 1990s, with nine out of ten dissertations at Swedish universities being written in English). English as a global lingua franca for academic research strengthens the market position of American and British university presses, able to attract qualified scholarship from all over the world. Not all Ph.D. theses get published, but those do obtain access to a large number of readers.
Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.