'Giving it away' a textbook argument

Matthew Reisz assesses what open access means for book authors

November 12, 2009

According to Gary Hall, the open-access movement "has progressed further towards making all academic journal articles available than it has towards making all academic books available in this fashion".

Hall, professor of media and performance at Coventry University, is a leading open-access advocate and the author of a recent book that calls for its own self-destruction: Digitize This Book! (2008). He suggests three principal explanations for the time lag. Open access "has so far been developed, promoted and argued for most extensively, and certainly most heatedly, in the Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects", he says, where the peer-reviewed journal article is "the most valued mode of publication".

Furthermore, copyright affects books and journals rather differently. With books, Hall observes, "copyright tends to be transferred by the author to the publisher ... which may mean the author is not legally allowed to self-archive even a pre-print version of their book in an open-access repository". And finally, there is a widespread view, justified or not, that the authors of books always require payment of some kind and are therefore "unwilling to give their research away for free by making it available through open access".

Despite these delaying factors, however, publications of virtually every kind - from basic textbooks to cutting-edge research monographs - are now being affected by the move towards open access. Organisations ranging from idealistic co-operatives to Bloomsbury Publishing, the people who brought us the Harry Potter series, are exploring whether open-access publication can break down communication barriers, offer a coherent business model or even address some of the fundamental financial and intellectual challenges facing higher education.

Some books are made available on the "freemium" model, digitally for free and at cost price (or something close) in a print-on-demand format. Others are being sold at commercial prices by publishers that rely on the appeal of value-added features, or hope that the interest created by the open-access version will translate into hard-copy sales. (It is fairly clear that people are currently willing to pay something for the convenience or "reading experience" of a book that brings together content that is freely available online. But will they be willing to pay as much as for material that is otherwise unobtainable? So far it seems to be anyone's guess.)

Meanwhile, Hall and others have produced powerful polemics in favour of open access, often in books in which they practise what they preach. Some claim that the movement has a political dimension and can help to break down the hierarchies and de facto restrictions on expression created by state-funded universities and corporate publishers. Others are moving towards methods of publication that stretch to the limit what we have traditionally thought of as books.

The jury may still be out on how rapidly such high-flown aspirations are being translated into reality, but there is little doubt that open access is beginning to shake up our assumptions about knowledge and its dissemination in books and monographs as well as journals.

One early enthusiast for open-access textbooks was Richard G. Baraniuk, Victor E. Cameron professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University in Texas. In 1999, he set up Connexions (cnx.org) as "a place to view and share educational material made of small knowledge chunks called modules that can be organised as courses, books, reports". Adopting the festive and anarchic tone common within the open-access movement, the website "welcomes authors, teachers and learners to 'create, rip, mix and burn' textbooks, courses and learning materials from a globally accessible open-access repository".

But why should textbook authors embrace open access? "The reality of book publishing", Baraniuk observes, "is that less than 1 per cent of the authors make more than 99 per cent of the dollars ... The average financial reward for a textbook author is minimal. It's exactly the same situation as in the music industry: most musicians play because they love it, only a small percentage make enough to live on, and only a super-tiny percentage make lots of money."

Knowing that the financial rewards were always going to be trivial, Baraniuk chose to go down the open-access route in order to reach a "vastly expanded audience".

"If I'd published my textbook with a standard publisher (and I thought about it very hard in 1999)," he says, "I estimate I'd have had a reasonably successful electrical engineering text that would sell perhaps 2,000 copies per year. Instead, I started Connexions and published my textbook there. Over the past few years, it has had about 5 million users. No publisher could ever offer me that kind of worldwide impact unless I was the Bruce Springsteen of engineering."

Because textbooks represent a significant proportion of many students' expenditure, Baraniuk is convinced that open-access suppliers can find ways to compete with the marketing muscle of major companies. "There are courses around the country (and world) where the Connexions textbook is the office textbook for the course," he said. "And other students are using it as supplemental material to enhance their learning."

A more sceptical note was struck by one veteran of British academic publishing. "None of us would go quite so far as to rule out that, in the longer term, open-access textbooks might eventually become a major threat to our business model, especially if they were given large amounts of funding," he says.

"But this does seem very unlikely ... It is very hard to persuade people to write texts, given all the opportunity costs and other pressures, so I'm at a loss to see why, if they are so hard to persuade when approached by a publisher and offered a financial return, they are likely to start producing lots of them for free." (Part of this, no doubt, reflects specifically British factors such as the research assessment exercise, which acted as a disincentive to academics considering whether to embark on a textbook.)

The argument becomes sharper in relation to monographs, where the financial returns for authors tend to be even poorer. Hall sets out a number of reasons why the open-access option might be attractive to academics here. Most obviously, it makes their work available to anyone with a computer everywhere and at all hours of the day and night, which, in turn, means it is "more likely to be used, referenced and cited". And, he adds, they don't have to wait "anything between nine months and two years after submission of the final manuscript" before their work reaches the public.

Furthermore, academic publishers and even university presses have to keep the market in mind and often think in terms of "neat disciplinary categories". Such factors, Hall argues, "are currently making it difficult for many academic authors to publish books that are perceived as being difficult, advanced, specialised, obscure, radical, experimental or avant-garde. They are also making it difficult for early-career academics to publish the kind of research-led books and monographs that are often necessary when it comes to acquiring that first full-time position.

"Like the authors of royalty-free journal articles, the authors of academic books are realising that they stand to gain from the increase in potential readers and exposure that 'giving away' their work for free can bring. It can lead to an increase in the level of their reputation, influence, impact and esteem, and thus to greater opportunities for career advancement, promotion, pay rises, funding, consultancies and so forth."

Sigi Jottkandt, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Information Management at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, takes up the story. As the result of a conference she organised in Ghent, Belgium, in 2005, she, Hall and others set up Open Humanities Press the following year "to raise humanities scholars' awareness and trust of open-access publishing as a viable alternative to the current system, which has been failing the discipline for some years".

As a community all-volunteer project consisting of people who "wanted simply to get started without waiting for lengthy fundraising cycles", Jottkandt says, it decided to bring together a number of existing open journals under a single umbrella and central portal. It launched last year with seven journals and has kept adding to the portfolio, most recently with the international edition of the Slovenian-language journal Filozofski vestnik.

Although Jottkandt reports that "the original plan was to focus for the first few years on building the brand with a strong journal list before addressing open-access books", things did not quite work out that way.

"As soon as we launched," she says, "we got a lot of inquiries about books - we even read one university library's internal report stating that Open Humanities Press would soon be publishing open-access books. So we thought we'd better run with the Zeitgeist."

This led to an agreement with the Scholarly Publishing Office at the University of Michigan Library, Jottkandt adds, which will "take the finished manuscript and run it through its suite of publishing services to produce finished online, print-on-demand and, eventually, ePub (electronic publication) books". For the academics involved, it's pretty much business as usual, because "scholars already research, write, edit and peer-review original scholarly content".

The result will be five new series of monographs in critical and cultural theory: New Metaphysics, Critical Climate Change, Global Conversations, Unidentified Theoretical Objects and Liquid Books. The last of these, edited by Hall and Clare Birchall, lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Kent, is specially designed to combine cutting-edge content with a radical production process where readers are "free to help compose, edit, annotate, tag, translate, remix, reinvent and reuse", Hall says.

Paul Ashton, lecturer in publishing at the Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE (technical and further education), is another member of the team that set up Open Humanities Press. He is also one of the three people responsible for re.press (www.re-press.org), an open-access publisher dedicated to a philosophy that requires its authors "not only to produce the best cutting-edge work, but to be committed to reforming the way ideas are produced and disseminated". Such ideals, Ashton says, make re.press "really part of the academic world, not the publishing world ... We see the work as part of our engagement in philosophical and aesthetic life - really as part of the job".

As for the future of open-access academic monographs, Ashton sees two possible scenarios. One possibility is that corporate publishers will develop a successful business model, presumably by requiring that authors pay to be published. Yet it would be far better, he believes, to "see a turn to academics taking control of their systems of recognition, thus legitimising the open-access option".

But what do individual authors see as the advantages of open access, both in personal terms and as a way of keeping academic balls in the air for other scholars to juggle?

Ted Striphas, assistant professor of media and cultural studies at Indiana University, puts the stress on winning recognition. His book, The Late Age of Print, is published by Columbia University Press, but can also be downloaded from his website as a PDF.

The publishers were willing to try out this arrangement for the first time, he says, because they "seemed to be swayed by the argument - well proven at this point - that giving away samples (even quite complete ones) can entice people to buy.

"The decision to do so was particularly meaningful for me as a first-time book author, since readers are unlikely to purchase Late Age on the basis of, say, my name alone. Moreover, since I am not especially well known, it is unlikely to find its way into many bookstores. Distributing a free version digitally thus gives prospective readers an opportunity to browse the book."

Although Striphas is convinced that open access is "a reality of academic book and journal publishing that is here to stay", he is doubtful whether "open-access books are likely to become the norm in the humanities and social sciences", since "there is too much institutional inertia in universities and university presses".

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, associate professor of media studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California, whose book Planned Obsolescence is due to be published by NYU Press next year, takes a more radical line.

"The draft that's online right now has been posted as part of an open peer-review process," she says. "This process is, in fact, part of what the book is arguing for, insisting that the internet's open, dialogic modes of connection could produce far more productive review environments than the closed review systems we use now.

"It allows the labour of review to be more broadly distributed; reviewers to discuss and debate with one another; the author to respond and engage with the reviewers; and the review to grow and develop over time."

Fitzpatrick has few worries about the free availability of her work-in-progress impacting on the eventual sales, since "the book is really aimed at department chairs, deans and provosts - senior scholars and administrators who may not, as yet, be attuned to what's taking place in digital publishing". Although it is still early days, she reports "a lot of terrific feedback already".

But although open access may help writers streamline their texts, Fitzpatrick believes it also provides possible solutions to a much more fundamental dilemma.

"Scholarly publishing simply cannot be profitable, except at the cost of destroying our libraries' budgets," she says. "But it's still absolutely necessary. The challenge is for institutions to figure out how they are going to keep scholars communicating with one another in productive ways." To that extent, at least, debates about open access go to the heart of what universities are about.

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