Open access: brought to book at last?

A library-focused effort aims to take monographs off the analogue shelf

July 18, 2013

Source: Alamy

Unlocked content: buyers’ consortia of academic libraries could play a role in funding the open-access publication of new and previously issued book-length works

It would be easy to think of monographs as the scholarly output that the open-access movement forgot.

Mandates for free online access are popping up all around the world, but most relate exclusively to journal articles. A good example is Research Councils UK’s new open-access policy, launched in April and inspired by the Finch report published last year. That report dismissed monographs as too difficult a nut to crack in the absence of “further experimentation”.

The UK funding councils were slightly bolder. Their preliminary consultation on introducing an open-access mandate for the next research excellence framework, expected in 2020, included a question about whether a percentage of submitted monographs should be required to be open access.

However, according to Kimberley Hackett, the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s REF higher education policy adviser, the answer was a resounding “no”. Respondents had “no confidence” that a workable model for open-access monographs had yet been developed, she told the Open Access Monographs in the Humanities and Social Sciences conference in London earlier this month.

But that this conference was staged at all - never mind the fact that it was so well attended - suggests that the issue of open access monographs is unlikely simply to wither on the vine.

A handful of publishers have also begun to dip their toes in the water. Last August Springer announced that it would publish open-access monographs for a variable fee averaging about €15,000 (£12,900), while, in February, Manchester University Press announced that it would charge £5,900 for the open-access publication of works of up to 80,000 words, rising to £7,700 for texts of between 120,000 and 140,000 words.

Palgrave Macmillan said in January that it would charge £11,000 for full monographs and £7,500 for shorter “pivot” works of up to 50,000 words. Unlike the other two publishers, it would also offer fully open licences.

Some funders have also begun offering to meet these fees. These include the Wellcome Trust, which recently expanded its pioneering open-access mandate to include monographs.

Issue looms on Europe’s horizon

Carl-Christian Buhr, a member of the cabinet of Neelie Kroes - European Commissioner for the digital agenda - told the conference that the European Union’s open-access mandate for its forthcoming Horizon 2020 programme applied to monographs as well as to journal articles, and the Commission was working out how to fund monographs that were published well beyond the official end of a project.

But Palgrave Macmillan’s director of market development, Carrie Calder, said that while the “interest is there” from academics, most found it a “challenge” to raise the publication fee: so much so that she expected Palgrave Macmillan to publish only one open-access monograph this year, and about 10 next year.

However, publication fees are not the only way that open-access monographs could be financed. Caroline Edwards, co-director of the Open Library of the Humanities, a recently launched academic-led open-access publisher, told the conference that her preferred approach was to solicit funds from a large number of libraries. And it transpired that plans are already afoot to form just such a buyers’ consortium.

Academic publishing veteran Frances Pinter told the conference that her latest venture, a non-profit company called Knowledge Unlatched, had already recruited libraries around the world to take part in a pilot bulk open-access purchasing exercise later this year.

Dr Pinter, who is also interim chief executive of Manchester University Press, told Times Higher Education that the price of “unlatching” books or collections and making them freely available would be set by publishers, but she hoped that the reduction of risk achieved by presenting them with a large upfront fee would prompt publishers to keep prices low.

Publishers would also retain the ability to charge for print and customised electronic versions of books. As it was “not ideal” to read a 300-page monograph in the basic PDF or HTML version that “unlatching” would provide, Dr Pinter said, the enhanced options were likely to remain a significant revenue stream.

But Knowledge Unlatched members would also be offered a discount on the enhanced versions, while the cost to each library of unlatching a book would be less than the standard cost of buying a single print copy.

To achieve this crucial arithmetic, it would be necessary to recruit at least 300 libraries. However, Dr Pinter was confident that this goal could be reached, noting that one of her venture’s initial funders was a libraries group. (Eventually Knowledge Unlatched will cover its costs by taking a 5 per cent slice of the unlatching fee charged by publishers.)

Dr Pinter did not believe that many libraries would choose to “free ride” at others’ expense: if the promise of cheaper print copies was not enough to persuade them to pay their share of the costs of open access, she was confident that “peer pressure” in the library community would be.

“If not enough libraries opt in, this isn’t going to happen. But I gather from talking to librarians around the world that they take this responsibility seriously and are willing to participate,” she said.

Stand by for launch

The project will launch in the autumn with an initial collection of 30 to 40 monographs from two humanities disciplines (history and literature) and two from the social sciences (politics and media and communications). These will be offered by about a dozen traditional publishers, since “this is what the libraries have asked for”. However, Dr Pinter said that once the consortium had established its credibility, it would also bring in non-traditional publishers.

She hoped that the reduction of risk for publishers would also prompt them to speed up experimentation with new multimedia publication formats.

Dr Pinter said the price of unlatching a monograph should relate directly to its production costs. The “length and complexity” of monographs made this difficult to determine and discussions continued, but she expected the average to be “closer to $10,000 (£6,700) than $15,000”. If 300 libraries participated, that would work out at $33 per library.

Despite a slow start, she had succeeded in signing up a “representative sample” of publishers for the pilot study, consisting of large and small firms, university and commercial presses and operations based in the US, the UK and continental Europe.

Indeed, interest had become so intense that there was now a waiting list for next year’s second pilot exercise, which would involve up to 30 publishers.

The reason, according to Dr Pinter, is that publishers had recognised that the absence of monographs from initial open-access mandates was a temporary situation.

“Everybody can see that the distinction between the short- and long-form publication is becoming blurred and that the mandates will eventually have to include the long form, too,” she said.

“You can’t have a world where one discipline, like physical science, is motoring along with everything open because 90 per cent of its publications are article-length, while the humanities stay closed, shooting themselves in the foot because nobody gets access to their research. It is just inconceivable.”

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N.B. For more on the Open Access Monographs conference, see here: