In the summer of 2010, Amartya Sen, the Nobel prizewinning Indian economist, wanted to publish a book he had edited that explores why ethnic or religious violence erupts – and how it can be prevented.
Rather than approaching a hallowed university press, he turned instead to the open access Open Book Publishers in Cambridge.
He wanted Peace and Democratic Society to be freely available to readers and policymakers in the developing world so it would have a real impact on civic debate, said Alessandra Tosi, co-founder and managing director of Open Book Publishers and a life fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge.
Since its foundation in 2008 by a group of University of Cambridge academics, the press has published 42 books and has charted a dramatic rise in readers from just over 5,000 in 2009 to nearly 150,000 last year.
It is now seeing soaring numbers of readers from developing countries, including Professor Sen’s native India, Nigeria and Ethiopia (where figures show that there are more readers of its titles than in Canada).
All its books are free to read online, and a handful are free to download. In addition, the press sells traditional printed copies of its titles.
However, in poor countries internet connections are “generally unstable, which make reading online for any length of time, or even connecting, problematic”, Dr Tosi said.
So since May 2013, the publisher has made four of its books available to the world’s poorest via Worldreader, a non-profit organisation whose app permits digital books to be read on almost any mobile phone. It is now working to put all of its titles on the platform.
More than 8,000 readers in 113 countries have accessed these books on their phones – most of them from developing countries, particularly Nigeria and Ethiopia.
Open access publishing solutions for poor countries obviate the need to buy academic books at “prohibitive” prices with “lengthy and expensive” shipping, said Dr Tosi.
“Only a very small percentage of the population [in the developing world] owns computers,” she said. “But a very large proportion uses mobile phones for things such as banking. Increasingly these devices are used for mobile reading.”
There are already huge online libraries of free books, with Project Gutenberg, perhaps the longest-established such initiative, offering more than 45,000 titles. But Dr Tosi emphasised that Open Book Publishers, as an academic press, publishes only peer-reviewed titles with a “quality guarantee”.
With the university population growing rapidly around the world but academic material generally hidden behind paywalls, Dr Tosi fears that without open access, students in developing countries will have to rely on “unchecked” and “sub-par” publications available online.
Some of the titles in the press’ catalogue – The Anglo-Scottish Ballad and its Imaginary Contexts, for example – may not immediately appear to be relevant to developing countries, but Dr Tosi noted that it has also published three books on African oral literature. Other titles include Feeding the City, an ethnographic study of Mumbai’s 5,000 dabbawalas, who deliver 200,000 home-cooked boxed lunches to the city’s workers every day.
Open Book Publishers is also planning to team up with a South African organisation, Paperight, which makes digital books available to a network of photocopy shops so that readers can pay for part of a book to be printed locally, thus giving scholars in developing countries another way to save money.