Unbound possibilities

Non-profit, scholar-run publisher impresses with its open-access monograph list. Paul Jump reports

October 11, 2012
Source: Getty

The Finch report may have purported to explain how to expand access to research publications in general, but just three of its 111 pages discussed open-access monographs.

The report, published in July, noted that the price of monographs has risen while libraries’ expenditure on them has declined, such that their future was “a matter of concern”.

However, it said that a shift towards open access was at a “much earlier stage” in monograph publishing than in journal publishing, with the handful of existing open-access monograph publishers typically relying on subsidies. It concluded that universities, funders, publishers and learned societies “should work together to promote further experimentation”.

This underwhelming recommendation had Rupert Gatti gnashing his teeth in frustration. A fellow and director of studies in economics at Trinity College, Cambridge, Dr Gatti co-founded the open-access monograph publisher Open Book Publishers in 2008. Its success has already demonstrated that open-access monograph publishing is financially viable, he believes.

Dr Gatti and fellow Cambridge academic Alessandra Tosi, a Russianist from Clare Hall, decided to set up the non-profit company after tiring of “moaning” to each other about the long lead times and lack of exposure offered by traditional monograph publishing routes.

“There is all this great stuff going on in universities, and nobody gets to read it because of an archaic dissemination model,” Dr Gatti said. This, he added, was particularly galling with respect to research germane to topical debates. Books on such subjects that came out three years after they were written were already irrelevant, he complained, while the lack of public access to research meant that some economic arguments that had been discredited in academic circles “40 years ago” were still being commonly espoused.

When they undertook their project, Dr Gatti and Dr Tosi were unaware of any existing open-access monograph publishing initiative. They realised that it would be especially hard to build up sufficient prestige to attract big-name authors in such an untried format.

Notwithstanding a £5,000 business development loan, it was clear that the company would be largely reliant on the two academics investing their own time and money. For that reason, they were determined not to “waste time on mediocrity”.

Their solution was to begin by reprinting classic out-of-print works by academics sufficiently senior to have nothing to lose by associating themselves with a start-up press.

Senior scholars show support

But events soon acquired their own momentum. The first author they approached, Cambridge and Harvard historian William St Clair, was so enthusiastic that he not only allowed the company to reprint his acclaimed 1972 work That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence, he offered to chair the publishing company’s board as well.

The next person they approached, Lionel Gossman, emeritus professor of Romance languages and literatures at Princeton University, did not deem the work the company had in mind worthy of being reprinted - and offered it his latest work instead.

Since then, word of mouth has led to a steady stream of “top-notch” names, including Harvard economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Cambridge anthropologist Caroline Humphrey and Hebrew University of Jerusalem economist Ariel Rubinstein approaching the company with book proposals. Hence, of Open Book Publishers’ 25 titles to date, just three are reprints.

The latest of those reprints, Ruth H. Finnegan’s Oral Literature in Africa, was crowdfunded via the website Unglue.it, which aims to make classic books freely available. Helped by a supportive tweet from US rock band Weezer, the site raised $7,500 (£4,700) from about 0 donors.

The company does not require its authors to pay publication fees, but it does ask them to apply for any grants that might be available to help cover publication costs. Depending on how much is raised from other sources, charges are sometimes levied for PDF, iPad and Kindle versions of a text, which is also freely accessible via the company’s online reader.

The company also produces paper editions, which are typically priced at £14.95 for paperbacks and £24.99 for hardbacks.

Dr Gatti admitted that some on the “extreme end” of the open-access movement regarded it as “morally irresponsible” to charge for any digital product, but said the company had to cover its costs somehow.

He added that the sum it needed to recoup in costs per monograph - £3,500 - was much less than the EUR15,000 (£12,000) author charge recently announced by the commercial publisher Springer to make a monograph open access.

He described the latter figure as “unrealistic” given the paucity of funding available in the humanities and social sciences.

Open Book Publishers has registered nearly 150,000 visits to the online versions of its books, with 1.5 million pages read.

“Don’t forget these are academic books: typical print runs are down to about 200, but we are getting that number per month on our book reader, from all over the world,” Dr Gatti said.

He said the company was now breaking even and was growing “quite rapidly” - albeit not rapidly enough for his liking.

Dr Tosi has put her academic career on hold to become the company’s full-time managing director, while another staff member has been recruited to carry out the business development work formerly undertaken by Dr Gatti. This includes seeking development grants from foundations “so we can grow bigger while maintaining sustainability”, and building partnerships with academic research centres that would allow the company to publish their research outputs.

He said the prestige of Open Book Publishers was now such that it was also attracting less senior academics. One lure was the faster turnaround it could offer, with referees asked to submit their reviews of manuscripts within two months.

From tombstone to touchstone

Digital publishing also allows the company to help authors create an online “buzz” around their books, and to link them to other digital resources such as databases, websites and image banks so that “instead of a book being a tombstone everyone can read and say ‘Wow! Isn’t that person intelligent?’ it becomes an inroad to the whole research environment”, Dr Gatti said.

He claimed that, in achieving financial sustainability, Open Book Publishers had performed the same exemplary role in open-access monograph publishing as PLoS ONE had done in journal publishing. But he did not envisage commercial publishers taking the model to heart any time soon because they remained “in the mindset of owning knowledge”.

Despite the Finch group’s assumption that it was necessary to move at a pace dictated by established publishers, Dr Gatti said it was time for academics to “take charge” of the dissemination of their work, with universities setting up their own open-access monograph presses - possibly through their libraries - and academic societies coordinating peer review.

“Yes, we will need resources: not every academic wants to spend time typesetting books. But the services can be provided under academic leadership,” he said.

“If Open Book Publishers can do it, it can be done. It doesn’t require the big paraphernalia that publishers [say is required]: we can just cut through all the rubbish they keep putting up.”


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