Open access monograph dash could lead us off a cliff

It is not Luddism to be cautious about destroying an academic publishing industry that has served us well, says Marilyn Deegan

July 27, 2017
James Fryer illustration (27 July 2017)
Source: James Fryer

While open access is all about setting research “free”, the transition towards it can feel to academics like just another facet of the ever-stricter assessment regimes to which they are becoming subject.

A recent example in the UK is the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s announcement that all articles and conference papers submitted to the next research excellence framework exercise will have to be available on an open-access institutional or subject repository. Books are exempted for 2021, but they won’t be the next time around.

To its enthusiasts, open access is an incontestable good, for books as much as for papers – and those of us who point out the considerable difficulties in implementation are dismissed as reactionary Luddites. Recent heavyweight UK reports on open-access monographs, such as the 2015 Crossick report and the 2016 OAPEN-UK report are less gung-ho, but both urge measured and rigorously evaluated progress towards open access for books.

Everyone writes to be read, so wider access to our books is, on the face of it, an unalloyed good. But we should not ignore the downsides. The Indian literary scholar Sukanta Choudhury, for instance, calls open access a “doubtful panacea” as it privileges readers in the developing world with good internet access, and potentially disadvantages authors who cannot pay the article processing fees associated with publisher-provided gold open access. For Choudhury, open access could perpetuate or even exacerbate the differential in academic productivity between global North and global South.

One major argument in favour of open access advanced by both policymakers and enthusiasts is that research has typically been paid for by institutions or taxpayers, so neither should be expected to pay publishers to access its outputs. But this is only partly true. Although it is not always acknowledged, publishers add considerable value to academic research. A 2016 blog by the publishing consultant Kent Anderson on the Scholarly Kitchen website, for example, details 96 things that publishers do.

Many scholars are broadly supportive of the benefits of open access, but they often display a degree of disquiet when all the implications are pointed out to them. One problem is the liberality of some of the Creative Commons licences that open-access authors are required to sign. At their most permissive, these allow almost any reuse of a work, including adaptation and abridgement, as long as the original author is credited. This is particularly hard to swallow when it comes to monographs. In the arts and humanities, scholars do not regard the research embodied in their books as data to be mined, but, rather, as carefully crafted arguments: creative works in their own right. And they view with dismay the prospect of those works’ atomisation and appropriation by others.

Then there is the question of where and how open-access monographs are published. Repository-based green open access is unlikely to be the solution because the version of a work that can be made available in a repository is the accepted manuscript. In the case of books, this can differ markedly from the final publication. It can also be difficult for readers to find things in the repositories if they don’t already know they are there.

That leaves you with gold open access. But this immediately raises the issue of academic freedom: will monograph authors be pushed towards publishers that are not their first choice simply because they are open access? The UK funding bodies insist that REF assessment panels are publisher-blind, but academics and their institutions continue to value long-established and reputable houses, whether they offer easy routes to open access or not. Brand is and will remain a powerful incentive in the choice of publisher.

Business models and funding are another problematic area. Those publishers that offer open-access monographs currently charge authors upwards of £10,000. Some 8,000 monographs were submitted to the 2014 REF. Even open-access enthusiast Martin Eve, co-founder of the open-access humanities platform Open Library of the Humanities, noted in a recent blog post that making all those books open access would have accounted for the entire purchasing budget of UK research libraries. Eve still thinks that a solution can and must be found, and there are interesting experiments by new, open-access-only university presses in partnership with university libraries and by smaller publishers. But these are comparatively small, with no implication that they can work at the scale required for compliance with the future REF requirements. Gold open access for all books submitted to the REF would require nothing less than a revolutionary change in the publishing industry: something that can be achieved only at enormous cost and risk, and will probably take many decades.

We could, of course, just write publishers out of the picture at a stroke. We could switch to entirely new, open-access platforms controlled by institutions and funders. But academic publishing is an industry that serves us well. It is not Luddism to advocate that we should refrain from destroying it by rushing pell-mell towards openness without a reasoned appreciation of the difficulties as well as the advantages.

Marilyn Deegan is professor of digital humanities and honorary research fellow at King’s College London.

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Reader's comments (11)

The great respect I have for Marilyn Deegan and my appreciation of her extraordinary contributions to digital humanities make me reluctant to write this comment, but I'm afraid she's wrong about open-access monographs. The idea that open access "privileges readers in the developing world with good internet access" is bizarre, since access to knowledge in printed form is far more privileging of the developed world. All the great research libraries are in the developed world and are virtually impossible for scholars in developing countries to use. By contrast, more than half of all humankind has access to the Internet. Like the invention of printing, the invention of digital texts disseminated by the Internet massively lowers the cost of access to knowledge and brings in millions of readers who previously were shut out. I find it extraordinary that Deegan (and indeed Sukanta Choudhury if his ideas are being represented accurately) disagree, and it is disappointing that this article offers no evidence to support this bizarre claim about open access impeding rather than helping the democratization of access. Humanities scholars are public servants, so the idea that they have personal rights in the works that they create with public money is also bizarre. I'm sure Deegan is right that some humanities scholars "do not regard the research embodied in their books as data to be mined" and object to it being "appropriation by others". But scholars who think like this have no right to do so. How would it be if other public servants took their view? Suppose that the government's tax inspectors decided that their reports, written in the course of their work, were their own private property to do with as they see fit? What if those investigating the Grenfell Tower fire decided to give their final conclusions to a commercial publisher to sell to the public rather than simply telling the public for free what they have discovered? Certainly academic publishers add value to the typescripts they receive from their authors, but just how much they add is not clear and publishers did not even bother to press this side of the justification for their existence until open access came along. If publishers add value, that should be part of our calculations of how best to disseminate knowledge in the future. But it makes no sense to argue that because publishers add value to typescripts, the existing arrangements for academic publishing should never change. When open access first became an option, many publishers said that it would destroy them entirely and had to be banned outright. They lost that battle. A life-jacket was thrown to them by the idea that they might be paid to provide open access, the so-called Gold model. Deegan is right that Gold open access is unsustainable and that Martin Eve has pointed this out. But Eve wasn't arguing against open access, as Deegan's use of his comment implies: he was arguing for it. Indeed, Eve ends the blog posting that Deegan refers to with the sentence "It would be disheartening to see reactionary responses that suggest the forever-impossibility of OA monographs". He was right, it really is. Prof Gabriel Egan Director, Centre for Textual Studies De Montfort University
Prof. Gabriel Egan writes in response to this article: "humanities scholars are public servants". This is not always the case. There are independent (unsalaried) scholars, retired scholars (working for the sheer love of it), and in some countries (eg the US) there are private universities whose scholars are not public servants. Even academics in the UK and Canada might not see themselves as "public servants," and even if they do, there are such things as copyright and intellectual property. Open access itself is not always publicly owned or administered. The internet has given rise to private companies that pirate academic books and make them available online without reimbursement to either author or publisher. I am with Prof Deegan on this one.
I am happy to concede to John Leonard the point about unsalaried scholars and those whose employers are not supported by the state. I have no objection to such people making private deals with commercial publishers to sell their creations. But scholars whose employment is state funded really are public servants even if they don't think they are. Indeed, that's my point: some public servants are under the delusion that they are not public servants and that they somehow own the rights to what they write even though they are paid by the state to write it. I don't know what Leonard means by "Open access itself is not always publicly owned or administered", but certainly there could be no such thing as the pirating of academic books if the books were open access in the first place. Gabriel Egan
What, pray, is academic? It is far too easy to use the term and ignore the wide variety of books published by academics (what is an academic?). If by academic you mean a work that will bore the pants off the man in the street, then why not have everything OA. However, humanities academia is not so boring and, for example, art history, history, literature, to name but a few, have a history of writing fascinating works that are very often taken up by mainstream publishers, such a Penguin. What do you do in such cases? All in all, rather than taking a purely anglocentric point of view, and Professor Deegan certainly does not, it might be useful to take a wider look at what researchers in European and indeed around the world, publish and why. Above all why. One place where the why and how are being asked is at the ENRESSH COST action ( We essentially look at evaluation and impact, but our approach is not normative and is Europe-wide, and beyond. Thank you Professor Deegan for a stimulating and well thought out analysis of why rushing blind into bad policy is not such a good thing.
EvalHum2 thinks that "mainstream publishers, such as Penguin" being the purveyors of interesting books in the humanities presents a problem for open access ("What do you do in such cases?") but doesn't say what kind of problem this presents. I'm not seeing why open access publishing cannot purvey interesting books in the humanities too. If EvalHum2 would care to elaborate on the problems, I'd be happy to consider them.
Sorry to have taken so long to reply. The problem lies in the wholly arbitrary division between academic and non-academic output. Whilst I am utterly in favour of open access for proceedings and reports, other outputs covers as wide a variety of forms as does the publishing industry itself. Publishing depends on the knowledge and foresight of a publisher who is willing to take risks. OA relies on the good will of academics, or the cash interest of certain big groups. I doubt it will ever have the flexibility of mainstream publishing. On the whole, as books tend to have a long interest life, and the author copyright is long too, I do not see the OA will ever take over all outputs. However, it is vital that embargos be applied to collected works to prevent the burial of valuable papers. We are currently being asked to valorise (sic) the SSH. This is dangerous as publications tend to be seen purely for some obscure utilitarian interest. If we are to promote the SSH, and they are after all the foundation stone upon which stable democracies are built, we must show their variety and not try and straightjacket them with badly thought out policy that mimics the needs of STEM disciplines. Looking at what researchers publish, where and why is key, and that is what some of us in ENRESSH are trying to do. I can add two other points. You claim SSH researchers are public servants. Maybe, but so are scientists and so why should they pick up dividends from patents wholly reliant on publicly funded research when you deny royalties to a scholar who in all likelihood self funds much of his or her research. The second problem arises from a certain anglo-centric view of research. I, for instance, work in France, and have done for 40 years. Like most French humanities academics part of my salary is devoted to my research time, but we spend far more time than that and actually end out of our income our research, attendance at conferences et cetera. I do not see why I should shell out a couple of months salary to publish a book when a commercial publisher will do it for me. You can preach OA from rich viewpoint, but many countries in Europe simply do not give the means to their researchers to publish OA. Preaching from a privileged situation is always easy.
I am sorry that a remark attributed to me in Marilyn Deegan’s article should have added to the controversy. Let me rephrase my view in my own words. Of course I do not think (who could?!) that Open Access privileges any reader in the developing world vis-à-vis even the least privileged in the developed world. My point, made verbally at a British Library conference last year and reported by Marilyn from memory, was that for scholars in the developing world with internet facilities, OA allows better access than before to other people’s work; but it makes it even harder for them to publish their own work because of the steep fees of the ‘gold’ channel. (Quite how steep they can be, I have learnt anew from Marilyn’s article.) That is why I called OA a doubtful panacea. Sukanta Chaudhuri (so spelt) Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University, India
My apologies to Prof Chaudhuri for reproducing the misspelling of his name from Deegan's article. I entirely agree with him that Gold Open Access fees are for many authors a barrier to publication. This is true in the developed world as much as in the developing world. Thankfully, almost nobody in my field (the Arts and Humanities) ever pays them: we use the much better Green Open Access route that costs nothing. It would be a terrible shame if the entire Open Access movement were tarnished by the 'Gold' option, which is an attempt by publishers to cash in on that movement.
I concur with some of the commentators - better an OA book (also printed on demand) that more people can read, using copyright appropriate to the author's wishes (like this one , or stricter), than an expensive book that people in some countries cannot get hold of or cannot afford. Same with articles. "charge authors upwards of £10,000" - this is wrong for the majority of monographs. You will see some data on my page (at the end, after the journals). UCL Press, a new venture, charges half this; ANU Press charged my friends AU$3000 for a long anthropological monograph; Ubiquity Press quotes £2,750-£3,250; Open Book Publishers were suggesting about £3,500 depending on the text; and if you could convince Praxis ePress to publish, that would be free. . All of these are reputable outlets and a couple can work at scale. Try and avoid the big five publishers because they are expensive and profit-making. "If the entire Open Access movement were tarnished by the 'Gold' option, which is an attempt by publishers to cash in on that movement." Utterly wrong here. No it isn't. I have donated my time to editing a Gold OA journal since 2003, free of charge. Many more have done the same, in and outside universities. Our attitude is that we need to "take back" Gold publishing from the big five, which cripple our library budgets for one thing. On my site I list hundreds of journals run by professional societies, departments, and academics themselves that do that just. I set the bar at US$500 APC an article, but most are free to readers and publishers. Many of are nicely ranked, if that seems important. The hopeful 'OA revolution' of the 1990s has indeed been hijacked by various commercial operators, but the point is to resist these pressures, and almost the first time in the history of scholarship, make work available to billions. This ethical point (and practical point - more readers!) is well understood in the sciences (through Tim Gowers et al), less so in the social sciences (where people don't really understand the social justice of publishing, yet, despite 70% of WoS listed article being produced by 5 profitmaking companies by 2015) and I though it was well understood in the humanities already... perhaps not. Simon Batterbury, Professor, Lancaster University & U Melbourne
Simon Batterbury says that he has "donated [his] time to editing a Gold OA journal since 2003, free of charge". If this refers to the Journal of Political Ecology, which its website calls "one of the longest standing, Gold Open Access journals in the social sciences", then I retract my implication that this is an example of "an attempt by publishers to cash in on" the Open Access movement. But I must say I cannot make sense of the Journal of Political Ecology's description of itself on its website, for it also says "Publication is generally free of charge". I'd be grateful if Batterbury could clarify just what makes this journal "Gold" if--as the website seems to say--neither the reader pays and nor ("generally") does the author. That sounds like Green (not Gold) Open Access to me, and as such I'm entirely in favour of it. Gabriel Egan
This article, like so many on this subject, takes a narrowly text-based model of outputs, which is by no means necessarily applicable to those academics working in the creative and performing arts. Their outputs may be in the form of scores, editions, recordings, installations, videos, artefacts, and much more, many of which are either impossible to host in open access repositories or for which the copyright issues are even bigger. It would be a great shame if all those in my field, music, who produce recordings either as composer or performer, were to find that it was impossible to have these released by a major label, but then be inadmissible for the REF, or not counted as research at all. A very large number of REF submissions at present are of this type. Debates on open access need to take more account of research which is embodied within species of creative practice.

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