Universities are leading a grassroots rebellion shaking up the ecology of the scientific publishing sector. A growing number of universities and academics have set up their own presses in an attempt to take back control and autonomy away from the large commercial publishing houses.
A 2017 report by Jisc found that in the past five years, 21 new university presses (NUPs) have become operational and this number may rise to 30 over the next five years. Many of these presses are considering adding open textbooks to their journal and monograph portfolios in a bid to open up scholarly information outside publisher’s subscription paywalls. In addition, academic-led publishers such as Open Book Publishers have been publishing open textbooks for some time.
The cry for independence is fuelled by a growing discontent about business practices and huge profit margins of large publishers which can exceed that of companies like Amazon and Facebook. With the industry accounting for $25 billion a year, it is taking up a fair chunk of universities’ budgets.
Take back control
Another incentive for universities wanting to take charge of publishing content, is the rising cost of textbooks. The price of textbooks has increased by 90 percent from 1998 to 2016, according to the American Enterprise Institute. It’s a significant barrier to access.
Lara Speicher from UCL Press says: “Textbooks are very expensive for students to buy on top of their fees and living expenses, and buying large numbers of print textbooks is increasingly challenging for squeezed library budgets. And now these issues are starting to bite as textbook sales are in decline.”
In recognition of the discontent in the sector, Jisc commissioned four projects at the Universities of Liverpool, Nottingham, Highlands and Islands with Edinburgh Napier University, and University College London to trial in-house publishing of open and affordable e-textbooks. The project resulted in the publication of eight textbooks and in December 2018 the ‘institution as e-textbook publisher toolkit’ was launched to help universities and academics to publish their own open and affordable e-textbooks.
Professor Frank Rennie and Professor Keith Smyth from University of the Highlands and Islands who took part in the Jisc pilot share three lessons they took away from the e-textbook publishing project:
- “The process of e-textbook production is relatively simply and can be applied to a very wide range of publication formats, which will consequently add value to learning and teaching, especially in online and blended learning modes of delivery.
- “Most universities already have most of the capacity to publish e-publications by repurposing materials from academic staff, but some jobs (e.g. proofreading and publication control) may require to be brought in from outside, as these skills are not a normal part of most university mainstream activity.
- “The key factor is in the means of distribution of the final product. We chose to utilise Amazon as a distribution service, which ensured a fast and efficient global distribution. The e-textbooks retailed at £1.99, so technically they were not ‘open’ books, but few would claim that the books are not affordable, and this is clearly demonstrated by the large number of downloads achieved by the project.”
However, you do not have to set up your own new university press to start publishing high quality open and affordable textbooks. Two of the four projects did not have their own presses.
The open access textbook agenda is gaining traction in the UK but is on a rather small scale when compared to North America. A recent piece of research conducted by Jisc looked at the motivations for textbook and learning resource publishing to understand whether open access would motivate authors to publish learning materials and thereby support a transition to open access for e-textbooks. It found that although there was support for open, there were also concerns around copyright and intellectual property rights as well as cultural issues within universities regarding rewarding textbook publication and buying out staff time. It is hoped that the results from this study will encourage conversations regarding open textbooks, particularly with funders and institutions.
If the sector does not take the opportunity to investigate and engage with open textbook publishing, then an increasing amount of institutions’ budgets will continue to be spent with the large commercial textbook publishers rather than creating personalised course content by the sector for the sector.
However, institutional cultural attitudes and author motivation to write open textbooks can seem insurmountable hurdles. But now is the time to utilise the expertise within the UK HE sector, to capitalise on the current interest in the growing new university press movement, to start having serious sector wide discussions and action towards the creation of UK-wide open and affordable textbooks.
A proposal for an open and affordable e-textbook landscape in the UK and beyond can be found in the recent Against the Grain article “Open and Affordable Textbooks – Three Levels of Open.
The challenge as always is realising the potential and making it something viable and achievable, hence the need for a new approach to be endorsed and adopted by the sector as a whole, not just the libraries.