Open access monographs: perspectives from university presses

As Research England formulates a requirement for open access monographs in future Research Excellence Frameworks (REFs), let us consider how university presses publish single-subject, often single-author, scholarly works and participate in the construction of a complex and, we hope, robust OA monograph equation.

Monographs have their own unique and valued publishing processes and scholarly purposes, requiring support and infrastructure. It is likely, therefore, that existing models for OA journals, which are typically composed of shorter scholarly pieces by multiple authors, may be of limited utility when devising protocols for OA monographs. The fundamentally different peer and editorial review processes, in particular, are esteemed by scholars for assuring the quality of published long-form works; similarly, marketing entails not just selling, but vital discovery and dissemination work essential to authors and readers alike.

Understanding how mission-driven university presses add value to scholarship and quantifying the cost of those actions is essential. “When we think of any author creating a book, we often imagine a solitary pursuit: the lone scholar working away at a desk,” writes Greg Britton, editorial director of the Johns Hopkins University Press, in “What Editors Do”. “In reality, books begin their lives as part of a larger scholarly conversation, and they come to fruition as group projects touched by editors and peer reviewers, copy editors, designers and compositors, marketers and salespeople.” Hardcover, paperback, e-book, interactive web projects—all scholarly monographs are products of this collective effort.

Monographs are different

“Selecting, shaping, vetting, and producing books and then connecting them with their readers in a way that is responsible and sustainable,” as Britton writes, is the goal of all who work for scholarly presses. “Even non-profit publishers need to make enough money to sustain their activity.” Several studies have interrogated the costs of monograph publishing. Perhaps the most widely cited is the 2016 ITHAKA S+R survey of 20 US university presses, which calculated an average “basic” cost of $28,618 (£21,923) per book. This figure includes the significant staff time directly related to preparing a manuscript for distribution (without printing and royalty costs), but not overhead that supports a publisher’s continued viability.

While it is tempting to peg policy decisions to an expectation of lower costs, ungrounded assumptions often lead to unintended, undesirable consequences. Overlooking the value of the labour behind these costs and the need to create a scalable, sustainable publishing model may limit services and development offered to authors (especially those without institutional funding) and ultimately degrade scholarship. As the ITHAKA report authors wondered, “Should higher per-book costs be interpreted as a sign of press inefficiency or as a reflection of a healthy press in a position to devote and invest greater resources?”

Different global responses

Many in the global community of the Association of University Presses (AUPresses)—including Cambridge, Oxford, Liverpool, and Manchester University Presses—are already embracing OA for various projects. For example, at present, OA monographs are frequently offered in tandem with print or e-book formats for purchase, echoing the finding of the 2015 Ithaka S+R / Jisc / Research Libraries UK Survey of Academics that “academics’ preference for using scholarly monographs in various ways (eg, reading a section or cover to cover, skimming, exploring references, searching for a particular topic) in print format rather than digital format has only increased since the previous cycle of the survey.”

“A potential REF OA mandate could work for many books,” observes Anthony Cond, Managing Director of Liverpool University Press, “provided it comes with a clear understanding of the requirements for long-term financial sustainability. Our OA books go through the same rigorous editorial and peer review process as non-OA publications and they are published to the same high production standards and with extensive marketing. And there will need to be a long list of exceptions, for which print formats will endure.”

The 2018 Open Access Monographs report from Universities UK concludes that “there is no single dominant emerging business model” for OA monograph publishing. Amherst/Lever, California/Luminos, Johns Hopkins/MUSE, Michigan, Minnesota, and North Carolina university presses are all cited as developing innovative funding models, digital platforms, workflow tools, reading interfaces, and impact analytics. Towards an Open Monograph Ecosystem (TOME), a joint project of AUPresses, the Association of Research Libraries, and the Association of American Universities, is another experiment in system-wide support for long-form OA.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has funded a number of US initiatives to build the infrastructure for producing “high-quality, broadly accessible, digital products” at scale. Many of the desired product qualities described by Mellon’s Donald J. Waters’ 2016 Monograph publishing in the digital age figure prominently in the university press projects above. Perhaps most importantly, Waters writes, “The Mellon Foundation strongly supports open access and believes that it will play an important role in how its vision of the monograph of the future is achieved, but open access is one of the means to the ends we envision, not an end in itself.”

Consultancy fullstopp GmbH – appointed by Research England, Jisc, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the British Academy – is currently collecting and analysing data from publishers, librarians, and other stakeholders. Their efforts appear comprehensive, and policymakers are to be applauded for seeking to make evidence-based policy changes. While university presses are embracing long-form OA innovation with vigour, policymakers also must recognise that as of yet no scalable model exists for sustainably publishing OA monographs. The tenets of high-quality scholarship itself — thorough research, careful hypothesis testing, and rigorous review — will undoubtedly reveal a way forward.

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