The future of humanities research work and OA monographs

Open access for books and monographs in the humanities is a difficult economic problem to solve. Martin Eve might just have part of the answer.

In 2020, the novel coronavirus snatched much of our vibrant cultural lives from under our noses. The focus changed, almost overnight, from living to surviving.

Also, rightly, with the world’s hopes pinned on a vaccine, science has taken centre stage. Parts of the academy – the natural sciences – have been thrust into the limelight.

Not an even light

Other areas are being plunged into darkness. Cuts in humanities department across the nation (and, indeed, the world) proceed apace. There have already been redundancies at UK universities in humanities departments and more appear planned. Just as the virus starved us of theatres, live music, and comedy – and although the humanities consistently protest that we are always under attack – the study of culture at university level has already begun to suffer, pitted in a zero-sum game against our academic cousins in scientific disciplines.

A similar, worrying, trend can be seen in research publication cultures. A great deal of recent argument has centred on the need for open-access to scientific research – and especially that concerning Covid. Yet the humanities continue to lag behind on open access. This applies particularly to academic research books (or monographs), a core output type in subjects like history and English that is less commonly seen in the sciences. These books frequently cost upwards of £60 per copy, and reach only 200 academic libraries or so worldwide.

As it currently stands we are heading towards a world in which every piece of scientific research is free to read, to anyone, on the internet. This is laudable. At the same time, this future world is one where the vast majority of humanities research is expensive and hard to access. It is a world where the study of culture is confined to those who can afford to pay or those who are at institutions with access. It is a dire world for humanities research and equitable education.

Another model

It is in order to avert this catastrophe that I have spent the past decade working on open-access business models for research articles and monographs in the humanities disciplines. Despite all the heated debates – on open licensing, on trade books, on creative writing – the biggest blocker to OA in the humanities seems, to me, to be economic. Book processing charges (analogous to article processing charges) at the £11,000 mark will not scale in disciplines where an entire department’s book purchasing budget is just £7,000.

Consortial funding models offer us a way out of this impasse. The Open Library of Humanities, which I founded and run, and which won the Best Small Publisher of the Year Award from the Association for Online Publishing in 2020, operates on such economics. Approximately 300 libraries pay an annual “subscription” fee in order to allow us to publish everything openly. These libraries support us so that we can exist. It is a model that works on distributing costs between many actors, rather than charging fees to authors, which concentrates such costs.

Opening the backlist

Starting new presses will only get us so far, though (although OLH is a model that any press publishing journals could adopt). What we really need is a mass transition of university presses, worldwide, if we are to head off the looming “humanities invisibility crisis”. My work on the £3m funded COPIM project (Community-led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs), funded by Research England and Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin – has led me to a model that I believe could achieve just this. And we have a press that has committed to making it happen as the pilot light for dark times.

Called “Opening the Future”, the model that we are implementing at the Central European University Press works on selling a subscription to their backlist of content. Libraries that subscribe gain exclusive access to DRM-free copies of the books, usable by as many simultaneous users as needed, with perpetual access at the end of the three-year term. So far, so standard as book subscriptions go.

Here’s where it gets clever: the revenue generated by the backlist subscriptions is used to make frontlist titles openly accessible. This has the benefit of bringing funding from two types of institution into the fold. Of course, we hope that those who have supported existing OA initiatives will want to participate. However, by selling a subscription to fund OA, we hope that libraries who have never supported an OA initiative will find themselves, by default, seeing the benefits of OA books. Come for the subscription, stay for the open access.

Lowering costs and opening research

This model can also deliver excellent value and combines the best of existing OA membership models (think Open Book Publishers and punctum books) with traditional subscription purchasing (a little like Subscribe to Open). If you look at the pricing on just the backlist items, we are talking €16.00 EUR per book; a good deal even without the OA component. However, if we meet our targets, and can expand the list by 25 new OA titles every year, the price drops to €10.67 EUR per title. If we can hit our revenue targets, we will lower costs in future years.

We’ve had strong support from major international platforms for this initiative. Project Muse will be hosting content and LYRASIS are on board in the US. We are speaking with Jisc Collections to open our signup to UK institutions.

It is almost certain that there will be a mixed model approach to providing OA monographs. Of course, print will persist – an often overlooked point! (All four of my own open-access monographs are available to buy in print.) But this model could offer university presses a route to a dynamically scalable way to provide OA. After all, if the money doesn’t materialise, the titles can just go back to being sales-based. This model, though, allows books to go OA when the money is there, and to carry on as usual if it is not.

While there is no risk-free route to transition, I believe we are rapidly reaching the point where the risk of doing nothing far outweighs the benefits we could see from a move to open access. University presses can adopt the Opening the Future model and we will be releasing budgeting spreadsheets, planning documents, a revenue collection platform, and a host of other helper artefacts to make the transition work. This toolkit, of course, sits alongside the other work packages at COPIM, which are plugging the infrastructural gap for OA monographs.

This could point us to a better future world in which the humanities are first-class, visible citizens, alongside our cousins in the sciences.

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