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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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The environment surrounding open access to monographs was significantly advanced today by the release of a report commissioned by the UK's Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), a quango (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation) that translates the government's higher education budget allocation into usable funds. In April 2014, HEFCE announced that eligibility to receive future funding through its “quality-related” (QR) stream would depend exclusively upon the assessment of green open access material: a mandate. Specifically, authors must deposit the accepted version of their articles at the time of acceptance (Higher Education Funding Council for England 2014, para.17–19). However, monographs 'and other-long form publications', edited collections, non-text outputs and data are all excluded from this mandate (Higher Education Funding Council for England 2014, para.14).

From the rhetoric deployed by HEFCE and the UK's Research Councils, some academics have surmised that these bodies would like to mandate monographs for a future exercise; after all, why should one form be deemed different to others in their eyes when both are supported by QR funding (Evans 2014)? However, in recognition of the additional barriers (and researcher sensitivities) surrounding open access monographs, HEFCE instead opted for now to mount an investigation into the subject, the first national-level funding council investigation of its type. The investigation was led by Professor Geoffrey Crossick, an ex-Vice Chancellor of the University of London and a Distinguished Professor of History and supported by an expert reference group, of which I was a member. My opinion of the process was that Geoff was extremely fair and open in his consultations. As I'll discuss, I'm not 100% in agreement with all of his conclusions -- and that's fine. As the report notes, it is not the report of the reference group, it is Geoff's report. What I am sure of, though, is that he gave a fair hearing to all sides of the argument, consulted widely on the matter and went to great lengths to understand the concerns of a broad range of stakeholders.

The report consists of a detailed analysis of the importance and role of the monograph in the humanities disciplines, along with an assessment of the feasibility of open access for books and an independently commissioned study into business models. A select range of Crossick's fundamental conclusions may be paraphrased thus (these are my paraphrasings; please consult the original report for the proper wording if you want to check whether I have represented this fairly):

  • Monographs remain important for humanities scholars for communication and accreditation. Their viability shouldn't be jeopardised by OA policies.
  • Surprisingly, the monograph does not appear to be in crisis. [Edit: an earlier version of this piece read "appears to be financially healthy"]
  • Peer review is still key to academic publishing.
  • Publisher brand is a dominating factor in the assessment of publication quality. This means that if OA is to develop for monographs, it will require the participation of established presses.
  • Print books are still viewed favourably over their digital counterparts for academic books and any OA for monographs should be symbiotic with print editions.
  • Policymakers must clearly articulate the opportunities and benefits of OA for monographs if they are to win the hearts and minds of researchers. Academics must be brought on board for OA monographs to succeed.
  • A small, select group of academics will resist OA for monographs on the grounds that they earn substantial royalties through the sale of their books. Crossick recommends that policymakers have an exemption policy for this eventuality.
  • A requirement for the most liberal of open licenses may hinder uptake as these are contentious.
  • The inclusion of third-party material may be problematic for OA books.
  • First books are usually so different from the Ph.D. theses from which they derive that mandates for OA theses are immaterial for policymakers considering OA books.
  • There is a global movement towards OA, including for books.
  • There is no single, established economic model for gold or green OA books.
  • Business models for OA books are at an early, experimental phase. It is unlikely that one model could be imposed through policy decisions.

As you can see, this is not a Finch-like game-changer that immediately calls for a revolution in the publishing of books (this was not its intention, either -- it was to consider the implications that funders would have to consider, not to prescribe the terms of a mandate). In some senses, from my perspective as an OA advocate, I think that's a shame. Of course, in a more pragmatic mode, I appreciate that caution and incrementalism are probably more useful ways to advance the debate.

Many of these findings are uncontentious. That books are important, that print remains valued for its combination of sequential and random access, and that the current set of business models are experimental hardly cause a stir. By contrast, some of these points could be queried. That the monograph appears to be relatively financially healthy, for instance, runs contra to the prevailing discourse that claims that books are in crisis. Indeed, several papers given at a conference back in 1997 questioned whether the rhetoric of crisis was better framed as “chronic illness” given the perpetual nature of this claim (Case 1999). [Edit: Geoff points out, on Twitter, that he "couldn't find evidence for mongrphs crisis, but doesn't mean 'financially healthy'".] Likewise, the acceptance of publisher brand as a mark of quality goes against the rhetoric that HEFCE itself uses in the assessment of the REF. It is also referred to as "not necessarily unproblematic", which seems to be a tangential way of touching upon the thorny economic situations that this engenders (see Eve 2014, chapter two [from which some of this post is derived]).

The statements on licensing are interesting for the way they focus on academic acceptance rather than on the potential revenue implications. Third-party rights remain somewhat tricky here, also. There are potential ways around this -- such as partnering with libraries/museums and persuading them that the economic return may be greater if they license a low-resolution version or that it may not be their priority to block such uses (Tanner 2004) or freemium OA editions that drop images (not ideal, but perhaps incremental) -- but it remains a major challenge. Likewise, it is interesting that the persistence of print is mentioned, as this gives a potential for symbiotic revenue modes (although this also comes with challenges).

Finally, the statements on book royalties present difficulties from my perspective. Very few academic authors sell enough copies to thrive off their book royalties simply by dint of the fact that the average print run of a monograph is estimated to be 200-250. Presumably, authors will not definitively know, in advance, whether their book is going to sell well. If an exemption is allowed for royalties, then authors may pre-emptively (and over-optimistically) veto open access on the grounds that they might make money off their books in future. To reiterate, open access is only really designed for authors who don't need to sell their works for a living (because, in the case of academics, they already have a salary or too small a market to usually make this feasible). If books span that divide and it is culturally accepted that authors will earn revenue from them, then OA is harder to achieve in this realm. Conversely, though, if books are the outcome of funded research work, even if only in part, funders may consider such royalty payments too much of a private, as opposed to public, benefit from their financial contribution.

Overall, though, this is an extremely worthwhile contribution to the ongoing debates around open access and monographs. It shows a consultative and thoughtful approach that cuts through much of the surface debate. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Note: I have updated some portions of this post approximately 2 hours after publishing it after Geoff Crossick responded to me on Twitter. Where I have edited, I have clearly marked this in square brackets.