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Martin Paul Eve

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

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In my recent book I set out some of the benefits but also the challenges of transitioning to a world of open-access monographs. I’ve also written previously about some of the discourse of double dipping in the monograph space. In the past few weeks I’ve had cause to think some more about this and have come up with two additional areas of difficulty that present a challenge for OA books: sites of risk/selection and offsetting. Not all of this is hugely new or shocking, but I thought it worth articulating it up-front in this way.

Sites of Risk and Selection

I couldn’t think of a better term for this than “sites of risk” I’m afraid, but what I want to talk about here is what and when we purchase scholarly material in the current subscription and sale ecosystems for scholarly publishing. It works a bit like this: when you purchase a subscription to a journal, you undertake an appraisal of the current content, its disciplinary remit, its standing etc. But what you are paying for is the future output. A year’s subscription gives access to back content (most likely) but it is for the future content. In other words, the risk is placed on subscribers in this environment. Subscribers are banking on past performance as a predictive indicator that will yield them a good value future return for their subscription fees. Of course, in a startup phase a journal must usually take the risk and begin publishing without subscribers in order to build a reputation. Fundamentally, though, journal subscriptions are library speculation/betting on the future output of a container.

Books are mostly different. While there are platforms like Cambridge Books Online that will let you subscribe to future packages of Cambridge Companions and the like, we usually buy books as one-off objects, appraised across a matrix of author, subject, press, reviews, and other factors. In this case, though, as purchasers we feel we have a better handle on what we’re getting. The object already exists and we are paying for labour that has already been undertaken. The risk in book publishing lies with publishers, not with libraries. If a book gets terrible initial reviews, a library may choose not to purchase it. Publishers have to do the sales forecasting.

In an OA environment this presents a challenge. An OA model like OLH can work well with existing expectations around selection of journals and risk. Libraries pay in advance not knowing quite what they’ll get in terms of precise article content, but do so anyway because this is what happens with subscription journals already. With books, it might be quite different. Would you pay a press in advance for a whole book series, for example? Does this type of evaluation lock us back in to using publisher brand as a proxy (with all the dangerous concentrations of economic power that come with it)? If distributed gold OA models for books are to replace a purchase paradigm with any up-front supply-side payment paradigm, the existing sites of risk are changed and put onto libraries. This is the one benefit of a BPC (book processing charge) model: if an author’s institution or funder believes in the author and trusts him/her, they may be willing to pay and consider this low risk. The problem with that model that initiatives like Knowledge Unlatched aim to solve is that it concentrates the higher costs of books to an unaffordable degree on the institution or funder and scales badly. But distributed schemes have to work out new social norms for 1.) the selection of titles; 2.) the sites of risk; and 3) what gets published; if they are to succeed. I think KU is already working on this with its subject and press-area splitting.

Offsetting

A crucial part of the dialogue around a transition to open access in the journal space has been offsetting. Specifically that, if we can free funds from subscriptions, we can invest in open access models. This is the basis on which OLH grows; if a subscription journal comes to us, libraries should use the offset to fund us. (There are some complications there that I won’t go into, but that’s the basic version.) When publishers don’t offset (i.e. reduce their fees because of OA payments) we call this “double dipping”. Double dipping is a problematic discourse, though, because it pivots around the existing price point and normalises it, rather than exerting any downward pressure on costs and prices.

But let’s assume that we go with the discourse of double dipping and offsetting. What would this look like for books? With journals there may be a fixed number of articles and issues per year (a legacy of print culture). So offsetting is easy. Get a price per article and for every article that is pre-paid OA, subtract this from subscription fees. (Again, more complex in practice, but this is the simplified narrative.) What does this look like for books? Presses don’t have fixed numbers of titles. Everyone wants their book to be published because there is career pressure to publish (or perish). So if we pay a publisher for an OA book, they can simply use the guaranteed income to underwrite more of the risk in the sales paradigm and take on more titles. In other words, there is no offsetting mechanism at present for books that wouldn’t constrain a publishers output.

There are similar problems in the journal world. Starting new journals is the surefire way to monetise a disciplinary space by removing the pivot point for offsetting. But these two interlinked above problems of sites of risk/selection and offsetting seem to me to present far higher hurdles in the book world than they do in the journal space, mostly as a result of the historical assumptions we have about funding these modes of scholarly communication.