From January this year, I am a member of the Universities UK Open Access Monographs Working Group. The aims of the group, in preparation for the mandate for the anticipated Third Research Excellence Framework in the mid-2020s, are to monitor progress towards the practical implementation of open access monographs; to promote and accelerate cultural change towards OA publishing within academia and among traditional publishers; to advise on technical barriers to OA publishing and make recommendations for further work and investment; to promote innovation and diversity in business models for OA book publishing; to advise on how best to overcome perceived and actual policy and legal barriers to OA.
As part of the initial work for this group, we have been asked to respond to four questions. I thought I would share my responses here.
1. What are the core barriers to OA monographs?
There are a range of core barriers to OA monographs that span:
a. Prestige barriers (hiring, promotion, simple reputation) making the sector reliant upon a narrow set of conventional publishers. The majority of academics, even if they support OA, feel the lure of prestige brand name presses.
b. These publishers are wary of new business models that do not adequately distribute costs. A BPC model, for instance, concentrates costs on specific entities into budgetary areas that cannot draw such sums and, at current market rates of Palgrave Macmillan, would cost more than the entire SCONUL purchasing budget for all types of books (see attached graph of my modelling). Consortial purchasing models such as Knowledge Unlatched are helpful and a better way to do this, but they have not taken off at scale thus far. It is unclear how governance structures for purchasing decisions can be made in such consortial schemes at scale.
c. Some disciplines continue to resist OA for the reasons of third-party copyright/licensing concerns (art history for example), for creative writing academics, and for fears of employability in the publishing industry if OA causes a collapse (English). Trade crossover books (History) and their publishers are also a challenge here.
d. Learned societies continue to draw revenue from their book series (although mostly journals) and are likely to raise this as a barrier.
e. There is a persisting belief in (gold?) open access meaning a dip in quality control/peer review. I have heard such assertions from a UK academic within the last month.
f. Continued misinformation about open licensing continues to circulate.
g. The continued material/print form of the book is important to many stakeholders. As N. Katherine Hayles has pointed out, though, even print books are born digital these days.
In short: academics don’t want an author-pays model, but they also don’t want new publishers to achieve this. They would ideally like Oxford and Cambridge UP to do OA without academics having to change their practices or payment methods. At the same time, such UPs do not want to jeopardise their (often lucrative) income streams on new open access models.
2. What do stakeholders expect from a transition to OA monographs, and how might they seek to approach this transition?
a. Some publishers expect the transition to be nearly risk free. The unwillingness of some big, well-funded presses to experiment seems indicative of this. Far more experiment is needed here from those who can afford to take such risks. Otherwise, the risk always falls on to small, new, players and the results are discounted as “not working at scale”.
b. Academics hope for little in their everyday practice to change. They want to publish with presses that act as prestige indicators but without any changes to the economics of quality control processes. This is quite a narrow way of thinking about the future of long-form writing, but it remains the case. Academics should be prepared, though, for some changes to their practice. Continued outreach seems necessary here.
c. Libraries do not expect to see their budgets explode as a result of open access nor to see access disruption to monograph chains in the transition period. Libraries should expect there to be offsetting and a gradual move to paying for OA rather than it being an additional burden on top of their historical expenditure.
d. Readers should expect to be able to access books for free online, in a version that is academically identical to a print copy, in forms that are unhampered by Digital Rights Management locks. There should also be the possibility of print for such books.
e. Hiring and assessment panels should expect that books will be available for free online and understand and value these in the same way as traditional books.
f. Funders should take a hard line on OA monographs over a decade-long period to ensure that the seriousness of a need for transition is understood.
3. What are the characteristics of monographs that should be retained in any new system?
a. Monographs should remain subject to quality controls that academics themselves feel are appropriate. Although, see also: “excellence”.
b. Monographs should continue to be available in print, where the form permits (here allowing for new forms of born-digital long-form writing).
c. Monographs should be both physically and digitally preserved.
d. Traditional publisher functions of copyediting, typesetting, proofreading, platform maintenance, legal advice, DOI assignment, preservation, etc. should be retained.
4. What does the optimal future of the monograph look like?
a. I have long since given up on an optimal future for the monograph. I would be happy if all traditional monographs could be available open access at some point, even if that involved an embargo.
b. But, my ideal would simply be that gold OA versions of long-form writing were available simultaneously with print (where applicable) with a business model to support this that makes it easy for academics to get on with their work. In short: the optimal future for me is one where monographs just are openly available.
c. That said, new forms of born-digital writing being counted as “monographs” also seems to be an import future, but one that will take, I would guess, a long time to accrue general academic acceptance.
d. It would be ideal if monographs were available in semantically rich structured formats, such as XML. If the references were encoded as such, there are many machine-readable advantages of which I can conceive.