Publication Date

March 10, 2017

Perspectives Section


As sales of academic books decline, university presses are turning to open access publishing. h_pampel/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2It is widely known that the market for academic books in humanities fields is shrinking. It might come as a surprise to many, then, that some presses are turning to open access publishing in an attempt to reduce costs and develop wider readership. A small but growing number of presses have started exploring new economic models that require authors or their institutions to help cover the costs of publishing while simultaneously making their work freely accessible online to readers from around the globe. This paired approach—free digital editions based on pay-to-publish business models—has long been a feature of scientific journal publishing. Now, initiatives such as Luminos at the University of California Press (UCP) and University of Michigan Press’s (UMP) Digital Culture Books are entering the fray and applying this economic model to humanities monographs.

In a talk at the January 2017 AHA annual meeting in Denver, John Sherer, director of the University of North Caro­lina Press, was clear about the challenges facing scholarly publishers. “Sales trends are clear and troubling, and only going to get worse,” he said. Current business practices, which rely on recovering publishing costs from readers and libraries purchasing print versions, “are based on obsolete assumptions.” Open access, however, allows presses to apply an economic model that puts digital at the heart of their publishing strategy. While they still have to account for pre-printing costs, focusing on digital open access allows presses to save money on both creating and distributing physical copies of books.

Definitions and meanings of open access vary, and not all open access publications are open or accessible in the same ways. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an open access advocacy group, considers a range of factors including readership and reuse rights, means of access, and formats when determining the “openness” of a publication. Publishers of open access books are primarily concerned with making the title available in at least one digital format for free under a Creative Commons license allowing for reuse. Some publishers make multiple digital formats (including, for example, PDF and EPUB) open and sell print versions, while others make only the web-based version available for free and charge for other digital versions.

As of early 2017, Luminos has published 23 titles, with another 17 to be available by June. Michigan’s website currently lists 74 open access titles going back to 2004. Both UMP and UCP make it clear on their websites that open access does not mean a lowering of standards. Luminos declares that open access books are afforded the “same high standards for selection, peer review, production and marketing” as titles in the press’s more traditional publishing programs. Alison Mudditt, director of the University of California Press, explains the goals of Luminos as being threefold: developing a sustainable business model, enabling publishing in fields with smaller markets, and increasing access to and the impact of scholarship. In the Luminos program, the first of these goals requires an up-front payment to cover a portion of the publication cost. All Luminos titles are available in print at prices comparable with other UCP titles, but authors are expected to provide a contribution of $7,500.

Other presses employ hybrid models that include a free, open access version in addition to a variety of print or digital formats available for sale. For example, Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology, published by UMP in 2014, is available in an open access version for reading online—PDF, Kindle, and paperback versions are available for $36.95 each; a hardback would set readers back $80. Presses usually print physical copies on demand, allowing them to avoid the cost of large print runs and warehousing of books. These kinds of hybrid models appear to benefit both the reader and the press—the reader gets a range of formats to choose from, and the press can recoup costs while making titles available freely and openly. Sherer described another approach that puts “digital first, followed by paid print.” Using this model, a press would be able to test the market for a title by publishing digital editions first. Should the title warrant it, a print edition could be undertaken, but it would not be part of the initial publication plan. This would allow further savings on costs associated with printing and distribution.

Subventions to offset publication costs such as permissions fees, often paid by authors’ departments or institutions, are routine in the world of scholarly publishing. In Canada and Germany, the author has long been expected to provide funds to offset the publication costs of scholarly books. There is concern, however, among many in the humanities about the general move toward pay-to-publish models. Randall Packard (John Hopkins Univ.) called the model “inherently inequitable” in the September 2013 issue of Perspectives on History. “Scholars at small colleges and universities and independent scholars may not have access to such funds at all,” he wrote.

Nonetheless, as sales shrink, presses tasked with supporting scholarship require approaches that allow them to publish in areas and fields where the market is so limited that traditional modes of publishing have become inviable. One approach, which avoids the problem of up-front author payments, is a consortium. This type of arrangement brings together a group of presses, university libraries, and other academic entities to enter into a fee-based arrangement that helps cover publishing costs. The most developed of these is the UK-based Knowledge Unlatched, in which libraries pay subscriptions to provide funds to “unlatch” titles. Lever Press, a new consortium of nearly 60 US liberal arts college libraries, works on a similar model. Institutions bear the costs of supporting all stages of the digital publication process through a sliding-scale annual subscription fee of $2,000 to $8,000 for five years. Fees are based on the acquisition budget of the participating library. The Lever Press initiative is still in its planning stages, but within five years aims to publish 40 open access titles per year.

Another response to the shrinking academic publishing market is a joint initiative by the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). Their joint Task Force on Scholarly Communication has worked with a group of research universities to agree on a plan to create a pilot program that would partially fund open access monographs published by university presses. The project is particularly focused on fields and disciplines where market realities have made publishing difficult. The task force overseeing the project has set up a group to assess the impact of open access books published under the program over the next five years. Their research will undoubtedly influence the future of open access publishing in the humanities.

One way to measure the impact of open access publishing is to count the number of people who are accessing the work. Evidence shows that providing free and unrestricted access to digital monographs increases their usage significantly. In 2009, Amsterdam University Press made 137 books on their list open for 9 months. During that period, each title on the list averaged 1,900 uses. Other studies and anecdotal evidence provide similar evidence. The University of California Press reports 1,000–5,000 downloads per Luminos title. Open access affords global reach; Luminos in particular has seen significant downloads from Vietnam and other parts of the world that US-based university presses find difficult to reach. While number of downloads or views of an electronic file does not necessarily indicate that the book has been read, comparing this figure to the sales of academic books—which are usually counted in the hundreds rather than the thousands—makes it clear that allowing free and open downloads helps scholarship reach a wider audience.

While digital publication in various forms plays a growing role in the discipline, books still hold preeminence as a means for transmitting ideas, building communities of practice, and establishing professional and scholarly reputations. Just as the web and digital delivery have changed the way we find and use journals and primary sources, open access publishing offers the possibility to rethink how monographs are published. Initiatives such as Luminos and Lever Press allow publishers to investigate the possibilities offered by publishing on the web and provide a chance to explore alternative and mixed business models. With most traditional university press books unable to recoup publication costs, the need for new ideas is greater than ever.

is director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives at the AHA. He tweets @seth_denbo.

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