Making academic books free online increases reader discovery, but doesn’t translate into additional print sales or citations, a new study reports.
Appearing in the October issue of Learned Publishing, “The profits of free books: an experiment to measure the impact of open access publishing,” describes the results of an experiment in making online books freely available in Google Books and an institutional repository. The author is Ronald Snijder of the Amsterdam University Press (AUP).
Employing a rigorous 2 x 2 factorial design, 100 carefully selected books were placed into one of four experimental groups:
- Accessible from Google Books
- Accessible from the AUP repository
- Accessible from Google Books plus the AUP repository
- Accessible from neither service (the control)
Over a period of nine months, Snijder counted page views (from Google Books), downloads (from the repository), book sales (from AUP) and citations (from Google Scholar).
He reports that while open access increases page views and downloads, it does not translate into more sales or citations:
OA publishing enhances discovery and online consultation. Within the context of the experiment, no relation could be found between OA publishing and citation rates
In terms of discovery, Google Book Search was superior to the institutional repository, Snijder writes. What is counter-intuitive about his results, however, was that single-channel distribution methods (either Google Books or the institutional repository) were superior to both methods used simultaneously. Responding to my statistical query by email, Snijder stated that use of the institutional repository was “extremely poor” and that this may have “skewed” his results.
In explaining the absence of an increase in sales as a result of providing free online access, Snijder blames weak library book budgets as the probable cause. Still, he remains hopeful about the function academic presses have in disseminating new knowledge:
Publishing as OA is still useful by making unaffordable books available [and yet] a sustainable business model cannot be exclusively build on extra sales generated from OA publishing
His words were apparently penned before the demise of some key academic presses.