Editor’s Note: The scholarly publishing ecosystem is perhaps more diverse than many realize. Increasingly, we see all publishers being lumped together, often under terms that only describe the largest and most profitable members of our industry. Similarly, regulatory policy seems to be created with a myopic view that STM research, really biomedical research, is typical and all other fields work the same way.
One of our goals at The Scholarly Kitchen is to better represent the diversity of scholarly publishing. While we’ve worked to bring in more coverage of humanities and social sciences publishing, there’s more to be done. There’s more to publishing than just the big commercial players and the sciences, and Alison Mudditt from the University of California Press and Peter Berkery from the Association of American University Presses have volunteered to help broaden our coverage and to give more voice to the university presses through arranging an ongoing series of guest posts. Over the next few months we hope to look more at the many ways that university presses are evolving and to get more of a sense of disciplines outside of STM. Here’s the first post in that series, an interview conducted by Alison.
Earlier this year, The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) published an important report on the place of monographs in the arts, humanities and social science disciplines, and how they fit into the developing world of open access (OA) to research. The report was authored by Professor Geoffrey Crossick, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and is based on extensive research and consultation with a wide range of stakeholders. While the intent of the report is to set out the issues for funders as they consider OA mandates for monographs, the significance of the report is perhaps its clear framing of the challenges and opportunities for scholarship in these fields as we move towards open, digital models. In this interview, Professor Crossick responds to questions about his conclusions and initial reactions to the report.
First of all, can you give us some brief background about HEFCE’s goals in asking you to prepare this report?
The UK’s higher education funding councils and research councils have requirements for journal articles to be available through open access. For the former this applies to work submitted for assessment to the next Research Excellence Framework in 2020. Although this wouldn’t yet apply to research books, the increasing availability of digital research books made it hard not to imagine an OA requirement for them by the next REF (c.2025). What were the issues in getting there while enhancing rather than damaging research and its communication? HEFCE asked me to explore the issues involved and report to them and to the research councils. My report covers all research books and not just monographs, including edited collections, scholarly editions and research-based exhibition catalogues. (The full report and methodology can be found here.)
Why was understanding the position of the monograph today a critical underpinning? Did you learn anything that surprised you?
I said that we needed more than a policy and technical report, because we knew too little about the current situation of the monograph. If open access policies might either benefit or disadvantage monographs, then we needed to know how they were important so that those characteristics could be built into the new environment. Open access mandates for journal articles were introduced a decade or more after online publication had become the norm, whereas for monographs we were considering at the same time the move to digital publication and to open access.
So, I asked a series of questions: the place of the monograph in research practice, culture and dissemination; its relevance to career and promotion decisions; and the current challenges that it faced, irrespective of any move to open access. Did anything surprise me? First, that the monograph and other research books remain central to research dissemination in virtually all humanities disciplines, and to some extent also in the arts and social sciences. The development of an argument woven together with evidence over the length of a book remains central to humanities disciplines. Second, that the monograph was not simply about dissemination but a way to think about the research itself – I called this ‘thinking through writing the book’ and I realized that it was exactly what I had done as a historian.
One criticism of your report is your conclusion that the monograph is not in crisis. This will surprise many Scholarly Kitchen readers: almost any library will admit they buy fewer monographs, and university presses have been hit hard by declining sales. Can you explain this conclusion for us?
I think that this is the only major criticism the report has received, and much more from the USA and Australia than within the UK. Overall, I’ve been very pleased by the reception for the report, with people mostly finding it the balanced and thoughtful evaluation I’d tried to write. When I said that I couldn’t find evidence that the monograph was in crisis in the UK, I insisted that that didn’t mean that all was rosy. The data we obtained from publishers is, however, compelling: the four largest UK monograph publishers have doubled their monograph output compared with ten years ago. Libraries are certainly buying fewer monographs, partly because of constrained budgets but also, librarians told me, because they were less confident that all the monographs they’d been buying were being used. And a survey of academics didn’t identify great difficulty in finding the monographs they needed to read. As for shorter print runs, in an age of print-on-demand that seemed a red herring. There has been talk of a crisis of the monograph for the last 25 years and I couldn’t see that the problems that currently exist amounted to a significantly different crisis. This is important, because by focusing on open access as the way to resolve a crisis we may end up neglecting the many positive reasons for wanting to move to open access.
There is, however, a crisis looming for the monograph that will make the current problems seem minor. Many monographs are now made available in both print and digital versions, each requiring payment. You can choose to purchase not the whole book but individual chapters in digital format. The monograph is the scholarly development of an argument over 250 pages or more, backed up by the careful use of evidence. The integrity of the book as a whole is why it plays such an important part in the process and communication of research. If people buy individual chapters that integrity is lost, and the monograph will go the way of the music album when iTunes facilitated purchasing of individual tracks. This is the real crisis looming for the monograph and it greatly worries me. Open access could well be the way to save the monograph because the whole book would be freely available.
You talk about the importance of the materiality of the book in the arts, humanities and social sciences. What do you mean by that, and why do these fields differ to the sciences in this?
The journal article, now digital, is the medium of communication for science research and the research book is not significant. The research book is almost always a physical, material object, one whose layout, typeface, footnotes, images, index and so on are a key part of the publication and one which academics are keen to get right so that the experience of the book is not only agreeable but also communicative. Visual grammar matters. This materiality of the book is a reason why academics in surveys say that they don’t like reading the whole of a monograph on a screen or as an e-book. These technologies have to improve greatly if reading a monograph on a screen is adequately to replace doing so in its physical form. The attachment of authors and readers to the material object that is more than just the text means that approaches to open access that rely on accessing the author’s accepted manuscript, or any other version that does not include all the academically essential contents, layout and presentation of the published version of record, might prove less acceptable than for journal articles. The digital open access version must get much closer to the experience of reading a physical book if it is to be an acceptable alternative, which is an essential feature of open access. The physical book also has limitations, of course, but that is another matter!
CC-BY has become the “gold” standard for journal licenses – indeed, many in the OA community would argue that anything else is not OA. Why should books be treated differently?
There is a danger that treating CC-BY as the only true form of open access could lose the support of a large part of the scholarly community. There are many scholars anxious about attribution-only licenses, probably more anxious than they need to be, but we have too little experience to be sure of that. The cultural and emotional, as well as the scholarly, attachment to a monograph on which someone may have worked for many years is different from that to a journal article, and that helps explain the greater anxiety. My concern in the report was to chart a way forward that could win extensive support, and allowing more restrictive licenses seems necessary to achieve that. Over time scholars may well become more relaxed, finding that their fears were exaggerated, and use more liberal licenses. At that point a mandate would go with the grain of scholarly opinion, which seems the right approach
Perhaps the biggest challenge for OA in the underfunded humanities and social sciences is how to pay for it. Your report acknowledges that there is no settled business model and that a gold author-pays model is likely transitional. What do you think might replace it?
“Who pays” is a fundamental question for open access. Author-pays (usually the author’s funder or institution) has become the key model for gold OA journal articles, but it is hard to see how the much higher costs of open access books might be met by the funding system on the scale needed were open access to be obligatory. The report identifies a range of business models: university presses embedded subsidized by their institution; open access publishers driven by idealistic or disruptive purposes, though scaling them up could be challenging; freemium schemes whereby readers’ payments for enhancements (maybe a print copy) pay for the whole process; an aggregator model where an organization bundles books into a package and sells them, for example on subscription, to libraries; and author payment. These issues are explored in the report and its annex. My own view is that author payment cannot be the long-term solution, that a variety of business models will be needed in the long run to deliver open access monographs, and that which model is in operation should be invisible to the reader. After all, which readers know the business model of each of the publishers of the books they now read? If mandates are to be introduced then the system must be capable of delivering them, and that means funders monitoring the system as it evolves, maybe supporting pilots and scaling up ventures to help things along.
Your report focuses on the UK, but you acknowledge the international context in which authors and institutions operate. What do you think the key lessons are for those of us beyond the UK?
I hope people in other countries will find that much of the report applies irrespective of national differences. When it comes to national structures of funding and mandates, and also career development, the way the issues present themselves will vary. But the key parameters of those issues will be the same. The big lesson is the need for international co-operation in charting the way forward, because the international character of research collaboration, publication and careers makes it hard for any major research country to go it alone in this area. There seems a willingness to co-operate across Europe, but it won’t be easy.
Your main argument is that OA should be seen as a way of delivering major benefits to scholarly communication and scholarly collaboration. What are the key challenges to overcome if these benefits are to be realized – especially in a world where many faculty in these fields remain skeptical or even hostile to OA?
This is not just about benefits to scholarly communication and collaboration, but also the wider availability of research for academics in parts of the world where access to good libraries is difficult, as well as to a wider interested public. Too much knowledge is locked behind expensive paywalls or impenetrable institutional walls which leaves people dependent on what is available freely online, and that is often inferior. Key challenges? First, winning over academic opinion and I don’t see that as insuperable. Second, and the first depends on this, getting mandates in place that are sensitive to the character of the core monograph disciplines. Third, overcoming key issues such as payment for third-party rights for open access publication, a really important challenge in many arts and humanities disciplines. Fourth, getting the business models (note the plural) right, because without that none of this can happen. Fifth, getting the technology enhanced so that reading a monograph online is a good experience. None of those are insuperable but nor are they all easy. Simply proclaiming the benefits of open access will not itself overcome them –serious work has to be done.