Monographs, Allen Memorial Medical Library, Case Western Reserve University, by Taber Andrew Bain

The scholarly literature incorporates a number of different material types.  Reference publishing and collections have perhaps been transformed more than any other content type; why should a database be issued in print format at all? Journals and other serials have transitioned away from the print format in so many cases to the point where publishers are winding down even humanistic titles, or considering how and when to do so. For both reference and journals, business models have been transformed alongside the format transition. But monographs are an entirely different material type. What is going on with them?

Although journals, other serials, and reference have made a large scale transition away from print, we must not assume that the same path will inevitably be pursued for other components of our collections. A combination of business models, reading practices, and other user needs will play the biggest role in determining the prospects for the printed monograph.

In terms of business models, there is great interest in transitioning to e-only monograph publishing, driven not least by the prospect of a shift to open access models. Traditional models are in many cases struggling, with sales declining at many presses and institutional subventions coming under regular scrutiny, such that many presses have been merged into libraries as a way of protecting them from market forces. At the same time, there is an abiding interest in how access to the core knowledge production of the humanities can be expanded to suit their public purpose. We are starting to see new open access options, such as Lever Press, where academic institutions support presses and thereby subsidize the publishing costs, rather than authors having to pay. My colleagues at Ithaka S+R have examined the costs of publishing a monograph, with the goal of informing the dialogue about a possible transition to new publishing models at traditional presses. John Sherer has argued that “Any new funding model for publishing humanities monographs in open access must be paired with markedly different workflow and dissemination models,” making clear that costs should not be seen as fixed. Strategic issues on the supply side thus may pull monographs digital and open on their own.  

But in a competitive marketplace — competitive certainly for attracting star authors — reading practices and user needs are not to be trifled with. My colleagues and I at Ithaka S+R have been studying these issues for scholarly content (and others touching on teaching, research, and discovery practices) for more than 15 years, using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. Today, we release the latest cycle of The Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey, which covers a random sample of faculty members at institutions that grant a bachelor’s degree or higher. We designed this project to allow for the examination of practices and needs of individual disciplines and disciplinary groups, such as the humanities, as well as providing the means for tracking change over time. In this cycle, we have strengthened our coverage of monograph-related issues.  

Because reading is only one of the important uses for a monograph, in our survey we examine six possible use cases and asked respondents to rate each of them as being easier in print or digital format. In 2012, we found that a strong majority of respondents felt reading behaviors were easier in print form, which searching and exploring a monograph were easier in digital form.


How much easier or harder is it to perform each activity in print or digital format? – 2012

Our most recent findings are out today. They show that a higher share of respondents now prefer print formats for five of the six monograph use cases than they did three years ago, alongside an across the board decrease in the share that finds it easier to perform the activities in digital format. Reading cover to cover in depth was the one behavior that hardly changed at all.

How much easier or harder is it to perform each activity in print or digital format? – 2015

These findings make clear that academics’ preferences have not shifted towards digital format at all over the past three years. If anything, there is a shift away from digital format back towards print.  

As the use cases suggest, monographs are not only used for reading; indeed reading may not even be one of the most important use cases for monographs. The monograph’s form is full of clues to other kinds of behaviors. The index provides vivid illustration of the importance of search-driven browsing or skimming, a set of behaviors that have grown tremendously easier for millions of titles first through Amazon’s search inside the book and ultimately through Google Books. Search-driven browsing may well be casually called reading by scholars, but it is far different than long-form reading. A substantial share of search-driven browsing takes place through Google Books alone, although in many cases scholars hold a print version concurrently in their hands.

The key question emerging is whether we are in a dual format environment only for a transitional period or for the long term. If the reading experience for electronic monographs improves — not simple unthinking replications of the text of print monographs in digital form but a real adaptation to the complex ways they could be used — then the dual-format period may be only transitional. But if we are unable to match the print monograph reading experience in digital form, then the dual format period may extend indefinitely.  For myself, I do not believe the question is about whether it is conceptually possible to create a strong digital reading experience but rather whether interests and incentives can line up to make this possible before the monograph itself declines for other reasons.  

In the meantime, even during a dual-format period, access patterns are shifting as some use cases migrate to digital format. As a result, libraries are beginning to wonder about whether, and if so how, to optimize the provision of monographs and other books. What portion should be stored off-site? Or perhaps on a shared basis in a metropolitan area? Or perhaps on-demand in some kind of larger and more systematic network? And, as local ownership declines, how will responsibility for the preservation of print be maintained?

These choices are essential if not existential for libraries, and they are equally important for publishers. Prospectively, the opportunity for a group of libraries to vastly reduce the number of copies of a given print work they purchase has a very immediate impact on sales. Models where digital access is provided to all users of a given consortium, while a single copy of a print book is sold to that consortium of libraries (with rapid simple delivery on demand to the researcher), can be expected to develop further. It is interesting to reflect on the opportunities and constraints on providing such models and the strategic benefits that ProQuest and EBSCO (which now own Coutts and YBP along with digital content platforms) gain if they can readily fulfill print and digital orders, not only for individual libraries but on a consortial basis.  

I have wondered for some time if the print to electronic transition that has swept scholarly communications and many of its material types will manifest differently for monographs. Today, it seems that a dual-format environment may remain before us for some time, and there will be advantages for the libraries, publishers, and intermediaries that can develop models for monographs that work best in such an environment.

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


13 Thoughts on "Will the Monograph Experience a Transition to E-Only? Latest Findings."

Thanks Roger – excellent post, and very interesting to see the latest Ithaka survey results. I’m not entirely surprised to see this strengthening of print preference and wonder if this may in part be due to the fact that more faculty are encountering only the e-version as their libraries move away from print (i.e. they want what they can no longer have). Whatever the answer, I agree that it raises sobering concerns for the future of the monograph as both publishers and libraries have to support the dual costs of print and digital – and our current models of both cost and access are at best a confusing, expensive patchwork.

I like having access to ebooks for quick reference; especially if I can’t come to campus. However, I second the participants’ preference for a hard copy when reading in-depth or cover to cover. I find it very frustrating that I can often only download an ebook for 1-3 days. Although I can have bookmarks, they’ll disappear (unless I do it on the publisher’s ebook website, where the pages load annoyingly slowly). It’s sad that many books aren’t even available as hard copies in the library anymore.

One must not assume that the main reason, or even one of the reasons, presses have been merged into libraries is “as a way of protecting them from market forces.” When Penn State University Press was merged with the Libraries there in 2005, the decision was made to keep the Press’s budget separate from the Libraries’ budget. The Press had to stand or fall on its own economic feet. I am sure Penn State is not alone among presses in this regard. Also, a primary reason for the Press offering a POD option for its OA monograph series in Romance Studies was satisfying the need of authors whose P&T committees insisted on having print copies submitted. Besides, the sale of POD editions also helped provide revenues to support the OA series. I too expect the dual-format approach to monograph publishing to last for a long time to come, if not forever.

Interesting report. Many of the STM publishers are finding considerable success in selling sets of monographic material and there is certainly robust usage of this material in a digital format. Certainly many users still prefer print but libraries are buying less print content these days. I doubt that researchers are able to distinguish serial vs. monograph content that they discover using the modern discovery services. Publishers have built sophisticated hosting platforms that mix the content when delivering a response. Usage of digital monographic material continues to rise. Publishers are selling sets and packages, and YBP and others are selling single items. I still believe that digital books are out selling print at this time. Many research libraries have crossed the 50% or higher purchase point. More than 50% of their acquisition budget for monographs is going to e-books and e-books is becoming the preferred format.

Thanks for sharing these data, Roger, I’ve downloaded the full report. One of the elements that often goes unmentioned is the desire of readers to seek information off-screen if, for no other reason, than to allow the luxury of a pure immersion in the ideas of a monograph and hence a time to think and reflect. A second point: I think you unnecessarily limit possible future alternatives which should really include social behaviour surrounding reading. I see opportunities for library and scholar-acquired enhanced e-editions that add still and moving images, perhaps even sound; scholar acquisition by scholars of print copies of key titles (easily affordable from professional development allowances), openly accessible online bibliographies perhaps downloadable from publishers’ sites, library-accessible searchable e-versions to assist with finding remembered particularities, multimedia online distillations of monographs to assist in assessing relevance and value, and varying treatment of titles depending on expected readership.

  • Rowland Lorimer, Founding Director, Canadian Institute for Studies in Publishing, Simon Fraser University
  • Apr 4, 2016, 1:24 PM

I agree on the benefit of dual use for texts from the humanities to STEM/STM. Part of the reason is that the current digital texts support to navigate within the text is not quite “there” yet. And, as a digital immigrant many of us still are not quite comfortable.

That being said, what is not considered here is the rise of “deep learning” algorithms that can “scrape” print, graphics and even photos as well as audio, assemble and even write meta narrative analysis. “Cliff Notes” on steroids now being gainfully used with very complex materials.

The article is an analysis of the static, past/present, primarily of current practices. Yet the author points out the transformative changes in the journal world but seems not to consider the parallel changes that are on the horizon with the increasing introduction of Watson and off-spring.

As a librarian working with a group of first year history students I recently asked around 70 of those students if they had a format preference when purchasing their class text.

Over 80% said they preferred print, although they may have answered differently had I asked about their preference for library book format.

Yes, the user is all important in considering the purpose of the monograph. This is a faculty survey Roger is reporting on here, after all, not a student survey. If you’re asking students then, yes, I think a lot of them would basically prefer to have a physical copy of something to work off and annotate.

However, if you’re part of a class of anything larger than a handful of students, scarcity of the physical book becomes a big issue. It might be nice to have the actual book but if the library only has two copies and your 100 or 200 other classmates are also working on their assignment due on Friday – that’s when the e-book is always preferable. Copyright restrictions will always prevent more than a small amount of a book to be made available to a whole class by other means.

Students can be affected academically by lack of access and open access or licensed e-books solve that issue. Faculty, at least where I work, are seldom attuned to student needs in this respect.

I’ve long wondered how much these preferences are driven by interface design and functionality. The STEM publishers, many of whom have plenty of capital to invest in their systems, have made it easy to search, print, collect digital sets of articles, link to other articles via DOIs, and export citations for use in a wide range of tools (Zotero, RefWorks, Endnote, etc.). Most of these features are not offered for monographs online, perhaps because the publishers’ business models generally have more DRM, and partly because the aggregators don’t seem to have invested in lovely interface design to the same extent.

Google Books (mentioned above as the principle way scholars search ebooks online) and its library-supported offshoot, HathiTrust, mostly present scans of print books, not born-digital content. These are surely sub-optimal for many scholarly uses. Presumably ProQuest and EBSCO, as well as other big ebook aggregators like JStor and Project Muse, are working on the kinds of features that are common for online journals. Oxford’s UP Scholarship Online (which converts PDFs to HTML) is much more inviting, to my eye. But there are significant challenges and costs in converting PDF content that make sweeping changes seem unlikely in the short run.

For the most part, articles online can be discovered and managed as data, while monographs still generally cannot. It would be a huge, costly undertaking to (for example) convert all the citations in monographs to structured data (so we could track citations, easily navigate among works, and so on), but this is largely how articles now work. Many people may be horrified at the idea of monograph scholarship as “data,” but for those who need to explore, use, reuse, and cite the monograph literature, converting key elements to data would be a boon.

I’m not suggesting that the desire for print will vanish, but that digital forms of the monograph are lacking.

Yes, I think one of the reasons that people are moving away from ebooks in following up on references is that the following-up of references in ebooks is no better, in fact is often worse, than in print books. If you are reading an ebook on a mobile device such as a phone, you can’t even cut and paste the reference into your preferred search engine. Fix that first; then go to the linking of references (as will an embedded “Google Scholar Button” or Discovery tool button in the ereader software, and we are well on our way to returning to the original Web concept, where parenthetical or footnote references to other people’s work would actually point you directly to that owrk.

As an “adult independent learner”, I have essentially no access to digital scholarly secondary sources. Regardless of whether I must pay or not, to use public, or private university libraries, I do not have access to their digital secondary sources. I do, however, have access to their print versions of secondary sources, but the availability and selection is becoming poor. Interlibrary loan of digital secondary sources through the public library is out of the question. Interlibrary loan of print sources has always been problematic. In general, interlibrary loan is becoming irrelevant as digital secondary sources increase, and print sources decrease. The cost of print sources has become prohibitive and their availability more limited since the appearance of the internet. The cost to personally access digital sources makes no sense due to the cost, and the fact that one has nothing to show for the expense. From my vantage point it appears that the adult independent learner is entering a new dark age.

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