Working in the arena of open access monographs is not for the faint of heart. Joe Esposito has written recently about the internal contradictions associated with inclusion of open access titles in commercial services, focusing on issues of licensed re-use of open access monographs. On NISO IO, the National Information Standards Organization’s new portal, I too recently spent time assessing the landscape of in-progress infrastructure, specifically created to host open access monographs. We’re in a construction zone and there is a fair amount of noise!
Digital Science has offered its own useful assessment of what is happening in this realm via a new Digital Science Report, entitled The State of Open Access Monographs. The report establishes a benchmark for the information community in what is and is not going well. As Michael A. Elliott, Dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Emory University notes in his Foreword, this is really something of an “opportunity report”. Specifically, he comments, “Each area of challenge — whether the supply chain or the funding model — offers a chance to rethink practices and relationships that we have taken for granted for some time.” The report is quite as up-to-the-minute as one might hope for and thoroughly well-documented. Without stealing the authors’ thunder, they identify three important areas where stakeholders need to make improvements.
The first has to do with incorporating basic and well-established practices of production — building in XML as part of the workflow, assigning of DOIs to each piece of content (including at the chapter level), and ensuring the assignment of accurate and complete metadata.
Their second point is that everyone in the supply chain should be collaboratively engaged in developing new practices in support of the monograph; specifically, “standards organizations have an important linking role to play…and need to engage with the particular challenges of the OA monograph”.
Finally, the report notes that building a more rational system for funding the ongoing publication of monographs is necessary. Most importantly, they recognize that the authors of these monographs should not be the ones to bear that responsibility. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences should be free to focus on their scholarship.
However the element of the report that most caught my attention had to do with the issue of discovery. How are readers and others who need to make use of monographs supposed to identify and engage with the open access content they need? Current gaps in support for those activities impact on the future of digital monographs. As the Digital Science report notes, citation activity of scholarship appearing in monograph form may take two to four years to be noticed in blogs, news outlets, or even in Wikipedia citations. There is a time lag for such titles to be captured in subsequent scholarly works. Those citations — in an environment where every data point may be examined — are critical to proper valuation of a particular monograph. Today’s monographs need hosting environments that properly enable discovery and evidence of use, particularly with regard to open access titles.
This is where the Open Research Library (ORL) from Knowledge Unlatched makes sense. From the perspective of the researcher in our present environment, there is no mechanism for identifying open access monographs that may be relevant to their studies. One can, as I did, run a Google query searching for open access literary criticism on Jane Austen. It’s very easy to uncover journal articles in that situation as the Jane Austen Society of North America has long made articles from its journal, Persuasions, freely accessible. It is not as easy to uncover open access monographs about the works of Jane Austen. (JSTOR gets a thumbs up here for enabling me to find one such book title in the first 10 results on Google and multiple gold stars for making it immediately obvious that the title was open access.)
But let’s be honest and admit that few if any scholars actually begin research by specifying in a query that the relevant source must be open access. The irritation that ORL has been designed to assuage is a bit different. It is confusing and sometimes infuriating to users when they run up against access barriers while using a single resource. They don’t have time or interest to understand why they may access this book in full text, but not that one. There is even less interest in the wrangling between providers and open access advocates about how best to access relevant content; a researcher’s primary concern is their own workflow.
As I have noted previously here on the Scholarly Kitchen, making clear to users the degree of access offered is an important consideration. Why? Because the reader’s understanding of what is meant by the phrase “open access” is what informs his or her subsequent understanding of acceptable content usage. Affordances for subsequent use are framed differently across digital information environments, and it’s not always easy for the reader to grasp the provider’s intent.
By bringing together as many open access monographs as possible in a single critical mass, Knowledge Unlatched may be supporting exactly that avenue of discovery most needed by some subsection of users. The interface in the beta version of ORL is easily navigated and supports the standard activities associated with studious reading — bookmarking, annotation, etc. As the number of open access titles expands, the access provided by a platform like the ORL may prove to be favored by a particular subset of the user population. Time and again, we’ve seen research indicating that serious engagement with monographs differs from scholarly engagement with journal literature. In accommodating user preferences, it’s important that we leave the door open to experimentation by different vendors and platform providers. (Note: the beta version of this platform went live on May 13, 2019, with the full launch scheduled for October of this year.)
Technology has the promise of improving the user’s reading experience in the digital age and we are currently wrestling with a variety of practical considerations in bringing that about. For more than a decade, the National Information Standards Organization and the Book Industry Study Group have sponsored an annual forum at the annual meeting of the American Library Association to examine common issues pertaining to digital technology and systems found across a spectrum of libraries. This year, the event examines issues of building and delivering ebooks to users, discussing interfaces, ensuring ebook accessibility, system interoperability, and (should you have missed the announcement) BISG’s recently released white paper on open access ebook usage. Just as the Digital Science Report concluded, the information community as a whole should be collaborating to bring a better user experience to practical fruition.