Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Emily Farrell, Library Partnerships & Sales Lead at the MIT Press, where she works with libraries on ensuring access to digital content. Before the MIT Press, Emily worked in both sales and as an acquisitions editor for linguistics. She holds a PhD in sociolinguistics from Macquarie University, Sydney, and serves on the board of the non-profit legal services organization UnLocal, as well as the Foundation for the Yonkers Public Library.

Driving change in scholarly communication towards a system that is more equitable and mission-aligned requires a shift in approach, a re-centering. Non-profit presses and values-centered publishers like university presses in particular, are working to reexamine digital distribution and access to monographs as part of this needed change. Now is the time to innovate as the push to open the research lifecycle, from open data to open access publication and open infrastructure, continues apace.

Pressure from all sides of the ecosystem has propelled growth, experimentation, and commitment to making more scholarship accessible to more people. There is increased awareness, too, that making research open does not resolve all issues of equity and access to knowledge, that more critical engagement with the moral economy of open access is still to come. Living in a pandemic has accelerated the momentum and heightened the sense of urgency, not only in discourse, but in concrete steps being taken and strategies developed by institutions and publishers alike. Libraries, scholars, students, and readers of all kinds have had to move rapidly to adopt and adapt digital resources and tools. Open access books offer increased access to knowledge for the reader, but they also present an opportunity to remake a fragmented ecosystem, and to increase channels of communication about the processes involved in researching, writing, shepherding, financing, publishing, acquiring, and reading research.

digital illustration of an open book

Digital monographs, disintermediation, and open access

There has long been a need for change in approaches to monograph publication and acquisition. The advent of digital publishing in the mid-1990s had a tremendous impact on publishing. But where STEM journals moved online relatively quickly, digital monographs, in particular, continue to struggle to reach a value-market fit. Digital books, per-unit, involve higher costs. Metrics for digital books usage are complex, where COUNTER statistics do not account for time spent or reflect the value of the download. Other pressures on the system for books have included a move to short-form publication in some disciplines, an increased expectation for publication output, decreased library budgets for monographs, and decreased print circulation.

Making books open access requires change in different parts of the system, but particularly those parts determining funding. The Maron et. al 2016 study on the cost of monographs shows that ensuring financial sustainability for monographs has become more challenging. Through the 1980s, university presses could project three-year sales of around 1,500 copies of a given book, ensuring that they would at least break even and cover their costs. As sales began to fall through the 1990s, and over the last twenty years, lifetime sales of a typical monograph have decreased to the 200-500 copy range and continue falling. The largest costs remain the most important value-adds: staff. The Maron, et al. study uses data to provide a more complete range of costs involved in producing monographs at university presses and has proven to be useful in setting fees to cover partial direct costs for open access monographs. It has provided research that presses can use to explain to authors, funders, and institutions why and what financial support is needed to make a book open access.

Digital books, open or not, require infrastructure. Disintermediating hosting, distribution, and sales helps simplify cost structures. Non-profit presses are developing their own infrastructure to support greater strategic choice. Fulcrum, from Michigan Publishing, and Manifold, from the University of Minnesota Press, are two such developments that expand the new universe of values-aligned platforms. The MIT Press Direct platform launched in 2019 in an effort to disintermediate the relationship between the press and libraries. The platform aligns ebook distribution with the university press mission and opens space for dialogue with libraries. The greater connection with libraries has confirmed a gap in knowledge sharing between librarians, editors, library sales, and authors that, when filled, could make the monograph publication process clearer. Each stakeholder, internal and external to a press, holds valuable information about open access book development, funding, hosting, and discovery. Creating channels to share this information, and doing so through new, collective models, has the potential to benefit the system as a whole.

Collaborative, cooperative open books models

The MIT Press recently launched Direct to Open (D2O), developed with the support of the Arcadia Fund. This library collective action model will open scores of new academic books each year starting 2022, and will require the collective support of libraries worldwide. At the center of the approach is a desire to bring parts of the scholarly communication system together, to cooperate with libraries to make scholarly knowledge more accessible, to step outside of market models, and to remove the barriers researchers face in making their research monographs open access. The MIT Press has experimented with open access and digital books since the publication of William Mitchell’s City of Bits in 1995. With this model, however, it will be the first time the press is able to open a significant percentage of our annual title output. The model will also be shareable and scalable to other university presses and not-for-profit scholarly publishers.

In the process of opening content, D2O presents an opportunity for presses to reconnect disunited parts of the research ecosystem. For success, this model and others like it require libraries and authors to join with publishers in support of a major cultural shift. For authors and acquisitions editors, there will be no need to search for funding, nor concern that open access books will be treated differently from monographs published under a traditional sales model. Researchers who publish their monographs under the D2O model will know that their books will be open access on publication.

Monographs, by their nature as specialized texts, often see low usage. Scholarly publishers are aware that in order to support a diverse program of scholarship, it can be necessary to subsidize, in part, long-form works that have a narrow audience. Other, more equitable models are emerging to support open book publishing. There are fully open access presses, like University College London Press and Athabasca Press, that are thriving using an institutionally supported model to support mission-driven monographs publishing. There are increasing numbers of scholar-led and university owned publishers, many of which are open access. There are new cooperative models for books that, like D2O, forge a more cooperative pathway for monographs. Opening the Future, currently in implementation with Central European University Press, is another example of an approach that builds a community around scholarly books publishing. All of these models are looking towards more collaborative, equitable, and accessible ways to open books for authors and readers while maintaining financial sustainability.

Another recent approach to sustaining university press monographs is the De Gruyter’s University Press Library. The idea here is that in supporting the full frontlist for university presses, low use monographs as well as course adoption titles, all books are valued equally in maintaining revenue for a university press. This is in contrast to other popular purchase approaches like evidence-based acquisitions (EBA) or demand driven acquisitions (DDA), where usage metrics often take priority. Purchasing, then, is not based on downloads or popularity, but rather a lower price-per-title in a collection that supports all books across a publisher’s list. The model, however, relies on a library’s ability to purchase collections. It continues an approach that gates content, leaving it accessible only to those institutions that have the budget. It places control in the commercial sector, adding a cost layer for university presses, rather than strengthening university owned, mission-driven infrastructure. It leaves authors out of the access conversation. While a diversity of models is likely necessary to account for the diversity of presses, the question remains whether models that take traditional sales approaches to monographs ultimately represent the shift to equitable access, alongside financial sustainability, that our current moment calls for most urgently.

Opportunity must drive change

D2O, and collective open book models like it, offer a chance to help many stakeholders across academic publishing share expertise to make processes easier, costs lower, and access to knowledge more collaborative. These models are developing at a moment of confluence among demand for digital resources and equity of access, market contraction, and evolving technical infrastructure. With the emergence of collective open books models, the MIT Press sees an opportunity to set a benchmark for the efficient and enduring transformation of a university press’s market-based scholarly monograph program to open access through cooperation between libraries and presses. There is power in reaching an open books ecosystem where the scaffolding that supports researchers along the journey of creating a long-form work is more visible, collaborative, and mission-aligned.


Emily Farrell

Emily Farrell is the Director of Open Research, Americas, at Taylor & Francis. She worked previously at the MIT Press and De Gruyter in sales and editorial roles. She holds a PhD in sociolinguistics from Macquarie University, Sydney.


6 Thoughts on "Guest Post — Scaffolding a Shift to a Values-driven Open Books Ecosystem"

It’s a really good piece—thank you!—but I’m curious about the decision to not mention the 800-pound rival to the surveyed models: the book processing charge (BPC). It’s hard to argue for alternatives to the author-excluding BPC without foregrounding what these models are alternatives to.

“You’re a bitter man,” said Candide.
That’s because I’ve lived,” said Martin.”

Emily, no one is more in favor of equity of access than me, particularly when we live in times of such horrible avarice. I admire the enthusiasm in your piece and know that change is coming as so much energy is being invested in open access efforts, by many including MIT, Michigan, Knowledge Unlatched, [Cambridge] Open Book Publishers, California’s Luminos, and as you mention, Central European University Press and UCL.
That said, I have learned over many years that our ecosystem is the product of many valid perspectives. When you write, “Now is the time to innovate”, it is hard for me to think of a time over the past several decades – or centuries – when we have not said (and done) the same. From the creation of the printing press and inexpensive pocket classics by Aldus Manutius to the creation of public libraries to Penguin’s paperback editions. The drive has persisted to make published knowledge widely available. Digital technology has been leveraged at least since Michael Hart’s Project Gutenberg to do the same. For ‘retail access’, organizations like the World Bank, RAND, The National Academies Press, to name just a few, have succeeded in making equity of access a reality, consonant with their missions.

When you write that university press monograph sales have declined from an average 1500 units per title to the 200-500 range (fewer than that for many, in truth), we should recognize that while true, this is deceptive information. Currently, most publishers are publishing more books than ever before and many more copies are available in libraries than at any other time in history, thanks to technology-based innovations like Patron-Driven Acquisitions, Evidence-Based Acquisitions, Short-Term Loans, inexpensive subscription collections, and yes, even digital collections available at steep discounts, like our old employer’s, De Gruyter. Innovation has been a hallmark of our time.

It was when I read, “Digital books, open or not, require infrastructure. Disintermediating hosting, distribution, and sales helps simplify cost structures,” that I found myself shaking my head. Contained in this are the notions that a) intermediaries cannot (are not) part of a moral economy, b) intermediaries are *costs* rather than *values* to the ecosystem, and c) that somehow the university presses working with the “collective support of universities worldwide” will reinvent a system (innovate) in which content is no longer “gated”, replacing ‘economic good’ with ‘moral good’… I agree that “Making books open access requires change in different parts of the system, but particularly those parts determining funding.” I disagree that removing the intermediaries would be a cost-savings or more generally provide a good to the system. Companies like ebrary, EBL, Blackwell, YBP Library Services, and our (yours and mine) old employer, De Gruyter, have brought value, not cost, to libraries and to publishers in their time, and their value has been the product of innovation. The people that have (and do still) worked in these and many other intermediary service companies and publishers are dedicated to the mission of libraries, regardless of how they are funded.

In 1539, Nicolò Franco wrote in the satirical The Dialogue of the Bookseller (Dialogo del venditore di libri): “Although the trade of bookseller appears the easiest that one can find, to do it well requires much more than hanging a pretty sign above one’s door… One must be skilled in a million other trades, and be able to use them all at the proper time, in order to earn a good living.” Truth lies at the bottom of good satire. While I am a proponent of equity of access to scholarly content, I believe that equity is important to many other sectors and participants in the production and dissemination of content, but that equity is very unlikely to be achievable in a monolithic, or at least closed, open access university press – university library system.

Thanks for your engagement with this piece, Mike. A few points in return:

We maintain many productive and necessary partnerships with intermediaries, (e.g. EBSCO, ProQuest, IEEE). The concern is not third parties, but rather the need, in the face of a changing market, and for the future of the press, to assess and reassess, with flexibility and agility, how we are able to cooperate and collaborate to best serve libraries, researchers, and authors. In particular, as a not-for-profit press, we want to examine how our practices align with our mission. This past year has been a great call to action in that regard. Many university presses, among others in scholarly communication, are closely examining our processes at every level with a more focused social justice and equity lens. While open access alone is not enough, a non-BPC-based, cooperative funding approach to opening books is one step in the right direction, we feel. To do that, we have needed to have direct lines of communication open to libraries. The MIT Press Direct platform has provided the infrastructure to open that line of communication. As I understand it, that is not dissimilar to what De Gruyter is attempting with their university press partners: to provide a different sort of representation to libraries than existing intermediaries. It’s just not one that scaffolds a move to more open scholarship, which is our goal with D2O.

As to unit print sales as a framework for understanding the challenges in contemporary monograph publishing: this is only one way to see the difficulty of finding financial sustainability in publishing narrowly-focused academic books. Another is to look at profit margins and the response across the scholarly publishing system: cut costs (e.g no longer offer copy-editing), use scale (publish more books), or start to phase out monographs publishing entirely. Most libraries have not been in the position to buy in dual format. eBook adoption in the humanities and social sciences has been slow. From all angles, it’s the mission and the scholarly value of the monograph, alongside their requirement in tenure and promotion processes, rather than the profitability of these books as a product that continues to see presses publish them.

There’s plenty of space to agree to disagree, but I would maintain that there is a real and substantial difference between non-profit and profit driven organizations. There will always be a need for a diversity of models and organizations in response to the myriad needs and variation in research and readership. I most wholeheartedly agree.

Don’t forget that what intermediaries such as ProQuest do to academic publications is anything but in the best interest of readers. It’s not just the paywall – it’s all those DRM restrictions that diminish the value of a book published commercially. Although the library has paid for a certain title (and, probably, a price several times that of a print copy), readers then only get access to a parody of a book: they cannot download it; they may only read it with a live internet connection; once they spend too long on a page, or the internet connection is interrupted, they have to log in again, and start rummaging for the page they just were on. They cannot highlight, annotate, nor share their comments with others. And copying is not only limited, it’s also been turned into a tedious process of clicking through all sorts of copyright warnings. Not only have all the potential advantages of the e-book gone; that pseudo-e-book is clumsier to handle than a printed book. Yes, there may be a certain level of usage visible in the stats – but a good deal of those clicks will have been from readers who tried to access the title, but quickly gave up in frustration. No, the intermediaries, in my view, are obsessed with making e-books unusable. We need open publishing models for books not just in order not to have paywalls, but to make books usable and useful to scholars once again.

Gerhard, just remember that the DRM is imposed by the publishers, not by aggregators. Aggregators have to meet publisher contractual requirements, which often include DRM. If the publisher wants to sell their books DRM-free, ProQuest and the other aggregators support that option. The same is true for downloading. There is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation in the ecosystem. We need to take much greater care to understand the various participants, what they do, who controls what they do, why they do it. Too often this open access discussion glosses over important facts and relationships in the ecosystem. ‘It ain’t what you know that gets you. It’s what you know fer sure, but just ain’t so.’

Just an edit: ‘It’s not what you *don’t know that gets ya. …’
I’ll add that when publishers require DRM for some titles – or don’t make a title available at all in digital format – there are many reasons and few to do with profits, e.g. the press doesn’t have digital rights to some of the material. I really don’t want to wade into this quagmire, but facts matter a lot.

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