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 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.