Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Curtis Brundy, Laura Hanscom, Barbara Kern, and Brigitte Weinsteiger. Curtis is the the Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Communications and Collections at Iowa State University. Laura is the Head of Scholarly Communication & Collections Strategy at MIT. Barbara is the Director of Sciences and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Brigitte is the Gershwind & Bennett Family Senior Associate Vice Provost for Collections & Scholarly Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
As librarians at large research institutions, we, like many of our colleagues, are engaged in open scholarship conversations, deliberations, and debate. Whereas a great deal of focus has been placed on journal literature, we are interested in furthering and promoting increased attention by libraries, publishers, and researchers on scholarly open access (OA) monographs. We recognize, and appreciate the discussions to date, many here at The Scholarly Kitchen over the past few years, including Sherer Mar 23, 2023; Demers, Twardowski, Watkinson, August 24, 2022; Van Rijn, Nov 17, 2022; Emery, Mar 11, 2021; Farrell, May 12, 2021; O’Neill, June 20, 2019; Wulf, Oct 21, 2019. We have an opportunity today to leverage the impact of the pandemic, which elevated the conversations around open monographs, and to continue the momentum that has been built around open scholarship globally.
For us as librarians, open scholarship and the movement towards sustainable and accessible research has an impact on how we think about our collection strategies. With a knowledge equity mindset, we want to ensure that our collection dollars have the greatest impact possible. Simply put, if we are going to spend funds on monographs, we want to maximize our spending’s global impact and equity through OA.
These are discussions that we have had on our campuses and among our colleagues for quite some time when thinking about journals. Like many others, we are turning our focus to monographs, and how we can work collaboratively with others, especially our publisher partners, to ensure movement toward making monographs OA and available globally. We want to invest in a positive future and make our dollars count for the greater good. As we continue to be limited to purchasing monographs in a traditional way, we ask the question, what if our dollars spent could ensure that the monographs we purchase could be read by all?
The impact of OA, and specifically OA monographs, not only fosters knowledge equity but is an effective output for scholarly communication, ensuring significant distribution and reach. A recent study found that OA books have 10 times more downloads than non-OA books, show higher geographic diversity of usage, and more than double the number of citations. John Sherer pointed out recently that titles in the Sustainable History Monograph Project saw exponentially more use. And the open titles from the University of Michigan’s Fund to Mission are accessed 25 times more often than those behind the paywall.
With such usage and critical impact, we have seen a growing number of successful OA monograph projects, including: Opening the Future, MIT Press Direct to Open, Fund to Mission at The University of Michigan Press, Punctum Books, the OpenBook Collective, Luminos Open Access, Lever Press, and TOME. More recently, JSTOR announced a 3-year embargoed route to OA and the Big Ten Academic Alliance has launched Big Ten Open Books with an initial focus on distinctive OA backlist collections.
As we look to these initiatives and others, we expect there to be increased and more diverse readership as monographs are opened to the world. But this isn’t just about opening scholarship to readers. It is about creating greater knowledge equity and enabling the diversity of voices in scholarly publishing. Author-facing charges for OA, such as article and book processing charges (APCs and BPCs), are inherently inequitable. Finding sustainable open monograph financial models that are equitable to both readers and authors is critical.
While there has been some critique of the methodology, a Mellon-funded study from 2017 found American university presses (UPs) published approximately 4,000 primary monographs per year between 2009 and 2013. A reliable count of OA monographs published by American UPs in 2022 does not exist. However, approximately 200 OA primary monographs were published in 2022 by the various American UP OA programs, including MIT Press, U-M Press, TOME, Amherst College, Cincinnati, and the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot. Using the 4,000 Mellon study total, that would put the percentage of primary monographs published by American UPs in 2022 at a paltry 5%. If 200 is a significant underestimate, even a doubling to 400 would only mean 10% were published OA.
The first takeaway from this exercise is that we need to do a better job tracking OA monograph publishing. It will be very helpful as the OA monograph transition unfolds to have solid publishing data to help inform strategy, assess models, and demonstrate progress. The second takeaway might best be framed as a question: If OA monographs advance equity, deliver exponential increases in book readership, and expand the impact and reach of an author’s work, why are only 5-10% of the primary monographs published by American UPs made open?
The reasons given by UPs for not adopting OA publishing models can be as diverse as the presses themselves. Common concerns center around the lack of necessary technical infrastructure, legacy workflows, and author concerns over the perceived quality of OA books. But by far the most frequent concern expressed is that publishing OA is a potential threat to revenue generation and financial sustainability. This threat comes from several directions. OA books could reduce consumer sales. They could erode the value of the backlist. OA book models will encourage free-riding. And, importantly, the library market clamoring for OA makes up only a small and, for many presses, declining portion of overall sales. We recognize these as legitimate but not insurmountable challenges.
A handful of UPs are blessed with the ability to subsidize their book publishing operations from large endowments, successful journal publishing operations, or generous institutional support. Most are not so lucky. They survive year to year off some combination of trade book, textbook, backlist, and scholarly frontlist sales. Even prestigious UPs that primarily rely on book sales for their operating income can’t take their financial security as a given. But we feel strongly that the benefit to authors and to readers around the world from publishing monographs openly should compel us to action. And with only 5-10% published OA in 2022, there is a lot of room for improvement.
Global, immediate access to the scholarship contained in monographs is every bit as important as access to the scholarship communicated in journal articles. The skill to expertly describe, discuss, and thoughtfully consider a subject at length is increasingly important; as information moves at lightning speed, it is also often stripped of context. Writing a monograph takes time and skill, and a good publisher can significantly complement those efforts and elevate the content to be more discoverable and impactful for the reader.
The high quality monograph publishing that is expected of university presses is expensive mainly because of the labor costs of employing professional publishing staff, with studies putting the low end at $15,000 per title. As Erich van Rijn, the Director of the University of California Press has written, “editorial teams, peer reviewers, and faculty committee members invest countless hours in projects, many of which go on to become field-defining projects, but some of which never even see the light of day for various reasons.” University presses also tend to have close relationships and be in values-alignment with the scholarly community.
For collections spending, there is an equity imperative to select open access resources that reflect our values and the values of our communities. As there is an ever increasing amount of content that an academic library could acquire, it is critical that libraries align their spending with their values. If there is not yet an open monograph option that allows us to do this, then it is on those of us working in this area to seek out the partners that will help us create the infrastructure for such options to thrive, and there are many successful examples of publishers moving in this direction.
To prioritize this kind of work, our libraries have pursued a variety of strategies. The MIT Libraries, Iowa State library and Penn libraries have each combined their scholarly communications and collections strategy programs to help ensure alignment between their spending and open values. Spending for OA monographs has increased at all of our libraries, and we have been early and consistent supporters of new OA models. At MIT, for example, starting in FY20, there has been an allocation of $200,000 for OA monographs, and this was bolstered in FY23 with a $225,000 one-time increase by the Provost. Our libraries are also prioritizing support for the long-term growth and sustainability of this sector, by reallocating and repurposing funds from previously paywalled spending.
Call to Action
Now, two decades into the OA movement, it is high time for university libraries and presses to finally create a future for OA monographs. Monographs remain the “final frontier” where the movement has yet to fully flourish. Whereas open access strategies have tended to consolidate commercial power in journal publishing, the late blooming of OA in monograph publishing offers an opportunity to sustain non-profit leadership. University libraries and presses play a pivotal role in shaping the future of academic publishing, and it is time for us to rally together, explore new pathways, and remove the barriers that hinder OA for monographs. This is a call to action — a call to open 25 university press frontlists by 2030. Together, we can collaboratively experiment to find a model for books that is impactful, meets the needs of all participants in the scholarly communications ecosystem, avoids the equity pitfalls inherent in many OA journal funding models, and remains financially viable for all parties.
The first step towards progress is open and honest communication. University libraries and presses must engage in meaningful dialogue to identify the perceived barriers that hinder the publication of OA monographs. Let us come together to discuss the challenges we face, the financial constraints, quality control concerns, and the need for sustainable publishing models for all parties. By identifying and understanding these barriers, we can actively work towards finding innovative solutions that prioritize accessibility without compromising academic excellence.
As university libraries and presses, we are part of the same institutional fabric as our faculty authors and the departments that review them for promotion and tenure. The success of OA books hinges first on authors feeling confident about publishing their works openly. Libraries and presses, talk to your institution’s faculty, departments, and administrations about the benefits of OA publication. Articulate the impact to readership and citation that OA can offer a book. Dispel any outstanding myths that preclude the consideration of OA books in the promotion and tenure process.
Libraries – Libraries have long been champions of knowledge and information, and they possess considerable influence in the realm of academic publishing. We urge libraries to strategically allocate their budgets; libraries can vote with their dollars to support and encourage the publication of OA monographs. If an open scholarly communications ecosystem is important to your library and institution, demonstrate it by funding open initiatives. Every dollar spent on monographs in the traditional system is a dollar not spent on open. By prioritizing OA titles for funding, libraries send a powerful message to publishers that there is a demand for OA books. Let us leverage this influence to create a sustainable publishing ecosystem that benefits our authors, readers, and the broader societal good.
Presses – We are at a crossroads where experimentation and bold initiatives are needed. University presses, as uniquely positioned within the same academy as libraries and scholars, have an opportunity to lead the way for OA monographs. Presses should embrace their role as catalysts for change, explore new ideas, and take measured risks. Experimentation with new business models and collaboration with libraries and authors can open up exciting possibilities for presses to propel their critical mission while better competing with their commercial counterparts. By championing OA monographs, university presses can redefine the publishing landscape and ensure that scholarly knowledge reaches a wider audience.
University libraries and presses have long shared a commitment to supporting and advancing scholarly communications. The time is ripe for university libraries and presses to unite and pave the way for OA monographs. We, the authors, as representatives of large research libraries, commit to implementing the call to action we suggest here and call on our colleagues at university libraries and presses nationwide to join us. Let us work hand in hand to create a future where the power of Open is harnessed to its fullest potential. Together, we can shape a world where scholarly works are freely accessible and foster a truly inclusive, impactful, and sustainable publishing environment.