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?

call to action written on chalkboard with vintage stopwatch used instead of O

Open Context

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.


25 Thoughts on "Guest Post – Open Access to University Press Frontlists: A Call to Action"

Thanks, Rod! There is a lot of momentum in the OA books space, but lots of work yet to be done.

When we actually start to see any budget savings from the journal OA movement, then we may have funds available to support monograph OA. We’re still waiting…

Thanks, Matt, and thanks for sharing some info on CUP OA book offerings.

Thank you for this exciting post, and the kind shout-out to the University of Michigan Press Fund to Mission initiative through which we have been able to make 75% of our frontlist monographs available thanks partly to the support of around 200 forward-thinking libraries (https://ebc.press.umich.edu/invest). The “partly” is important because the model assumes funding from four separate sources so that we don’t have to entirely rely on library budgets for the transition to OA books. It feels like the future is hybrid funding: The report from Ithaka and AUPresses released yesterday suggests print revenue may remain one part of the picture: “Our key finding is that almost all of the OA monographs we reviewed generated at least some revenue from print + ebook sales, and a healthy percentage—close to 30 percent—enjoyed sales of $10,000 or greater.” https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/print-revenue-and-open-access-monographs/

Great point, Charles, about the future being some form of hybrid funding. I completely agree. And the revenue from OA books sales finding from the new Ithaka report is encouraging. What is especially encouraging in your comment is that Fund to Mission has 200 supporting libraries. While libraries may only be part of the overall hybrid funding needed for scholarly OA books, there is clearly a demonstrated and growing interest in libraries in doing their part.

Great post, Curtis. Let me just build off of Charles’s point about shifting the burden away from just library budgets. I’d argue that any solution(s) we come up with, to be scalable and sustainable, will require collective action on the part of the whole scholcomm community, not just the publishers and libraries. We also need to find a way to engage senior higher ed administrators at a mass level. TOME showed that at least some provosts and deans are willing to pitch in, but to get more widespread participation we will need to demonstrate that we are serious about sharing the financial burden more equitably so that their institutions aren’t the only ones footing the bill. I’d also argue that vendors should be enlisted in any solution because, as yesterday’s Ithaka report shows (and Charles seconds), OA titles still generate significant revenue, which means that vendors will continue to be important players. And, of course, we must engage the scholars as well because, as we’re learning, support for OA is growing among scholars but not without certain definite concerns.
Finally, let me just add that my colleagues and I at De Gruyter are working on what we believe will be just such a viable collective action solution and we’ll be rolling it out over the coming weeks so stay tuned!

Thanks Curtis, Laura, Barbara and Brigitte! This was a rousing read and I’m so grateful for the s/o to MIT Press Direct to Open. It’s an honor to be mentioned alongside the great scholar-led and academy-based models, initiatives, and Presses you shared and I know there are many other programs that are less visible or publicized in the university press world. (For instance, the Ohio State University Libraries and OSU Press’s long-standing collaboration to make the complete texts the Press’s scholarly books freely available five years after publication, if not sooner: https://ohiostatepress.org/books/openaccess.html. A gem of a program that has been quietly revolutionary for years!)

I wanted to pay it forward, too, since the University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina Press just announced this exciting collaboration today, I believe: https://uscpress.com/Open-Carolina.

Onward! 🙂

Thanks, Peter, and I agree with your points. I’m excited to learn more about the new collective OA approach at De Gruyter. I know I have not been alone in lobbying Steve and De Gruyter’s UPL press partners to move the program in an open direction.

Thank you for this excellent survey and call to action. Tell me where to sign up for the next conversation.

As a few have mentioned, the new AUPresses/Ithaka study (generously funded by the NEH) looking at the impact on print when digital is OA is a key building block in system-wide efforts like this. It’s one of the first pieces of data to go after the question about what is the cost to a university press to open a book. Not the cost to publish it–which has been well documented. But to get at the incremental cost to open a book.

I’d also suggest that one of the other building blocks we need to put in place is usage data. If, as has been suggested, we need to find alternative sources of funding, it seems very likely those funders want to know what their money is buying them. Humanities monographs are being lapped by STEM/journals in terms of measuring impact. We’ll need our platform partners to help us get in this game.

Thanks, John. The new AUPresses/Ithaka study provides welcomed insight into the costs to open a book, more than we’ve ever had before. It takes us that next step further to elucidate the murky landscape of financial sustainability for OA monographs.

Thanks for this post! I’m curious how you all decided that the goal should be opening 25 university press frontlists by 2030? Also, for presses that are interested in shifting towards OA, are your institutions (Iowa State, Chicago, Penn, MIT) committing to support them in this move?

You’re welcome, Annie. For the call to action, I think we were trying for a number of presses and a date that would be impactful but realistic. And yes, our libraries would like to support UPs moving to OA, and, as we mention in the piece, we have a good track record of doing so.

The cry at last week’s ALPSP meeting was for ‘aggregation and simplification’. Collective action to maintain bibliodiversity and streamline costs is certainly something that is getting attention now. Looking holistically is hugely helpful, though I suspect non-US UPs sell less in print. Perhaps we could have a look at that. At CEU Press we’re learning a huge amount through our Opening the Future model – not least what the costs are for maintaining a long open tail. Thanks everyone for the great discussion.

In response to this argument:

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.

What if the equity/values imperative is in conflict with the academic support imperative? For example, given that budget allocation is a zero-sum game by definition, how should the library decide between underwriting publication of an OA book that is in harmony with the library’s values, and buying a pay-access book that may be less in harmony with those values but is needed to support the curriculum?

Thanks for the question, Rick.

If a book is needed to support a class, we (ISU) would of course get it, paywalled or not. In this hypothetical situation, if we were not in conversation already, we would let the publisher know our preference would be to support the next one being published OA, and then do what we could to help them make that happen.

Another hypothetical scenario might be two books, one OA, one paywalled, both support the curriculum. In that case, all other aspects (price/quality/etc) being equal, we would support the publication of the OA book. What decision would you make at your library in this example?

HI, Curtis —

Sorry, I didn’t get an email notification of your response so I’m just seeing it now!

In the situation you propose, our decision would probably hinge on how likely we think it is that the book will be published without our support. The more essential we believe our own support to be — or, to put it the other way around, the less likely we think publication would be without our support — the more likely it is that we’d contribute. But our institution is not generally supportive of us using allocated funds to underwrite OA publishing.

This is a great article that highlights many of the challenges across the industry in supporting open access book publishing. It is mentioned that JSTOR announced a 3-year embargoed route to OA. This is a new program that was developed with ACLS, the University of North Carolina Press and the University of Michigan Press in collaboration with JSTOR called, “Path to Open” and will be launched on October 1st. There is a community group being developed that ACLS is overseeing to ensure that the full community, including publishers, authors, scholars, libraries, and business partners are part of the guidance and direction for the model. With 38 presses joined and more coming in, it is proving to be a model that allows for an increase in publishers globally to participate, many for the first time, in supporting open access book publishing.

How open access books are managed in library workflows, available through all discovery services to get where the users are and with the highest quality metadata to ensure users get to the most relevant content helps ensure high usage and adoption. I feel establishing the key return on investment for libraries supporting open access initiatives is imperative. This in many ways can be measured by how often the books are used at their institutions and by institutions and users around the world and measured against the annual financial commitments libraries make to help ensure models are sustainable.

Usage being such a key success metric, it is important that we track how these open access books are being used across all the platforms. When previously licensed books were made open access on JSTOR, the average use of the book increased 5,500%. Usage for licensed books that were limited to a small number of countries showed usage across nearly all countries around the world when it was made open. Institutional usage for these books increased 26x when made open access.

Usage reporting is really important to highlight, thanks for doing that John. I could just add that we will be presenting our new Book Analytics Service dashboard at the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair (18-20 Oct). It’s for publishers and aggregators who are interested in monitoring OA book usage across platforms (i.e. from multiple data sources). See more here https://oapen.hypotheses.org/567

I’m thrilled about JSTOR’s Path to Open approach, John. It will be a great learning opportunity for the presses with limited OA experience. Hopefully it will evolve quickly, as confidence grows, towards immediate OA. But what a great start, so congratulations!

Thanks for sharing additional evidence about the positive impact of OA books. I think “. . . usage across nearly all countries around the world . . .” is a very compelling reason to accelerate our OA transition efforts.

Thank you for this great Call to Action. As you mention, infrastructures are needed to support the transition to OA for monographs. In your list of previous SK posts on the topic I would propose to add our recent post about equity and open infrastructures for monographs https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2023/06/14/guest-post-towards-global-equity-for-open-access-books/

OAPEN has worked dedicated in this space since 2010 and now hosts over 30,000 peer-reviewed OA books. With the Directory of Open Access launched 10 years ago we have boosted the discoverability of peer-reviewed OA books, and DOAB now indexes over 70,000 titles. It is a free-to-use service for publishers with a mission to ensure global equity in scholarly book publishing as presented in our SK post. Other services are also surfacing, like the newly launch metadata management service, Thoth (coming out of the COPIM project).

As you write, OA to monographs is blooming late but may also bloom in a very different way to journals. Not-for-profit open infrastructures are in place to help the transition to OA for books. If libraries, universities, and research funders want open as the default for books in the long run then truly open infrastructures are essential. This requires investment and engagement now. We are trying in every possible way to engage with libraries and funders around these issues and while we do see some progress we are still running on shoestring budgets and short term funding. SCOSS (https://scoss.org/) and IOI (https://investinopen.org/) are important organisation addressing the need for open infrastructures as is the POSI (https://openscholarlyinfrastructure.org/posse/) initiative (see the OAPEN and DOAB self-audit here https://oapen.hypotheses.org/524). All this is supported by another call for action that I was involved in a couple of years ago: Investing in the Open Access Book infrastructure https://zenodo.org/record/4768388

Finally, just to say that I share your excitement and optimism. Having spent more than 20 years in scholarly book publishing and open access, I also see a rising momentum for open access monographs and a unique opportunity to ensure open equitable scholarly book publishing.

Thanks, Niels. Sorry we missed linking to your article. OAPEN and DOAB are critical pieces to the OA book puzzle. I and possibly some of my co-authors would be interested in visiting with you about all of this if you want to get in touch. Thanks again!

i once had this wonderful idea of publishing translations of croatian scholars’ books where you’d have an OA version translated by google translate, and a print version for sale translated by a proper translator who knows what she’s doing

so maybe something like that is worth considering e.g. author’s non-proofread, non-copyedited manuscript gets an OA release available to all, while readers who find themselves unwilling to suffer through typos and misspellings and clumsy phrasing can order the more expensive prettified version

or maybe something like in the music industry where you get to stream for free, but pay to download

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