Making the monograph sustainable

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Verena Weigert and Graham Stone ask what can we learn from other countries to preserve the monograph

Monographs have been under threat for some time. Detailed written studies of a single specialised area, they allow researchers to explore ideas in depth and over time. They are, to put it simply, incredibly useful – and are seen as the gold standard of publications within humanities and social sciences.

However, in the last 20 years or so, sales for singular scholarly monographs have been unlikely to exceed 200 copies, and if they do, you’ve got an international best-seller on your hands. With this in mind, open access (OA) is often seen as the only way to make the monograph sustainable.

Transitioning the monograph to OA is an extremely complicated ask, made so because of the way they’re produced, their cost and size, and the need to recognise that they are not journals. Another issue is funding - unfortunately, humanities receives a lot less than science, technology and medicine (STM).

In 2016, at Jisc we finished a five-year study into OA monograph publishing in the humanities and social sciences (a project we funded along with the Arts and Humanities Research Council -AHRC)). Examining the attitudes and perceptions of funders, researchers, publishers, learned societies, universities and libraries - our study showed that each group has a deep appreciation for the monograph. There was though, a concern about ‘predatory publishing’ in terms of OA – with many worried that academics might be pressurised into giving their work away. It’s clear that a cultural shift is needed for the OA monograph to be truly accepted.

Lessons learnt from Europe

The Knowledge Exchange has recently released a Landscape Study on OA and Monographs. It explores the inclusion of OA monographs in OA policies and funding streams, to support OA monographs and business models, by investigating the publishing of OA monographs in eight European countries.

Those countries are: Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, the UK, Austria, France and Norway. (The Knowledge Exchange partners are six key national organisations within Europe, tasked with developing infrastructure and services to enable the use of digital technologies to improve higher education and research).

The report is designed to be read in a number of ways, providing both observations and recommendations. It doesn’t predict that all monographs will go OA, but does outline a number of ways that OA for books can be encouraged further, which is a step in the right direction. An exciting update from the report is the suggestion that OA for monographs is becoming an accepted publication model in Europe, both offered by leading publishers and appreciated by authors.

One thing is clear: we can learn from every country involved in the report. The truth is that nobody’s cracked it, but by taking on the ‘best bits’ from each country’s approach to OA and monographs, we could ease the transition for everyone, and avoid some of the pitfalls associated with journal articles. The report mentions a number of interesting new OA publishing initiatives in Europe, which are experimenting with new business models and other innovative features.

For example - The Language Science press in Germany is a very successful new academic-led press, gaining credibility amongst the community and attracting a lot of authors. Developed with support from the German Research Foundation, it’s a great example of OA book publishing taking off in another country.

There has been discussion about a definitive business model for OA monographs for some time. However, the study has confirmed that there really is no ‘one size fits all’ – whatever works, works.

2018, the year of the OA Monograph?

The Knowledge Exchange is a great example of European countries exchanging expertise, best practice and innovative solutions to support UK HE and research.  We have a lot to learn from each other – and the recent report will definitely inform our monograph work at Jisc. We’ll use the report to shape the work we’re doing and will pull out some recommendations that work from a UK perspective.

The ideal situation, although we’re a long way from it, is to make research monographs available to everybody. Not only would this open up monographs to text and data mining, but it would solve the distribution issue too, and policy implementation would be a lot easier. There’s work to be done at a national and European level, but 2017 has been a largely positive year for the OA monograph, with many reports published and all of them looking to the future. There’s even been a specific group formed: the Universities UK monographs group.

All in all, 2018 looks to be the year that we start acting on all of the fantastic research that we’ve pulled together, here in the UK and in the rest of Europe too.

Verena Weigert is senior co-design manager at Jisc; Graham Stone is senior research manager at Jisc