Monographs 'central to research process' – Cambridge/Oxford study

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Sophie Goldsworthy and Ben Denne sift through 5,000 responses from HSS researchers

What is the future for the monograph? It is an important debate but one that has become dominated by anecdote and binary thinking: either the format is obsolete or of enduring value. To move the debate on, the university presses of Cambridge and Oxford decided to carry out some joint research into how authors, readers and researchers in Humanities and Social Sciences really see the academic monograph.

We had several goals. First and foremost, we wanted to help inform an evidence-based view of the role of the monograph in the research workflow in 2019. 

Secondly, as university presses embedded within the academic ecosystem, we wanted to engage and give voice to the communities involved in creating and using research. Developments around open access have bought an urgency to the debate, but also shifted the conversation away from the format itself and towards the method of delivery and funding of the process. 

We wanted to better understand where the monograph fits in the scholarly communications process. We hope that the findings of the report bring context to the ongoing debate around research evaluation and open access books and are mindful that the UKRI and REF open access consultations, which are imminent in the UK, are considering future policies for open access and monographs]. 

The survey, which was open for two weeks, received just under 5,000 usable responses, including a large number of detailed and passionate textual responses. This in itself speaks volumes about engagement with the format. 

There is a huge amount of detail in the original report which you can read here. The bulk of the responses (over 90 per cent) were split fairly evenly between academics in Europe and the USA, with around half of the EU respondents based in the UK. This partly reflects the researcher and author base of the respective Presses, but also reflects the areas in which the Humanities and Social Sciences are currently most studied. The subject breakdown shows higher engagement in the Humanities, with History and Literature the most represented subjects, underlining the centrality of the monograph to those disciplines. 

Core to the findings as a whole was the view that the monograph, rather than simply being the output of research, was central to the research process itself. Respondents described how working towards a monograph provided a framework that helped to structure their research. Monographs are valued as an extended form, allowing scope and space for complex perspectives and arguments, with detailed exposition and analysis of source material. 

The survey results provide insight not only into the creation of monographs, but also how they are used. While many academics said they still read monographs cover to cover, over 80 per cent of respondents indicated that they were extremely or very likely to engage with monographs at a chapter level. This was particularly true of early career researchers. This use of monographs at a more granular level may well be something that has been unlocked by digital access, although we did not gather specific data on what has driven this shift. 

While the results of the survey point broadly towards the sustainability of the monograph, a very small percentage (two per cent) of respondents did not use monographs or find them useful. Others said they found the sheer volume of monograph publishing overwhelming, which suggests a continued importance in publishers developing tools and services focussed on curation and discoverability. 

It is clear that the monograph will remain relevant for many years to come. Indeed, when asked to contemplate a world without monographs, respondents said they found it difficult, even catastrophic, to imagine. Given this view, open access represents an exciting opportunity to dramatically increase the dissemination and impact of monographs. This highlights an urgent need to find sustainable models to support their ongoing creation and publication, which work for all parties: creators, curators, and consumers. 

We need to factor in the enduring currency of scholarship in the social sciences and humanities, balancing the need for broad access with a funding model which takes account of the long shelf life of scholarship in these fields. Publishers should not be complacent, but need to evolve to stay relevant. In an increasingly open world with an expectation of broad and equitable access to the best scholarship, we need to develop tools and services to increase the discoverability and usability of our books. Doing so will help researchers, and indeed authors of future monographs, both find and make best use of the in-depth knowledge and learnings they contain. 

Sophie Goldsworthy is editorial director for academic and trade at Oxford University Press. Ben Denne is director of publishing for academic books at Cambridge University Press.