OA monographs pose challenges for researchers and librarians

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Last week’s Open Access Monographs in the Humanities and Social Sciences conference attracted several hundred delegates and a lively discussion, both at the event and online. Caren Milloy reports

For researchers and funders dismayed at the decline in monograph sales and the dwindling impact that this seems to suggest, open access (OA) publishing offers an exciting opportunity to make research available more widely. But, as delegates heard at early July’s Open Access Monographs in the Humanities and Social Sciences conference at the British Library, OA brings with it the need for fundamental new approaches from researchers, libraries and publishers.

Sales of monographs have declined from an average of 2,000 copies in 1980, to just 200 in the early years of this century, according to research by Willinsky in 2009. As a consequence, the prices of monographs have risen – often to over £100 per title. And for researchers, for whom monographs remain one of the main ways to communicate their research, there is a fear, as articulated by Rupert Gatti, the director of Open Book Publishers, that the low levels of dissemination and high price barriers are doing a real social harm.

The influential Finch Report, published in Summer 2012, came out strongly in favour of OA as the future for academic publishing. While recognising that costs will at least have to be covered, discussion at this month’s monographs conference focused largely on the importance of the dialogue, the research at the heart of the monograph and the ways that digital publishing, combined with OA, offers the opportunity to extend the reach of the conversation and move beyond the confines of the traditional printed work.

To paraphrase Cameron Neylon of the Public Library of Science (PLOS) in his closing keynote, the focus was on ways to use a technology that is built for discourse to support academic subjects that have discourse at their heart – because ‘discussion of our work is most important to us as scholars’.

For researchers, OA offers several advantages. Kim Hackett highlighted how OA can offer greater efficiency during the research process, better and wider public understanding of the research work and enhanced sustainability. Hackett is research education framework (REF) higher education policy advisor at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). HEFCE, for one, is so convinced of these benefits, that its policy is to encourage publishing in an OA form, and it is building this requirement (for journals only) into the REF after 2014. 

When it comes to monographs however, the recent HEFCE consultation showed that further evidence and partnership working is required before decisions can be made as to the inclusion of OA monographs in the REF.

Evidence gathering, collaboration and experimentation were central themes, where new models for peer review were presented by Kathleen Fitzpatrick of the Modern Language Association (MLA) and author of Planned Obsolescence. Fitzpatrick described the downfalls of current peer-review models and presented on open peer-review processes. Social and institutional challenges remain central to any move towards new models for peer review and to OA monograph publishing in general.

Researchers also have some serious questions about OA and what this means to them as monograph authors. They worry about how their own work will fare in an OA environment – how will the integrity of their work be protected? What about translations? How can they ensure they receive credit for their work and their collaborations? How can they secure rigorous peer review for their research?

And they wonder, too, how they will fare themselves, working in an OA world. How can they move to an OA model when few of the traditional big publishers offer such an option and how will this impact on career progression? This a particular concern for early-career academics who need their first book to establish their reputation. They might wonder if an OA monograph will be seen by career panels as the equivalent of a traditionally published one. Another concern is how they will be able to assess the credentials of the potential collaborators they meet online, and how can they be sure of the credibility of the material they access.

These issues have special resonance in humanities and social sciences (HSS) subjects, which have to fight hard for a share of the funding pot, and need to provide clear evidence of their reach and engagement in order to secure it. Taking those first steps, having the confidence to publish an OA monograph with a newborn OA publisher or to utilise open peer review are not easy for many.

Yet is this move such a large one? Jean-Claude Guedon of the University of Montreal in his opening keynote said that the notion of the single author is fixed to the print and that, in reality, authors of research material don’t work in isolation. They discuss ideas, use colleagues as sounding boards, invite comments – the very act of writing is social. He pointed out that any academic publication is really a collaborative act: OA is simply enabling researchers to extend conversations across continents and disciplines more readily than ever before.

While these issues are exercising the minds of researchers, university librarians are facing challenges of their own. Will OA monographs change the focus for libraries from acquiring and curating a careful collection of books (and e-books) to connecting people to OA books? Will libraries need to focus more on services that aid discovery, support evaluation of the quality and relevance of OA monographs, and provide advice and guidance to authors to help manage their publishing responsibilities and contracts? While we are in a period of transition, how will OA monographs integrate with existing book acquisition processes and the big e-book aggregator platforms.

Jill Russell, digital assets programme manager at the University of Birmingham, told the meeting that a key concern for librarians is the long-term reliability of publishing platforms. Where resources are made openly available online by publishers, how can librarians be sure that the resource - and even the platform that sustains it - will be available for the long haul? With no contracts to hold publishers to, libraries could find themselves powerless if plugs are pulled for economic or other reasons. And what of the university repository? Jill highlighted questions that haven’t been discussed yet, such as how they should deal with co-authored editions or a book edited by one of their researchers, and what format and version should be held within the repository. 

OA has the potential to support the flow of conversation, open up the discourse and increase communities of practice. The question is, how we do this and how we embrace technology to go beyond the monograph?

Caren Milloy is head of projects at Jisc Collections