Project explores open-access books in the humanities and social sciences

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Caren Milloy of JISC reports on progress in the OAPEN-UK project looking into the viability of open-access monographs in the humanities and social sciences

Academics in the humanities and social sciences dedicate years to undertaking research and require a format that allows them to present considered, and often lengthy, arguments. In many cases a monograph, published by a reputable publisher, is the expected and accepted format.

Once published, the monograph will be sold to libraries and other academics worldwide to ensure that knowledge is shared and new research and connections are made. Except that over the last three decades, sales of monographs have been in decline - likely linked to the squeeze on library book budgets due to ever-expanding journal fees.

In the last 10 years, library print book purchasing expenditure has declined from 11.9 per cent of their overall budgets in 1999 to 8.4 per cent in 2009 (RIN, 2010). The average number of sales of monographs to libraries has declined from around 2,000 in 1980 to around 200 in the early years of this century (Willinsky, 2009).

If fewer monographs are being sold and consequently read, does this have a detrimental effect on the humanities and social-science research environment? Does it also mean that publishers, facing the challenge of lower revenue and higher costs, decide to focus on publishing only the monographs that are deemed economically viable – or in other words – crowd pleasers? What impact does this have on those researchers who are producing manuscripts of high scholarly worth but that are not likely to produce high sales? Might the monograph as a format fade away? These are some of the questions and concerns being raised by academics that need to be addressed.

So how can the monograph be kept alive to allow humanities and social science researchers to present considered arguments, how can readership be increased to foster new connections and research and what economic model will sustain a fair publishing and dissemination process for monographs – in both electronic and print.

Our open-access monograph project OAPEN-UK, funded by the AHRC (Arts & Humanities Research Council) and JISC, is exploring all these issues and working collaboratively with publishers, academics, learned societies, research funders and libraries to see if open access could be the key to increasing readership, research and a healthy economic future for the monograph.

We are piloting a model whereby the publisher is paid an upfront fee to make the monograph available online - free for everyone to read as a PDF or in HTML. The publisher is then able to generate revenue through sales of print (60 per cent of academics still prefer print) or e-book editions (EPUB). The idea is to see if this is an economically-viable model and work out how much the upfront fee might be, if indeed it is needed at all.

We have 58 monographs matched into pairs - 29 available in OA and 29 available through standard methods. Over three years (2011 – 2014) we are gathering sales, usage and citation data to assess performance: Do the OA titles get more usages and sales than the control group titles? What does this indicate in terms of sustainability?

In addition, we are gathering data on perceptions, attitudes and priorities and processes to help us work out how a move to OA publishing may work and what needs to be addressed in the move. Focus groups with various stakeholders and our 2012 survey of 690 humanities and social-science academics provided some fascinating and sometimes surprising information:

  • Creative Commons licensing is not well understood by humanities and social science academics, not only was awareness of CC low at only 40 per cent, but 80 per cent of academics said that they would prefer the most restrictive CC licence (CC-BY-NC-ND) for their open-access monograph;
  • Academics are worried about what derivatives mean and fear not being able to keep control of their monograph – much more so than commercialisation of their work – more academics selected CC-BY-ND than CC-BY-NC;
  • Familiarity with open access is at 30 per cent and awareness is at 50 per cent, although this was before the Finch report;
  • Around 50 per cent of researchers think it is OK to make a profit from OA publishing as long as that profit goes back into supporting the discipline or making more OA content available; 20 per cent think you can make a profit and use it however you like and 20 per cent think that you can make a profit but only to cover costs. This is interesting for business modelling;
  • Academics value highly the distribution and marketing services of publishers more than any other service they provide; 80 per cent rated these services as important or very important where as other services such as peer review, copy editing and design all came in under 70 per cent;
  • Early career academics are more willing to consider self-publishing than later career researchers although our focus groups suggest that early-career researchers would like later-career academics to lead the way with open-access publishing as they have already established their reputations;
  • Of the 397 that had published a monograph, book chapter or co-authored a monograph since 2000, 45 per cent said that their research was underpinned by core university funds, 22 per cent from research council grants and 20 per cent from another funder – central pots for humanities and social science researchers to use to fund OA monographs (if it is a gold model) is going to be critical;
  • The 397 that had published monographs picked their publishers because first they are good at disseminating to the right audience, second because they have a good QA process, third because they are the best in their field and fourth because they were the only ones interested;
  • Of the 690 who responded to the survey, 60 per cent had read a monograph in the last couple of days; 39 per cent had bought a monograph and 33 per cent had got it via the library;
  • Print still dominates reading preferences but less so for early career academics;
  • The perception of the 690 respondents is that open access will have negative impacts on quality, reputation and reward but will be brilliant for availability and efficiency. Clearly any open-access model has to really address quality and think about impacts in terms of the REF and reputations.

As we progress through the project we will continue to share and disseminate the results. At the end of the project, the aim is to have a wealth of evidence to allow stakeholders to make informed decisions about a move to open-access monograph publishing and have helped voice the needs and concerns of humanities and social-science researchers.

Caren Milloy (@carenmilloy) manages OAPEN-UK. Follow the project on Twitter: @oapenuk