Publishers explore OA monograph models

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Caren Milloy follows up her article last month about implications of open-access monographs for researchers and librarians with a look at some of the approaches publishers are taking

It's not only the author who is disappointed when a monograph sells just a handful of copies; it's a financial headache for the publisher, too. The steady decline in monograph sales over the past 30 or more years means that many scholarly works are now economically non-viable and that has led to worries that publishers may, in the future, have to select their titles with more of an eye to sales potential than to scholarly merit.

That is something that no-one with an interest in the advancement of knowledge wants to see. There are moves afoot within funding bodies such as the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the European Union (EU), the Wellcome Trust and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to test open-access (OA) publishing of monographs as a solution. The EU has made a firm commitment to OA publishing in science subjects and last month it began to trial OA publishing for both original research and its supporting data.

A number of presses, academics, universities and not-for-profit organisations have already taken up the challenge and are testing their own models. Most use some version of Freemium, making the most basic version of the monograph available at no charge as a PDF or HTML file, with other additional options available at a cost. While that is sometimes simply the traditional printed version that many academics still prefer, it could include the research data, film, music or even artefact sharing via 3D printing. Each model is slightly different, but they all involve going right back to fundamental issues such as who pays for what, to best sustain the model.

The Open Library of Humanities favours a library partnership subsidy model, in which groups of libraries each pay a subscription to secure OA to works. It is piloting this model now and hopes that the trial will deliver answers to key questions such as how the subscriptions should best be managed, the amount of work involved in producing OA versions of books, the infrastructure that is needed to support discovery and use, and how revenue can be garnered from sales of print or other services.

Knowledge Unlatched is working to develop a consortium model, in which groups of libraries pool resources to fund OA publication, share the financial risk and make existing budgets stretch further. This model draws on funding pools that already exist and Knowledge Unlatched hopes that it will provide an easy to adopt, practical solution because of that. It is being tested now for a single collection, with the aim of conducting a review of the outcomes, devising metrics and scaling-up the operation during 2014.

Palgrave Macmillan, one of the largest traditional publishers of monographs in the humanities and social sciences, has proposed charging a flat publishing fee of £11,000 per title to cover editing, production, marketing and long-term preservation. The publisher will make the books freely available in e-pub online and via the usual sales outlets such as Amazon. It believes that this is a practical option because it doesn't rely on sales revenues to support it. The question of who pays the fee is still to be resolved. Two potential answers are: the author, out of their grant funding; or their university, via a centrally managed OA funding pot.

This year and next, Palgrave will start to work out some of the answers.  They plan to publish one OA book this year, and up to a dozen in 2014.

OAPEN-UK is currently exploring whether OA titles do actually achieve more usage and more sales than print titles. It is doing this via a trial in which 58 monographs are matched into pairs, half being available through OA and half in a standard print format. Sales information, usage statistics and citation data are all being collected and analysed.

Already, there is some evidence from other sources that OA titles are bucking the downward trend. April 2013 statistics from Open Book Publishers show that its titles are, on average, downloaded by 506 readers across the globe, bringing the possibility of rich and fresh collaborations with researchers working in universities where financial resources are scarce. And the OAPEN Library, a centralised European platform for OA humanities and social sciences monographs, recently had its millionth download since 2011. In June 2013 alone it had 124,428, so the momentum is building.

However books find their way into the OA environment, the long-term viability and value of OA publishing will depend on making sure that works are discoverable and can be quality assured. If we want the conversations that result to be genuinely global and inclusive, we will need global initiatives and infrastructure, too. Some of these are already up and running. Examples include Open Edition, a multilingual, open catalogue designed to give humanities publishers a delivery platform, a revenue stream to support their transition to OA publishing and a host of other benefits. And there is the newly launched Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB), a centralised service to support the discovery and dissemination of OA books, with admission criteria that have been developed to verify and accredit the publisher's peer review and licensing processes.

Speaking at last month's 'Open access monographs in the humanities and social sciences conference', hosted by Jisc Collections and OAPEN at the British Library, Mercedes Bunz of the Hybrid Publishing Research Team summed up the scale of the job in hand when she said, ‘the fundamentals of publishing are in flux’. Hybrid is playing its part through a three year project to create an open infrastructure for publishing, and to develop open source software that will make it quick and easy to create multiple book formats. That may prove to be an important building block as we all work towards a sustainable solution.

After many years of worrying about the future for monographs, this is an exciting time to be involved in the discussion. There are some very promising models emerging and some strong success stories are now available to share. The time to contribute your views and insights is now.

Caren Milloy (@carenmilloy) is head of projects at Jisc Collections. Click here to see some of the presentations on YouTube, or here for the full range of conference resources and join in the Twitter debate at #oabooks