Survey reveals researchers' views on monographs

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Ellen Collins considers a recent survey of researcher attitudes to monographs and asks what the future is for the academic book

Academic monographs have been getting a lot of attention in policy circles of late. In the UK, HEFCE, Jisc and the AHRC have all been running projects on the subject, while international research funders such as the Mellon Foundation in the USA and DfG in Germany are supporting experiments to try to build a more stable future for the monograph.

A perception that monographs are in trouble underpins this sudden upsurge in interest. For years, researchers, publishers, librarians and other interested parties have been suggesting that it is getting harder to publish them. This matters because monographs are a crucial way of communicating research findings in many humanities and social-science disciplines. Moreover, many researchers feel that they are a non-negotiable step on the job ladder – a marker that must be reached in order to achieve progression at every career stage.

The traditional narrative about the decline of the monograph tends to focus upon book sales. Library budgets, which are shrinking, are further pressurised by locked-in price increases on journal ‘big deals’, where libraries commit to buying large bundles of journals for a certain number of years with (in most cases) annual price rises. The amount of money available to buy books is declining. Publishers argue that fewer copies of each book are being sold, driving up the price per copy and (of course) making it even harder for librarians and researchers to buy books. Researchers are concerned that this, in turn, affects publication decisions, with easily marketed and saleable books being more likely to get published, regardless of whether they are actually important for the discipline.

Data to test these hypotheses can be difficult to come by. However, a new survey from the Jisc and AHRC-funded project, OAPEN-UK, run in association with HEFCE’s Open Access and Monographs project, reveals some interesting perspectives from researchers themselves. With over 2,200 responses from UK-based humanities and social science researchers, the survey gives a unique insight into how academics perceive the monograph and its role in scholarly life.

The survey confirms that humanities and social-science researchers remain keen to read and to publish monographs. Overall, 94 per cent of respondents (2, 056 people) said it was important or very important to access monographs, while 84 per cent (1,882 people) said it was important or very important to publish monographs. In neither case were monographs the most important type of research output – that position is held by journal articles – but they are clearly valued by researchers.

Junior researchers, especially PhD candidates, seem to find it less important to publish monographs than their senior colleagues, but researchers at all career stages attach equal importance to reading them. Bigger differences are evident when it comes to discipline. Social scientists are less likely than humanities researchers to consider the monograph important, as both authors and readers.

It also seems that researchers find it harder to publish monographs than to access them. 50 per cent of respondents said that it was both important and difficult to publish monographs, but only 10 per cent said it was both important and difficult to access them. There’s an important message here for publishers, research funders and universities: the publishing system may well be failing researchers who want to share their findings, but there’s less evidence that researchers have the kinds of problem that open access was originally intended to solve in the journals environment – that is to say, the problem of researchers not being able to get at the high-quality published content that they needed to do their work.

Another interesting finding, and one which questions some aspects of the ‘monograph in decline’ narrative, is that most researchers bought their own copy of the last book that they read. There was considerable variation by career stage – junior researchers were more likely to borrow a copy from the library, while more senior colleagues bought their own. This is unsurprising – professors may have access to personal, departmental and project funds that PhD students don’t. There were also disciplinary differences, with social scientists being more likely to buy a copy than humanities researchers – this may be because humanities researchers read more books and can’t afford to buy them all. But this finding does suggest that pressurised library budgets alone cannot be held responsible for decreasing sales – academics do buy their own copies of books, and perhaps business models could take greater advantage of this market?

So, researchers are keen to publish, read and buy monographs, but sometimes struggle to do so (particularly in relation to publishing). What can be done to help them? The National Monograph Strategy, a Jisc project, worked with the research, library, publishing and funder communities to begin exploring how the UK might develop shared, national approaches to the challenges that face the scholarly monograph. The project has developed a strategy roadmap that outlines seven core ideas that aim to address the challenges facing the creation, collection, use and preservation of the academic book.

One of the most popular ideas was the shared, open publishing platform. This is a technical solution aimed at reducing the barriers for universities and libraries that wish to develop their own publishing presence on campus. The idea articulates the growing interest and development of university presses in the UK. While significant work needs to be undertaken in understanding better the requirements and implications of this idea, it is clear that it surfaces a renewed desire on behalf of universities and libraries to both play a greater role in the scholarly communications process and support innovative business models and approaches to the scholarly monograph.

A very different idea was the development of a knowledgebase (or ‘monobase’ as it was christened) enabling institutional libraries to have data and intelligence on what other libraries currently hold in their collections. The primary focus of this idea was to address the challenge of space for universities and their libraries, and the continued presence of low use, legacy book collections in libraries. If libraries know what others hold then it would enable the development of a national collections policy, and local decisions could be made about collections in the context of the UK’s research collection as a whole. The knowledgebase would enable the development of new shared services, such as document delivery and digitisation services. We might imagine, for example, that it could be the basis for something like a ‘Netflix for books’: Providing instant access to the digital version with the print version following a few days later in the post if required.

 As we’ve seen, these ideas are part of a much wider conversation about the future of monographs, both in the UK and internationally. Those of us with an interest in the future of the academic book must take advantage of this moment in the sun. There are also other developments in publishing that will affect the future of the book – new digital platforms for sharing research findings, and the mid-length publications that fall between a monograph and a journal article are just two examples. But findings from the current research projects must be used to understand better the challenges that face publishers, librarians, authors and readers, and how best to solve them.

My own opinion is that it’s difficult to talk about a single ‘future’ for the academic monograph. The survey didn’t give a big enough sample to break down results by subject (as opposed to discipline), but it’s clear from previous research that not all humanities scholars think alike when it comes to communicating their findings. Indeed, even within a single subject, there can be considerable variation – archaeology is a classic example, with researchers at the data-driven end of the subject influenced very strongly by cultures in data-intensive subjects within the science, technology and medicine disciplines, while archaeologists with a more traditional background prefer to publish monographs.

I hope that researchers in different disciplines will find their own ‘best’ way of communicating their research outputs. We’ve got into the habit of thinking of ‘the book’ as 500 pages between two hard covers, and indeed this physical object is very important to many researchers. But fundamentally it’s a collection of ideas and arguments – just because historically they have been contained within the physical book doesn’t mean that they always must be in future.

Changing the way we think about ‘the book’ won’t be easy – it’ll require significant cultural change, particularly given the privileged role that the monograph plays in recruitment and promotion decisions. And I hope that this diversity in outputs will be echoed by diversity in business models – that different types of output can find their own ‘best’ way to support themselves. The best thing that funders and others can do at the moment is to encourage that diversity. 

Ellen Collins is a research consultant for the Research Information Network