Opening up e-book access

From scholar-led initiatives to commercial publishing programmes, the topic of open-access e-books is emerging from the shadows. Siân Harris investigates

Over the past decade or so, open-access (OA) journal publishing has transformed from a niche concept to a hot topic for consideration by every publisher and research institution as well as many government bodies. The case for making research articles freely available to other researchers and to the wider public has been widely promoted.

But, in the background, another question has been lurking: what about books?

Books have followed journals into the online world and, over the past four or five years, e-books have emerged as important components of publishers’ portfolios and of research-library budgets. But there are differences between books and journals that make both their electronic evolution and their business models different.

Although some journal papers present original research while others are review articles, and they vary in length and format, they all serve a similar purpose of communicating research knowledge and expertise in a peer-reviewed way to others – primarily other researchers in a similar field. Journal papers directly impact research assessment and are generally the result of some sort of research funding. These last two factors make a transition to a model where the costs of journal publishing are paid for by a source other than library subscriptions relatively easy to comprehend – and perhaps choose – even if the logistics of changing models are more complex.

Books, on the other hand, come in many forms and have many purposes so it is much harder to generalise. At one extreme, it is hard to imagine a bestselling novelist ditching the author royalties and instead paying to publish – although the world of e-books and the internet more generally has led to many aspiring fiction writers publishing content for free or nearly free in order to build up readership and in the hope of being spotted by a publisher.

Academic textbooks could fall into a similar category. While author royalties from scholarly textbooks don’t approach those of JK Rowling, they can provide an additional income stream to researchers (as well as to publishers). And this is an important factor because textbooks take far longer to write than journal papers and do not have the same direct impact on funding or promotion opportunities. They also require more work on the part of the publishers.

Nonetheless, there are some initiatives to open up textbooks, or textbook-like materials, to students free of charge. Many universities offer OpenCourseWare, described as ‘free and open digital publications of high-quality college- and university-level educational materials’. The OpenCourseWareConsortium includes hundreds of higher education institutions around the world.

Another example is Textbook Revolution, a student-run site that aims to increase the use of free educational materials by teachers and lecturers.

Collected works

Away from textbooks there are more compelling reasons for authors to choose OA, and for as long as e-books have been around there have been relatively quiet activities to develop OA models for scholarly collections and monographs.

For some authors and funders, the drive towards OA for books is the same as for journals – the desire to disseminate research and expertise to the widest possible audience.

Sven Fund

‘The arguments are the same as in STM. If you’ve worked on something for 10 years you want to share that work with the world. It doesn’t help much for an author to publish a PDF on their own website; nobody would find it. They need metadata and discoverability,’ said Anke Beck, vice president publishing at De Gruyter.

Indeed, some publishers first ventured into OA book publishing at the request of authors or funders. Caroline Sutton, publisher of Co- Action Publishing, recalled how the OA journal publisher ended up publishing two books, one on drug interactions and the other on fishing: ‘When we launched we didn’t have any journals yet and a few people approached us about OA books so we tried it,’ she said. ‘The people working with us covered the costs and we thought we’d print books and split the revenue with the funding partners. We have not really sold any print books or made any money on them but our traffic for the books is really high and the authors seem pleased with the exposure.’

With just two titles in very different subject areas, the readers of the books tend to come through Google rather than visiting the publisher site to seek out books, as they might if there was a larger book portfolio. Nonetheless, Sutton said that even traffic to ‘From Seascapes of Extinction to Seascapes of Confidence’ is around 30 unique visitors a day, equating to something like 2,000 copies in circulation, which under a traditional model would be an enormous number of readers for a specialised monograph about territorial use-rights in fisheries in Chile.

‘We don’t have specific plans but would certainly consider doing more OA books,’ she said.

De Gruyter also began its venture into OA book publishing thanks to a request from funders and authors – in this case the TOPOI excellence cluster in Berlin in 2009. As Sven Fund, managing director of De Gruyter explained, ‘What started off as a test has grown to a substantial programme of more than 15 titles.’ The publisher expects to announce agreements with research institutions in Germany for further OA e-books shortly.

In addition to traditional and fully OA models, De Gruyter offers a publishing option that is similar to the hybrid model for journals; if an author or funder wants part of a book to be OA the publisher estimates the impact of this on regular book sales and bridges the gap with article-processing charges.

‘If we find out, after publication, that there has been no cannibalisation or a milder effect on the revenues of the book, we reimburse the author for that,’ said Fund, who noted that OA publishing can actually have a positive effect on print sales of the same book.

Despite the hybrid option, however, De Gruyter has found that authors tend to opt for one approach or the other – in much the same way that the hybrid model on journals has had far lower take-up than publishers expected.

De Gruyter’s open-access book model focuses on collected volumes rather than monographs. Anke Beck noted that communications can be difficult with the multiple authors involved in a collection, but that communicating the OA model has not posed any additional challenges so far.

‘We work with editors for collected works, and once we get manuscripts we do double-blind peer review,’ she explained. ‘It’s just the same as non-OA books. OA is just a mode of production and we offer both.’

In contrast, the entire business model of Croatia-based In Tech is open-access e-books. The publisher was started in 2004 by two roboticists who were frustrated by having to pay for every chapter and article they needed to read. Henk Compier, managing director of the company, believes it can now claim to be the largest OA book publisher. ‘In 2012 we will publish around 1,000 OA e-books, in 2013 we will publish around 1,200 and we aim to grown by around 20 to 30 per cent per annum,’ he explained.

The In Tech model is for multi-author monographs with article-processing charges of around €600 per chapter. Unlike many OA book publishers, which publish in social sciences and humanities, In Tech focuses on physical sciences, engineering and technology, medicine and biomedicine.

Compier is excited about the benefits of an OA approach. ‘We tend to harness science from all over the world and are a platform for science from countries that are traditionally not well tapped by traditional publishers.’

Part of the reason that these scientists can be under-represented, he explained, is because of poor English. In Tech’s books are all published in English but the company offers language polishing as an additional service for submissions where the science is sound but the language needs improving. ‘In the past a lot of good science was rejected because peer review couldn’t get beyond the hurdle of bad English,’ he observed.

Compier acknowledged that attracting authors from parts of the world where authors may have fewer funding sources could pose problems with an author-pays model, but said that the company tries to avoid this being a barrier: ‘In a lot of cases there are challenges for authors with article-processing charges, and we do tend to waive them where an author has no chance of getting funding. We never let good science not be published because the author can’t pay.’

The company is also looking at ways to reduce the costs to authors by, for example, placing advertising on its site. ‘Our goal is to make sure scientists get the recognition they deserve.

‘We look to the lowest cost possible to keep the business model. OA means accessible to all. We shouldn’t close off content by charging for it.’

This approach to making content accessible seems to be working. Compier said that some of the company’s books have been downloaded more than three million times, and some chapters much more than that.

Scholarly monographs

Not all OA e-books are collections. Indeed one of the big drivers for university presses and not-for-profit groups of researchers to begin OA publishing is the scholarly monograph, which is a particularly prevalent way of communicating research in the social sciences and humanities.

The Open Humanities Press (OHP), which has six OA books in its current release cycle and about 10 more books in the pipeline, is an example of this. ‘We don’t have a business model per se, as we’re a volunteer community formed in response to the crisis in humanities publishing. Our financial model is to utilise the existing typical division of labour between authors and scholarly editors, while our library partner supplies the parts that academics cannot or do not normally provide in the publishing cycle,’ explained Sigi Jottkandt, co-founder and steering group member of the OHP.

Caroline Sutton 

That library partner is the University of Michigan Library (MPublishing), which converts copy-edited manuscripts to XML and hosts and serves the HTML versions of OHP books that are made freely-available online. Most books also have a print version available.

‘It’s still early days for the OHP books side of the project (we also have 14 OA journals in our collective). But this past year we’ve worked on getting the workflow streamlined so that scholars remain responsible for the content, editing and peer review, while the library handles the publication and distribution,’ said Jottkandt. ‘The heart of our approach is not to assume any extra expertise or commitment beyond what is usual in both the scholarly and library communities. If anything, it will be this that gives us the resilience we’ll need to remain viable, especially given the difficult funding climate in the humanities.’

OHP is not the only such collective taking this kind of approach. Other examples include Re.press and Punctum books, which are scholar-run presses that make books freely-available online and charge for print copies.

The OA book model also has support from some university presses. Amsterdam University Press, for example, publishes nearly all of its books and journals as OA and states on its website: ‘As a publishing company we see open access as an opportunity to secure humanities and social-science monographs earmarked for future publication.’

This press was also the driving force behind the European Union project OAPEN (Open Access Publishing in European Networks). This project has now evolved into a network that enables publishers to share some of the costs and experiences of open-access book publishing.

The OAPEN network includes the OAPEN Library, a publishing platform designed to give global impact to peer-reviewed research from across Europe. Publishers and others pay a fee, depending on the size of their frontlist, to make their peer-reviewed, OA monographs available through this platform.

Role of print

The OAPEN publication model combines OA with traditional print (or print on demand) publishing and this seems to be a common approach with OA e-books – although the level of interest in print versions seems to vary considerably.

In Tech’s publishing model includes the publishing of print books for the authors as part of the article-processing charges they pay. In addition, there is the option for people to buy books through print on demand. However, Henk Compier said that very few print copies are sold, and those that are sold are usually bought by co-authors of chapters, who do not get a print copy as part of the arrangement.

For De Gruyter, perhaps because it has a long-established traditional publishing business model, the interest in print is higher. Indeed, Anke Beck said that rather than harming sales, OA appears to be attracting readers to purchase the print versions.

Whether to do print on demand or a traditional print run is an interesting issue, though. Beck explained that, in some areas, there are benefits to doing an ordinary print run to ensure a high quality of the images. ‘TOPOI insisted they wanted to publish OA and also wanted a print book to be published,’ she said. ‘Print still matters, especially in a topic like archaeology where high-quality pictures count.’ In addition, there are cost issues that mean the decision depends on the particular book. ‘Once you’ve sold 100 to 150 copies it becomes cheaper to do an ordinary print run rather than print on demand,’ she explained.

Copyright challenges

So, what do researchers think of OA e-books? According to Beck of De Gruyter, there is a ‘very, very positive attitude from researchers.’

Nonetheless, there are some concerns. ‘They want to clarify copyright issues and, although it’s OA, they want to know that their work is somehow protected and not misquoted,’ said Beck.

There are other issues with copyright too in some subjects, according to Sutton of Co Action Publishing. For example, in topics such as art history it is common to reproduce images of works of art and these images are, in themselves, copyright. ‘We have a journal on children’s literature and sometimes have to reproduce images.

‘These will often have different permissions so you could imagine a situation where this could limit the number of users permitted to access an OA book.’

Jottkandt, of OHP, agrees: ‘Our biggest challenge right now is actually the excessively-litigious and expansionist copyright climate, which is having a chilling effect on scholarship and community-based publishing solutions such as ours,’ she argued.

Discovering content

As more OA books become available, the need for a way to discover them also grows. For this reason, OA book publishers have welcomed OAPEN’s recent launch of the Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB), a discovery service for peer-reviewed books published under an OA licence. This service uses a similar model to the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and provides a searchable index to the information about these books, with links to the full texts of the publications at the publisher’s website or repository.

OAPEN said that aggregators can integrate DOAB records into their commercial services and libraries can integrate the directory into their online catalogues, which will help scholars and students to discover the books.

With such developments, OA books are starting to be more noticed – as alternative ways of expanding dissemination, of ways to tackle the crisis where libraries reduce their spending on monographs and, for some publishers, and as a new and sustainable business model.

As Compier of In Tech concluded: ‘OA is only possible because of the internet. As publishing changes, OA publishers have a role to play and they could play it better than traditional publishers.’

Further information


Experiments in OA books

At the recent UKSG conference, Caren Milloy of JISC and Graham Stone of the University of Huddersfield described a four-year research project into the potential of OA monographs that will run until 2015.

‘Sales of print monographs have been in decline over the last few years in libraries and the cost of print monographs is rising. This limits dissemination and means that unprofitable research areas are potentially being missed out or ignored,’ explained Milloy.

The project, OAPEN UK, follows the model of the EU-funded OAPEN project. OAPEN UK gave a grant to the publishers involved in the project to make specific content available under an OA model; the publishers could still sell print and e-book device-friendly versions of the titles.

Caren Milloy  

The project chose 60 humanities and social-science titles published between 2006 and 2011. The titles have been submitted in matched pairs, with one of the pair randomly picked for the experimental group and one for the control group. The titles chosen were published by Taylor & Francis, Palgrave Macmillan, University of Wales Press, Liverpool University Press and Berg Publishers.

The usage of these books will be studied over the course of the project. ‘We aim to collect usage statistics for everything, but where they are and what they are is an issue we are grappling with,’ noted Stone.

The project aims to discover how policies, processes and mechanisms need to change in order to enable OA of monographs; what the measureable effects are of a move to OA monographs; and how perceptions of OA monographs change among participants of the project.

To this end, in addition to gathering usage data, the project is conducting surveys and focus groups to investigate attitudes among various stakeholders in the process.

‘Different groups have very particular perspectives of other parties. Libraries, funders and publishers all said the big issue for authors would be a lack of revenue – but our author surveys so far have shown revenue as having a low importance as a motivation for publishing, although this could change as the project moves on,’ said Stone.

The discussions so far have also highlighted the importance placed on consistency and standards. ‘Preservation has been a big concern in focus groups,’ noted Stone. ‘The focus groups also said that whichever standards are applied need to be applied consistently; perhaps standardised licensing.’

‘We were very clear when we started the project that we were not saying that OA is the right way, just investigating it,’ noted Milloy, who added that OAPEN and OAPEN-UK will share their findings.