While journals have led the way in Open Access publishing, there have been considerable developments recently in the area of Open Access monographs and textbooks.
The value of scholarly monographs
Scholarly research monograph publishing is very much, but not exclusively, the domain of arts and humanities disciplines. Although there are journals in these areas (and a growing number of them are being published electronically now), the monograph remains the gold standard. Young researchers are expected to focus on getting that ‘first book’ published, usually a volume based upon their academic thesis and ensuing career progress over the years is measured to considerable extent in terms of books authored. Critical acclaim, sales figures and peer opinion in general all contribute to the perceived merit of the individual monographs and the standing the researcher enjoys in his or her peer community is strongly predicated upon the aggregate of all these measures.
Historically, university presses or small, specialist publishers have produced a large proportion of the world’s research monographs. Over recent decades some of the large commercial publishing houses have also developed sizeable book lists, though many of the titles are text books rather than research monographs. The problem has been that a vicious circle of increasing prices driving down sales has resulted in a situation where specialist titles are expected to sell only a few copies – as low as 250-300 copies in many cases according to a report from the British Academy in 2005 (1) – publishers price these titles at a high level to recoup their costs from such small sales volumes, and researchers are struggling to find an outlet for their work. And they still need that outlet: a survey of researchers in the major US Ivy league universities showed that publishing monographs is still essential for career progression of humanities scholars (2) yet the number of publishing outlets in the form of university presses is declining.
Open Access book publishing
Arguments are increasing in favour of Open Access publishing models for monographs. There are also calls for more Open Access textbooks amidst ongoing concern about the high prices of student texts. Open Access is a concept realistically applicable only to electronic products, so Open Access books must necessarily be published in digital form, whether or not there is a print version too.
Some scholars are themselves writing books and making them freely available on the Web. A study carried out in the spring of 2009 cites one academic economist as saying that “most people I know who write books now just stick them up on the Web for free”.
Aside from this foray into publishing by researchers themselves, established presses have been tentatively trying Open Access as a way of delivering books and early experiments appear to be encouraging. The National Academies Press in the US has made its monograph series freely available on its website since 1996 in a page-by-page form and in recent years has begun offering free downloads of whole volumes. Not all its titles are available this way: the Press explains that to cover its running costs it still needs to charge for some electronic versions of its books (and it charges for all the hardcopy versions, of course). See more on the NAP’s business model for monograph publishing here.
It is notable that some university presses are also experimenting with Open Access for their monographs. Breaking down price barriers to the use of research monographs aligns university presses once more with the core values of the academy and, more prosaically, hugely increases usage. For example, the Australian National University (ANU) Press, an early-mover in exploring Open Access as a way of delivering its products and which makes its monographs freely available in a variety of formats (including for mobile devices), saw 1.16 million complete-volume downloads of its books in 11 months in 2007: one top title enjoyed almost 62,500 downloads alone. It hardly needs pointing out that these figures exceed even the most ambitious sales expectations, though during that same time period 2400 books were sold by ANU Press in hard copy.
The Open Acccess Tagging Project’s page on OA books. This is kept up to date by community contributions: http://www.connotea.org/tag/oa.books
Open Access can increase sales
Although there may be fears that making books Open Access online will harm sales of the print version it seems that the opposite can be the case. Some examples of free online availability increasing print copy sales are here and here. One case study, on scholarly publishing in the social sciences, reports that book sales turnover rose by 300% after monographs were made openly available online (3).
The Open Acccess Tagging Project’s page on how OA affects the sales of print editions of OA books. This is kept up to date by community contributions: http://www.connotea.org/tag/oa.books.sales?num=50
References and further reading
(2) Cronin, B and La Barre, K (2004) Mickey Mouse and Milton: book publishing in the humanities. Learned Publishing, 17 (2), 1 April, pp. 85-98(14)
(3) Gray, E, Bruns, K and van Schalkwyk, F (2004) Digital publishing and open access for social science research dissemination: a case study
O’Reilly, T (2007) Free downloads vs sales: a publishing case study. http://radar.oreilly.com/2007/06/free-downloads-vs-sales-a-publ.html
OAPEN Project: Resources page on Open Access book publishing