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International Open Access Week 2020: Opening the book

Often when we talk about open access (OA), we talk about research articles in journals, but for over a decade there has been a growing movement in OA monograph publishing. To date, Oxford University Press (OUP) has published 115 OA books and that number increases year on year, partly through an increasing range of funder initiatives and partly through opportunities to experiment.

Increasingly, the policy conversation recognises that the drivers for OA are as applicable to books as they are to research articles, and research funders and policy makers are looking for ways to increase the volume of OA book publishing, but how simple is it to apply the accelerator?

The monograph lives

The value of the monograph has been questioned over recent years. Some commercial publishers have withdrawn from monograph publishing, and budgets for monographs have been squeezed. Despite being warned during this time that, if we simply listened hard enough, we would hear the death knell sounding for the academic monograph, a report published by OUP and Cambridge University Press last year found that it was very much alive. Respondents came in their thousands to advocate for it as a format and to confirm that they had no intention of giving up on it. This is supported by the growth in usage for Oxford Scholarship Online and the University Press Scholarship Online service which confirms that discoverability and access to our monographs at the point of need has never been better.

At the same time the report showed that there are now new and emerging expectations for what the monograph is and it was refreshing to see that both authors and readers expect the monograph to evolve. As open research is increasingly a foundational goal for scholarly research, the monograph must also adapt if it is to continue to be a vital resource within scholarly communications. The challenge that lies ahead of us, however, is to be mindful of both the vehicle and the terrain—how do you accelerate that evolution while protecting the value and sustainability of the monograph format?

A book is not a journal

It sounds obvious but there are significant differences in what books are, and how they develop from a period of research with practical consequences for the extent to which processes that have been applied to open access journals can be made to apply to open access books. There are several reasons for this:

There are several reasons for this:

  • A book requires more editorial input than a journal article. Time is spent shaping and developing the content over months or years and an appropriate digital platform is required to house the end result where it may be easily discovered and re-used. Any funding model needs to account for this to ensure this time can be sustainably invested on the part of both the author and the publisher.
  • A book also generally takes longer to produce than an article, meaning they do not move through the system at such a high volume. In fact, our research told us that scholars value the monograph for their process as much as their output—they are considered “an organizing principle” in research. Again, funding needs to account for this slower pace of creation and lower volume of output to provide enough time in the process to reap the value of the research process and to continue to uphold high standards of academic rigour throughout.
  • A book has a longer life span. The return for the effort expended is sometimes only felt years after publication as a title grows in standing through being discovered and cited in other works. In any model (such as green open access, a model in which authors place a version of their manuscript in an open repository) which relies on an embargo period, the embargo period must be appropriate for the lifecycle of the text. For example, if a book were to be made freely available immediately or after a short embargo period with no funding, the model becomes untenable for a publisher, however important the content or well-written the work.
  • The monograph format is favoured in humanities and social sciences. Our research into the monograph told us clearly that scholars in the humanities and social sciences value the monograph as a “gold standard” in scholarly achievement. If research or funder policy were to threaten the monograph format, the landscape of the disciplines that make up the humanities and social sciences would come under threat.

A viable future

OA is already a successful publishing model for some monographs with the most popular OA books published by OUP receiving upwards of 10,000 downloads. We publish over 1,500 monographs every year so the opportunity for greater growth and dissemination through an OA model is sizeable but the risks in the current shifting landscape are also significant.

The theme of this year’s International Open Access Week is “Open with Purpose: Taking Action to Build Structural Equity and Inclusion”. There are many angles to this which must be addressed for a more equitable future to the world of academic research and, as a university press, maintaining and expanding the future of the monograph is a particularly important. We are one of the world’s primary monograph publishers and we are accountable for ensuring that the publication model is equal and inclusive for all scholars, both in terms of funding and dissemination.  A model that only works for some scholars in some institutions in some fields is not viable for an equitable future.  We need to ensure that the monograph, such a key part of the scholarly discourse, has a viable future for all.

While we don’t have all of the answers and cannot do this alone, we do have some important questions that must be tackled if we are to move the discussion forwards:

  • What is an effective funding model for OA book publishing which takes into account both the time spent by the author in researching and producing the work and the time spent by the publisher in helping to shape and disseminate it?
  • What timeframes are appropriate for dissemination for a long-form piece of research like a monograph which has a long life of citation and discovery?
  • How can we ensure scholars are not closed out of the move towards OA because the current models do not fit their research areas or funding opportunities?

As we reach the end of International Open Access Week for another year, these are the questions that we will be taking forward in our conversations with policy makers and funders alongside our own publishing models as we look to support our authors and readers through the transition to a more open world for research.

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