For open monographs, collective library subscription is the key

These initiatives don’t demand extra funding, undervalue publisher input or create institutional or disciplinary divides, say Anthony Cond and Jane Bunker

April 26, 2024
A locked book
Source: iStock/Andrei Metelev

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) dictates UK academic practice, but it doesn’t always reflect it. That disconnect appears most acutely in the humanities, challenged by policy thinking oriented around STEM journals.

Consider the current proposal to require a book’s author accepted manuscript (AAM) – post-peer review, pre-copyediting and typesetting – to be deposited in an institutional repository after 24 months if the book is not fully open access on publication. The use of the AAM is logical for STEM journals. Science papers’ significant content is data, rather than narrative, and they are only a few thousand words long – relatively inexpensive to edit and typeset in comparison to a book.

Now consider a 100,000-word scholarly monograph, the primary research output of the humanities and, to some extent, the social sciences. A book manuscript might not yet be written when its author approaches an acquisitions editor. In fact, the very idea for it might come from an editor; a good editor knows who’s doing interesting work in particular subjects. If that person is an early career researcher, the editor will help them learn how to write for an audience.

In that sense, a good acquisitions editor not only helps to shape books, she helps to shape entire fields. Such proactive intervention might be one of the best-kept secrets in scholarly publishing. And even when the scholar comes up with the idea, their proposal (explaining what the book intends to accomplish and why it matters) is often reviewed by multiple professionals at university presses, who contribute marketing or design expertise. Again, this labour is rarely acknowledged.

Editors and readers also provide help and feedback on a manuscript even before it is sent out for peer review to help craft a better draft (and while much is made of the “gift economy”, university presses pay readers a modest honorarium). Last, the manuscript is presented at the press’ faculty editorial board meeting for final approval. These multiple layers of vetting are resource-intensive and can take a few months to several years before the book manuscript – the AAM – is finally put under contract.

So even if you buy the argument that taxpayer-funded research should be free to all, is it ethical to force monograph publishers – frequently mission-driven and not-for-profit – to undertake much of their work, in essence, for free? Or should green open access for books use preprints that are produced prior to any publisher labour?

Nor is this the only unanswered question around the use of AAMs for books. First, do authors want to make widely available an inferior version of a work that might have been years in gestation and writing? Second, with the longer lifespan of humanities research, and amid a sector-wide budget crisis, will librarians continue to acquire specialist monographs on publication when the primary research might be available in less polished form in a year or two?

Third, given the brief window to recoup essential costs, will the REF’s proposed policy disincentivise publishers from signing up REF-able monographs? Will scholarly publishers instead seek authors from outside the UK or overcommit to trade books, leaving the monographic foundations on which such books are built to crumble?

The open access policy recently introduced by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) addresses some of these issues by providing a funding route for gold open access, capped at £10,000 per book, alongside a 12-month embargo green route. But most universities recognise that UKRI’s £3.5 million monograph pot is insufficient, and, in response, we have seen the beginning of institutional bifurcation.

Post-92 universities view green as the only way they can afford to comply with current and future OA policies; consequently, many are pursuing it bullishly, via institutional rights retention policies (IRRPs). Meanwhile, the more affluent Russell Group universities, while also implementing IRRPs, are establishing rolling OA monograph funds to top up any UKRI shortfall.

Followed to a logical conclusion, that leaves research from the best-resourced universities (potentially more likely to be in receipt of UKRI funds) immediately available OA in final book form, while work from less affluent institutions is available OA only at a later date and in an unfinished state.

The risk of divergence applies to subjects, too. Martin Eve has noted previously the risk of reaching “a world where all scientific work is free to read by the public, but all humanities work is prohibitively expensive”. But perhaps worse still is the scenario of a default inferior, delayed, un-copyedited form of open access for the humanities.

A better model for open monographs is collective subscription. Already successfully implemented by a range of university presses, this involves libraries repurposing their existing collections budgets to support a transition away from the default gated access model. These initiatives do not demand additional funding or encourage a two-tier division of institutions and disciplines. They don’t risk humanities authors being short-changed or undervalue the publishers most committed to long-form scholarship.

Rather, they emphasise that while academic and publishing cultures may continue to clash in the STEM journals’ world, a collaborative approach involving all stakeholders – scholars, libraries, publishers and policymakers – is the only way to ensure a sustainable open future for the book.

Anthony Cond is chief executive of Liverpool University Press and president-elect of the Association of University Presses. Jane Bunker is director of Cornell University Press and president of the Association of University Presses. Anthony is speaking today at a symposium on Opening the Monograph: its future within an open scholarly landscape, co-convened by the University of Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and Research Libraries UK (RLUK).

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