Responses to four questions posed for the UUK OA monograph working group

I have been invited to be part of a working group established by Universities UK to consider Open Access monographs. Prior to the first meeting next month all participants have been asked to answer four questions:

  • What are the key barriers of OA monographs?
  • What do stakeholders expect from a transition to OA monographs, and how might they seek to approach this transition?
  • What are the characteristics of monographs that should be retained in any new system?
  • What does the optimal future of the monograph look like?

This post gives my responses to these questions. Professor Martin Eve has also responded on his blog.

  1. What are the key barriers of OA monographs?

Inertia by legacy stakeholders.

Open Access monographs challenge every aspect of the book creation and supply chain – publishers, distributors, aggregators, retailers, libraries and archivists. All face fundamental changes to the way they operate, and many identify threats to their existing business models. Consequently there is a great deal of inertia and in many cases positive resistance to Open Access monographs throughout the entire scholarly book production and distribution process. he industry has shown conspicuous lack of experimentation and R&D investment in OA or investigation in the opportunities it provides. Rather OA has been adopted only as a source of income in the form of ad-hoc grants from the research funding bodies. There is no concerted effort to look ahead and reform structures to enable the full potential of Open Access publishing.

Problem 1: Few legacy stakeholders recognise that an OA monograph can be more innovative  than a free pdf edition of a printed volume, and few are making any effort to think more broadly than that.

For many legacy publishers and distributers an OA book means publishing a ‘traditional monograph’ using a CC BY-NC-ND licence and creating a free pdf edition to be downloaded from the publisher’s own website. While this technically satisfies most funder mandates, it reflects a ‘compliance’ mentality and fundamentally undermines the potential for access, reuse, discovery, text/data search and engagement of the research published.

Distribution channels don’t yet recognise that an OA book may be released in a multitude of different editions and formats – even by the initial publisher. And without the ND condition, many non publisher approved editions may also be in circulation. So, for example, at OBP we typically generate 10 or more differently formatted digital editions of each publication, at the point of initial publication – and then other editions are often produced by others. In addition we allow customers to customise editions for themselves, reordering or mix-and-matching content from across different volumes, with the ‘unit of account’ becoming a chapter rather than a volume. Yet the vast majority of ebook distribution channels ask for either the print edition ISBN (of course a print edition may not even exist) or a single e-book ISBN. The ability for individual chapters to be distributed/recorded etc separate from the initial volume is almost non-existent, a single meta-data marker for an OA title rarely allows for the specific CC (or other OA) licence used, throughout the supply chain a zero price for an ebook has been difficult to incorporate – but now, allowing a positive price for a digital edition of an OA book is becoming problematic as well! Records for library catalogues, purchase plans etc are often supplied by aggregators – rather than publishers – giving the aggregators (rather than libraries)  ‘gatekeeper’ controls over content. Legacy e-book archiving revolves around a static pdf – while this may not be the only or even the most appropriate digital edition to archive.

Problem 2: Business Models – and a reluctance to reform them.

Most legacy stakeholders see OA as a challenge to their revenue stream, asking “how can we afford to do what we are presently doing with an OA publication?” The answer is: they can’t – and shouldn’t be seeking to.  OA dissemination challenges every aspect of their entire operations – but they are reluctant to recognise that or to consider fundamentally restructuring their practices. At OBP our operating costs appear to be around 25% of those reported by ‘legacy’ publishers, and our distribution costs about 10%. Certainly all stakeholders need to consider what is being gained by the significantly greater expenses incurred by ‘legacy’ production methods – and whether they are truly necessary.  For ‘legacy’ publications, about 40-50% of sales revenue goes to the distribution channel. At OBP we generate around 100 times as many readers to our titles, and the ratio of readers accessing our titles through non-traditional (free)  vs ‘legacy’ distribution channels is in the order of 300:1.  So, an important question for us – but also for the ebook distributors themselves, and libraries – is why do we need legacy distributors at all? Certainly there are very effective and cost efficient alternative distribution and discovery channels available now. Maybe legacy distribution channels DO facilitate access and discovery by a particularly important readership that new and non-traditional channels are not accessing so effectively – but that case needs to be made (and costed) by the legacy providers rather than just assumed and accepted.

2. What do stakeholders expect from a transition to OA monographs, and how might they seek to approach this transition?

First of all, let’s consider the ‘production’ stakeholders. I believe the vast majority of legacy stakeholders within the monograph production and distribution chains are looking to minimise the disruption of OA publishing and are to trying and shoe-horn OA monographs into existing processes and definitions – rather than making any serious efforts to embrace the changes and opportunities OA publications provide.  On the whole they are approaching the transition defensively, and where possible trying to create or sustain structures to protect their own vested interests and revenues.

There are then several ‘user’ stakeholder groups for monographs, of which I identify three. The first are the researchers seeking to undertake research. Here I believe researchers are looking to interact with OA publications both in the ways they are used to AND in entirely new ways. This reflects both different types of researchers doing different things, and the same researcher wanting to adopt both old and the new research methods. Thus, at least for the foreseeable future, there is likely to remain considerable demand for printed editions and increasing demand for the additional features OA and digital publishing enable (such as embedding multimedia content, social editing, text & data mining, sophisticated search and discovery processes etc.)

There is also the set of stakeholders seeking to disseminate their own research findings. Clearly the set of individuals is similar to the previous – but the role sought for the publication is very different. From the dissemination process they primarily seek: good methods for articulating and presenting their research findings, professional recognition for their work, engagement with their research by others, and longevity in the publication (so that readers many years from now can also access their research). For some authors printed editions are fundamentally important – for others they are an irrelevance. Once again we see a diversity of format requirements emerging, and the process of transition requires us to keep the old formats and encourage and enable new formats.

Non-academic readers are another stakeholder group. Typically this group has been marginalised and often ignored by the ‘legacy’ monograph publishing process – but it is potentially a very important and exciting group of stakeholders for the academic community to engage with. We have an increasingly educated and intellectually sophisticated population, thirsty for new knowledge and to engage with scholarly research outputs. They seek access to knowledge and new research – especially when that research has been supported by public money. In many cases they are also looking to repackage that knowledge for presentation to others – be they students, policy makers, managers or a local discussion group. Free access and reuse are important for this group.

Meeting the expectations of these three ‘user’ stakeholder groups requires a fundamental restructuring of the legacy publishing and dissemination processes. A genuine danger is that the interests of the legacy production stakeholders dominate through the transition process and we don’t end up achieving the expectations of the user groups. One of the fundamental difficulties with the Finch report was that the working group was overly concerned with not disrupting the established ‘stakeholders’ within the production process, and so their interests and concerns have been allowed to dominate and distort the transition process for OA articles.

Finally there are the research funding/employment institutions (including universities) who are becoming increasingly aware that the weakening of the exclusive dissemination contracts pervasive in the ‘legacy’ publishing process provides numerous strategic opportunities for them (targeting/repackaging research output to alternative user groups, increasing institutional awareness, etc) as well as some challenges (assessing impact etc). In many cases they are seeking new and innovative methods for disseminating research, and for this to be accessible and discoverable to the desired user groups – even if it looks ‘unorthodox’.

3. What are the characteristics of monographs that should be retained in any new system?

– Coherent presentation of an extended and extensive argument – allowing a fully developed thesis and intellectual argument to be articulated and supported by the author.

– A definitive entity that can be referenced, accessed and discovered as the author intended on publication, both now and in the future.

– Accessibility to the publication by readers, unconstrained or controlled by the author or other third parties.

4. What does the optimal future of the monograph look like?

Whatever researchers and readers want it to look like.

Actually – that is a deeper answer than it may first appear. The beauty and power of digital dissemination is that a vast array of different possibilities are emerging for a publication. We are no longer limited to a process of melting metal and transporting paper products to disseminate our findings. This is transformative, and allows future scholars immense opportunities for undertaking and articulating their research in different ways. What is appropriate in one setting will not be in another – researchers need to be able to embrace the appropriate tools. It is no longer necessary for all our cars to be black.

Similarly OA and digital publishing empowers the reader to transform publications into formats they prefer, and to engage with the research in ways they wish, rather than taking what they are given.

It is of vital importance that the process created during the transition process recognises and enables this flexibility and diversity – as opposed to creating ‘straight-jackets’ for research outputs to comply to.


About rupertgatti

Dr. Rupert Gatti is a co-founder and co-director of Open Book Publishers. He is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he is a Director of Studies in Economics. His published academic work includes microeconomic analysis of competition in online markets, game theory and search theory. He has held visiting positions at MIT and University of Florence, acted as an Economic Advisor on several EU competition studies, is on the advisory board of a range of Open Access initiatives and is a frequently invited speaker on the OA movement. Email
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