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Photo by K Alexander from PUYCELSI, FRANCE - AUGUST 13: These boxes of free books were scattered around the village=


Photo by K. Alexander (2011) via Flickr. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The challenges of OA are well documented. For publishers, perhaps the most obvious is the question of sustainability. OA aims to make research more accessible, but who will bear the cost of this? Publications still need to be peer reviewed, edited, typeset and distributed. How can a publisher maintain quality in all these areas while being true to the goals of OA? Although much discussion of OA focuses on the high profits made by large commercial publishing houses, small and not-for-profit presses are also grappling with the economics of OA. As Kate Worlock points out, some learned societies rely on journal sales to fund their other scholarly activities. Small presses may use income from traditional publishing to fund more innovative and risky ventures. If revenue from traditional sources decreases or dries up, these organisations will need to find new ways to cover their costs.

In addition to traditional publishing costs, most OA models also entail some new costs. Michele Myatt Quinn demonstrates that unless OA replaces traditional publishing altogether, these new costs are on top of, not instead of, current expenses. In the “Green OA” model, libraries create and maintain repositories while continuing their subscriptions to traditional journals. Under “Gold OA”, individual scholars (or their universities) usually pay a fee to the publisher, who then makes their work available free of charge. Although interest in OA has been spurred in part by the “serials pricing crisis” (i.e., the rapidly rising subscription prices of many academic journals), both models may in fact result in higher costs for universities and academic libraries, at least in the short term.

The various models of OA also come with ethical hazards. As Lin lin Zhao explains, the “author pays” model involves a fundamental change in traditional publishing relationships. Previously there was a “triangular” relationship between scholars, publishers and libraries, with libraries providing the publishers’ main source of revenue. Under Gold OA, researchers themselves become the publishers’ potential “customers”. Quinn observes that “the business model shifts from subscribers as clients who can take their money elsewhere if quality declines … to authors who will pay regardless of the content or quality”. There is a risk that standards may be eroded, as some publishers promise quick turn-around times and high acceptance rates in order to collect author fees. In the most extreme cases, “predatory publishers” use spam emails, false credentials and other dodgy practices to lure scholars to submit to untested or unscholarly journals. (Anyone with a university email address will be familiar with these chirpy, ego-stroking invitations to make your mark – for a fee. Just this week I was flattered to be invited to be a “Lead Guest Editor” for an international journal of medical science.)

Graphic by Monica Berger =

Graphic by Monica Berger via Just Publics.

Green OA involves no exchange of money, but nonetheless raises its own quality concerns. Because authors can deposit their papers in repositories before they’ve been professionally edited and fact-checked, publishers and researchers may worry about imperfect or inaccurate versions being disseminated.

In response to these challenges, OA advocates have proposed a range of solutions. Rebecca Kennison and Lisa Norberg have suggested a central funding pool and a system of grants; universities would contribute to the fund according to their size, and scholars could apply for grants to cover the costs of OA publication. Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandolav suggest a third model, “Diamond OA”, in which state-funded, not-for-profit publishers would take the place of commercial publishing houses. This model acknowledges the crucial importance of high quality editing and production, but removes the expectation that revenue from sales or subscriptions should cover these costs. They envisage a future in which “publishing jobs become public service jobs and academic knowledge a common good”.

Whichever model of OA is adopted, Lin lin Zhao makes a compelling case for the need for greater “OA literacy” among researchers, librarians and publishers – and for a role for libraries in fostering this. She argues that academic libraries are well placed to help scholars to navigate OA, distinguish between reputable and less reputable OA publications, and understand their OA options and obligations. Academic librarians already support researchers with a wide range of help and expertise, as this infographic from Fisher Library illustrates. Encouraging OA literacy would seem to fall naturally within this remit.

Most of this discussion relates to journal publishing. What of book publishers such as Sydney University Press? This year, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) published a report on monographs and OA. Amongst the report’s key findings was the encouraging conclusion that monographs remain “a vitally important and distinctive vehicle for research communication, and must be sustained in any moves to open access … At their best, monographs provoke debate, can shift paradigms, and provide a focal point for research.”

The report noted that “open access offers both short- and long-term advantages for monograph publication and use”, but that “there is no single dominant emerging business model for supporting open-access publishing of monographs; a range of approaches will coexist for some time and it is unlikely that any single model will emerge as dominant. Policies will therefore need to be flexible.” Some business models for OA monographs are similar to those for journals. The author may pay the publisher a fee to make the book available OA, either at the time of initial publication or after a period of embargo. Some publishers make “basic” versions of their monographs available OA, while charging for print versions and for “premium” digital versions complete with hyperlinks, multimedia and the like. Some have even used crowdfunding to cover their costs.

The same worries about academic and editorial standards apply to books as to journals. To ensure that quality is maintained, scholarly publishers in Europe have formed the Open Access Publishing in European Networks (OAPEN) Foundation. Founded in 2011, OAPEN maintains an online library and publication platform for OA books, with over 1000 titles by 35 publishers in a range of European languages (including Latin!). By insisting on editorial rigour and transparency, OAPEN aims to be a sort of “seal of approval” for OA monographs. As Ronald Snijder of Amsterdam University Press explains, “only books that have been published through a system of scholarly quality control are accepted and the peer review procedure of the publishers is published within the Library.” This digital library is more than a repository: as Snijder notes, “The primary motive to publish books in open access is to improve dissemination and usage.” It is not enough to make publications available – publishers need to tell potential readers what is out there. OAPEN does this via social media, by providing metadata to libraries and aggregators, and by marketing directly to academic libraries, their suppliers, and various content management providers.

Which brings us, inevitably, back to the question of sustainability. What effect does OA have on sales of scholarly monographs, and is it a viable option for scholarly publishers? In the case of Amsterdam Univeristy Press, Snijder says, the effect on sales appears to be “not much”: AUP’s OA titles sell as well as, or even better than, their non-OA titles. Of course, each book and each publishing house is different, and decisions about OA will necessarily take into account a title’s audience, aims, grant requirements and so on. OA may never be the right choice for every title. At a time when traditional sales of scholarly monographs seem to be declining and print runs falling, however, OA provides some scholars with a way to reach a wider readership than they otherwise might. As researchers, publishers and librarians come to terms with the various challenges and risks of OA, they are raising important questions about publishing, scholarship and how we might re-imagine the relationship between the two.

This post is part of Sydney University Press’ celebration of International Open Access Week.

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