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Solving the monograph crisis with Open Access

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Book processing charges for open access monographs may potentially bring more equality among authors, but this model needs to find some good funding solutions.

“Open access is dear to our hearts, but it can’t lead to inequality among scholars” – claimed one of the scholars participating in a research project aiming to explore opportunities for direct author subventions on open access monographs. (S)he expressed the popular apprehension that the model in which the cost of book publishing is covered by the institution hiring a book author (or his/her research funder), will exclude scholars from less wealthy institutions and independent ones.

This indeed might be a problem. However, before we think about how to solve it, it is essential look at how things are in a traditional publishing model, where the costs of book publishing are (at least partially) covered with sales revenues. Are academic authors equal here? No, and more importantly, current dominant publishing models exclude from research communication not only some authors, but also whole groups of topics.

Monograph crisis we face

Both commercial publishers and university presses aim to maximize profit (or at least minimize loss) from each published title, to sustain its existence on the market. Decreasing sales per book title (which is the result of cuts in library budgets, and prices of serials) trigger higher selectivity of managing editors. Some titles are still bought eagerly by both libraries and individuals, but it is much harder to sell even a small amount of niche titles. This results in a spreading belief that only potential best-sellers may be published. Therefore fashionable topics like gender studies are more likely to get into market, while in niche subjects even very good researchers may face exclusion. Since publishing a monograph is seen as an obligatory proof of maturity in some disciplines of humanities, monocultural publishing results in the homogenization of research by getting rid of of scholars interested in less fancy subjects. This process, labeled as the “monograph crisis” was described in details by Janneke Adema in her excellent blog post.

Freedom of openness

The open access model releases authors from an obligation to produce vogue books that will be easy to sell. When I was interviewing De Gruyter’s open access book authors, some of them told me that they have no chance to publish their books in a conventional model, because their works were not likely to generate a big sales output. Open access reverts the model by giving chances to these works that are worth investing in, in the opinion of funding bodies. These bodies usually rely on the opinions of experienced researchers and tend to choose important, rather than sexy, pieces of work.

Too expensive to be open?

However there are several problems with this model. They are rooted in the high cost of book publishing, which is substantially higher than in the case of research papers. The labour intensive editing of text increases disproportionately to its length, so the cost of editing book is bigger than the cost of editing several papers. This cost is almost impossible to bear by an individual researcher, and might also be a deal breaker for less wealthy research institutions. However, for institutions, a good solution to this problem is creating a consortium that will be able to share the costs of book publishing.

Independent researchers wanting to publish in open access with a publisher that uses book processing charges to cover costs of publishing, have to rely on grant funding. This is hard in the current environment since, in some countries, there is still less money in grants for humanities and the majority of research conducted relies on funding from research institutions and their internal staff.

In search for good solution

Therefore, to successfully implement open access in the case of monographs, we probably need national or international initiatives from policymakers that aim to provide targeted funding for this purpose. However, to make this happen we will probably need to see some good solutions tested on a local level.

In our Key Challenges of Research Communication survey we have included several questions regarding open access books funding. We asked authors who paid for book publishing, “How did you cover the most recent publication fee for your open access book?” and “How difficult was it for you to obtain money for your recent book publication fee?”. We also asked all the authors about funding sources that are going to be available for them in the near future. We will also make some follow-up in-depth interviews about this subject. Our results will be open access, so stay tuned!

Image source: Photo by אולג קובץ, licensed under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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