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The Economics of Flipping Back-List Book Titles into Open Access: Digitization at Cornell University and De Gruyter

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A staff member prepares an open book from the Sir John Coape Sherbrooke fonds for a digital photograph, Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, November 22, 2013 | © Courtesy of BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives.

The digitization of out-of-print book titles incurs costs that Open Access projects tend to depend on external funding to cover, while hybrid models promise higher efficiency and larger scope.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.


As a press release by George Lowery has announced, the Cornell University Press (CUP), established in 1869, but actively operating since 1930, has received a second grant amounting to 100,000 USD from the United States’ National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supporting its Open Access (OA) book digitization initiative, Cornell Open, on April 4, 2017. According to this announcement, this grant is intended to be dispensed for the project of digitizing 57 back-list book titles in humanities and social sciences, such as literary criticism and political science, to make them openly accessible to the general public locally and internationally. This project is intended to bring the list of its Open Access digitized out-of-print titles to 77.

Assuming that the previous, 2016 grant that the CUP has received from the NEH and Mellon Foundation has been financed to the same tune as the 2017 one, it can be concluded that the year before this digitization project has demanded 5,000 USD per title, to flip its back-list books into Open Access. For 2017, this per-title cost of making out-of-print books freely accessible in digital form has fallen to 1,754 USD, which represents a significant rise in efficiency that this laudable OA project demonstrates. At the same time, the scope of this project remains limited, as it plans to extend the list of its digitized OA back-list titles to 150 only by 2019. Though the 20 titles that have already been re-published under OA licenses have been extensively downloaded internationally, such as over 25,000 times from more than 152 countries, this example of flipping back-list publications into OA demonstrates the dependence of this initiative on external funding and the limited scope of the titles that become thus accessible.

By contrast, on September 5, 2017, Eric Merkel-Sobota has released the news that De Gruyter’s digital book archive will be expanded from its current list of 10,000 digitized out-of-print books to 40,000 titles by 2020. More specifically, De Gruyter’s digital book archive is planned to encompass all of its out-of-print titles from 1749, when the foundational book-printing institution has set up its shop, to the present day. As in the case of the CUP’s digitization initiative, De Gruyter Book Archive will include titles of seminal significance for human and social sciences, e.g., Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures published by Mouton, currently De Gruyter Mouton, in 1957. By the end of 2017, De Gruyter’s digitization drive will add 3,000 to its online book archive. The primary difference of De Gruyter’s digitization initiative from that of the CUP is that it will serve hybrid, on-demand and subscription models of access to these back-list titles, whereas the CUP has chosen OA as its preferred format, which has made it imperative to rely on governmental and private funding to launch its initiative.

In other words, important as they are, OA back-list digitization projects are likely to remain limited in scope, which leaves room for commercial digital book archive solutions, due to their economic ability to independently finance digitization.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: A staff member prepares an open book from the Sir John Coape Sherbrooke fonds for a digital photograph, Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, November 22, 2013 | © Courtesy of BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives.

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