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Open-access books need more support from universities

Image: xijian, via Getty images

Lack of leadership has helped outdated approaches and misconceptions to persist, says Lucy Barnes

The consultation on the open-access policy for the 2029 Research Excellence Framework launched last month to a wave of criticism from academics about its proposal to include books. 

The fears expressed about the REF policy included an inability to meet the cost of publication fees, the loss of royalties, the death of academic publishing and the destruction of certain disciplines.

Despite the funding bodies’ assurances that trade books are out of scope and that repository routes are permitted, the arguments continue. Not only are there a number of misconceptions deriving from a lack of familiarity with open-access book publishing, but authors are concerned for mixed and sometimes contradictory reasons.

Some academics object to making their work freely available because they anticipate high sales. Others believe their work to be too niche to garner broad interest or too specialist for many to understand. 

Others argue that open access, rather than helping their career by bringing more readers, will threaten it by making it more difficult to publish the authoritative monograph that is so important for hiring, promotion and—of course—the REF. In subjects where third-party materials such as images are important, there are fears that licences for open-access publication may be unaffordable.

Collective funding models

Many of these problems already have solutions. ‘Born-open’ presses, including Open Book Publishers, where I work, have pioneered diamond open-access models, funded by a library membership programme so that no author or institution has to pay high fees.

A growing number of publishers, large and small, have adopted such collective models, including at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, the University of Liverpool, the Central European University and the Open Book Collective’s community of presses. Even commercial publishers such as Taylor & Francis and Bloomsbury are beginning to explore collective funding. 

Research England, meanwhile, has sent a strong signal about its preferred direction for scholarly book publishing by giving millions of pounds to an international project called Community-Led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs.

As for other objections: recent research has shown that making a digital book free does not prevent it from selling hard copies and that open-access books receive ‘exponentially’ greater use than closed-access titles, with potential benefits for visibility and citation

And although some third-party materials are more expensive to reuse in open publications, this is not always the case and the stock of openly available images is growing. 

University leadership

There are strong ethical arguments for open access, and many different types of reader will engage with academic research when given the chance. 

However, a successful transition to open access for books requires top-down mandates to be accompanied by investment in diamond models from the people in universities who decide strategies and spending. The big legacy presses, by and large, offer open access only as an expensive add-on, funded via author fees—a reality that underlies much of authors’ concerns. 

As long as authors continue to win prestige for publishing with these presses, and enough universities are prepared to subsidise fees of £10,000 per book or more, such publishers have no incentive to develop alternative approaches. Authors are not well served by the high fees charged by legacy presses, particularly not within a culture of assessment and promotion that is still perceived to reward those who publish with them.

At a recent event on the future of humanities publishing, Steven Hill of Research England argued that the REF had established a publisher-neutral assessment system—but many authors still see things differently and often ask whether our books are “eligible for the REF”.

University leadership is missing in action when it comes to open-access books. Authors need more guidance about the potential for reaching new audiences and the possibilities of more innovatively presented digital research. They also need more diamond routes to publication and the assurance that their career will not suffer if they choose a less prestigious press. 

If authors and universities demand better of publishers, and collective funding models are shown to be viable, the pressure to move away from author-fee models will grow. And if universities want to see diamond models proliferate, they must redirect funding towards them and show both presses and authors that this is a viable publishing route. 

Open-access books can bring enormous benefits—but they won’t be achieved by mandates alone. 

Lucy Barnes is a senior editor and outreach coordinator at Open Book Publishers

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight