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Open Access for Monographs is Here. But Are we Ready for It?

By John Sherer, Spangler Family Director of the University of North Carolina Press. He is the chair of the Association of University Presses Open Access Committee and is the Primary Investigator in the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded Sustainable History Monograph Pilot. This post originally appeared on The Scholarly Kitchen.

At the University of North Carolina Press, we recently completed a four-year initiative to support the publication of open access (OA) monographs by university presses in the discipline of history. Through the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot (SHMP)—generously funded by the Mellon Foundation—we published fifty-nine titles with nineteen different presses. SHMP was unique among OA initiatives in that it did more than simply provide offset funding. It required an intervention in publication workflows using our publishing services platform, Longleaf Services, where university presses and their authors had to submit to a standardized process with templated outputs that aligned with the requirements of digital platforms. The pilot recorded successes and challenges indicative of ongoing and future needs, some of them general to all OA publishing and some specific to OA monograph publishing.

There were several areas of encouraging news. The titles we published are being accessed and used exponentially more than digital editions that are behind paywalls. And standardization significantly reduced the costs required to create a high-quality university press monograph. But there were also discouraging results. Authors and presses remain deeply cautious about OA as a legitimate, sustainable mode of publishing. They are even more skeptical about the trade-offs associated with standardization. And we learned that there are serious gaps in the infrastructure needed to disseminate open scholarship efficiently and measure its impact.

The Obstacles Facing an OA Publisher

Our first area of setbacks and challenges were technical and knowledge based, ranging from the lack of availability of workflow tools to support the unique affordances of open digital publications, to the unique challenges of dissemination of OA metadata and digital files, to a dearth of best practices in how to measure usage of OA monographs.

We experienced significant challenges in managing metadata for our presses. The first issue was that OA metadata has unique needs, requiring the creation of new fields and rubrics that paywalled metadata doesn’t consider (for example, some content management systems cannot support a zero-priced product or store a DOI or ORCID). Additionally, commercial aggregators (like JSTOR, EBSCO, ProQuest) distribute book metadata for free because they will generate income on a sales commission. But if a press removes the sales commission possibility, what is the incentive for an aggregator to distribute the enriched metadata? This put us in the surprising scenario where metadata for OA editions could actually circulate less widely than metadata for paywalled e-titles. To overcome this, we had to create a supplemental metadata work-flow connecting presses and OA platforms. After we began our project, an independent initiative (funded by Arcadia) developed a tool called Thoth to try and address this set of challenges around metadata.

Beyond the distribution of metadata, we also had to build a workflow to distribute eBook files to OA platforms. In a paywalled environment, a press can use a digital asset management system (like Ingram’s CoreSource or Chicago Distribution Center’s BiblioVault) as a one-stop tool for eBook dissemination. But these commercial vendors don’t have connectivity with OA-only platforms like the Internet Archive, OAPEN, or an author’s institutional repository. This became another example of how distribution of an OA eBook is actually more laborious than a paywalled title.

Once we had published books, of course we wanted to measure their usage in open environments. We were once again surprised to learn that there are no best practices for how to define and measure a moment of reader usage. We relied on our six OA platforms to supply us with what data they could, and then we had to manually normalize it. Since SHMP was initiated, another Mellon-funded initiative has begun (the OA eBook Data Trust) to develop standards and communities of practice around this issue.

Lastly, we noted that OA workflows are challenging for most university presses, filled with numerous one-off requirements. Even though our program helped presses significantly with metadata and final file distribution, each project felt like it was exceptional. If OA remains on the fringes as a tool for presses, it will have the added burden of being more time-consuming to execute.

Our second area of challenges were the cultural and institutional barriers of author/press concerns, and the lack of financial and administrative resources at academic institutions.

Many authors we tried to work with expressed skepticism about the project. This was reported to us second-hand through the originating press, so our feedback is anecdotal. But in a survey we commissioned, our presses ranked “author concerns” as their own biggest issue in participating in the pilot. When we drilled down on this question, templated interior and cover designs were cited the most, but close behind was an impression that an OA monograph would be viewed less favorably than a traditional print monograph would in the tenure and promotion review process. Almost one third of projects submitted to us by presses were ultimately withdrawn from consideration for these reasons. Presses also cited financial challenges as a fundamental reason why they could not publish more OA titles.

We learned that academic institutions appeared ill-prepared to support OA monographs. In a number of instances, authors were advised by colleagues or supervisors to avoid a pilot like this on the grounds that any program that could be perceived as unconventional might harm the career prospects of a historian. We also asked participating authors to seek matching subventions at their home institution to support the program. Authors frequently didn’t know who to ask, and in our final results, of the fifty-nine titles we published, only thirteen institutions had funds to support OA monographs of their faculty with the average subvention amount from them being $2,525.

The Rewards of Standardized OA Publishing

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that open digital editions get downloaded, read, and cited more than paywalled editions. Although it may be surprising just how much more they get used. Among university presses, sales are usually tracked in the low hundreds, and a highly successful monograph is one that sells more than 1000 copies. As of this writing, our fifty-nine SHMP titles have had more than 195,000 unique user engagements. Almost every title we helped presses publish exceeded 1000 usages within its first six months. After a year, it is usually more than double that and, in most cases, well over 3000 usages. These numbers are understated since we are unable to track “re-shares” of downloaded eBooks or downloads that came from authors’ own web sites or institutional repositories. <any monographs take years to find readers and our books are still in their infancy. We received in-depth reporting from JSTOR, one of the platforms where we distributed our OA eBooks. They compared the usage of SHMP titles (all of which are in the history discipline) against the paywalled history books in their full collection and SHMP titles showed an 8-fold increase over paywalled titles. And while SHMP titles made up only 4% of the JSTOR title set, it accounted for 22% of the use.

One of the keys to our model was the introduction of standardization early on in the workflow. In addition to speeding the publishing timeline, we hypothesized that it could help reduce costs. Our testing proved that we were able to reduce costs in copyediting/typesetting/file prep on average by almost 60%.[1] The savings were primarily in typesetting (because we used a templated design), cover design (again, a template), and in project management (which was less expensive because of our scale and use of an auto-composition tool).

As many presses have worked diligently to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion, they have confronted the inherently elitist and exclusionary distribution model for university press monographs. Our pricing models severely limit readership, and thus our requirements to sell enough copies of books to recover costs means that our publishing programs have privileged authors and subject areas from the wealthiest institutions and countries. The lack of institutional financial resources to support the dissemination of monographs reinforces that inequity. This is even more dire since in addition to the dramatic increase in the volume of OA usage, we are seeing usage in nations that have been historically marginalized in our marketing and dissemination efforts.

Where do we go from here?

While the benefits of OA are becoming clearer (expanded usage, better measurements of impact, and alignment with DEI goals), most presses still see financial sustainability as the biggest obstacle to publishing more OA. Furthermore, presses and authors can be extremely reluctant to embrace a standardized workflow and output, despite the possibility of saving thousands of dollars per title. And while we’re beginning to close some gaps, there is still more infrastructure that needs to be built to make OA publishing more seamless and efficient.

Some university presses have displayed admirable leadership in opening their lists (Michigan and MIT) and there’s an exciting cohort of newer, born OA presses that have the benefit of not having to convert from a legacy model. And there are new models for spreading the sources of funding like the Open Book Collective.

For our next step at UNC Press, we have been helping to develop a new initiative that is essentially a compromise between the legacy model of university press publishing and a fully -funded OA model. Path to Open is a concept modeled on the NEH Fellowship Open Book Program which provides for a three-year embargo period during which presses can participate in conventional cost-recovery activities, including selling print and consumer (e.g., Kindle) eBooks. During this time, JSTOR will be offering the digital versions of these titles to academic libraries and institutions in an exclusive subscription collection. JSTOR will pay presses an estimated $5,000 for each title put into the program. The value proposition to presses is that they can continue to use their legacy models to produce and market books during the time window when most cost recovery usually happens while ultimately making them more accessible. For libraries, they can buy a modestly priced collection of university press monographs and provide them for their patrons for three years. And at the same, they are contributing to a sharing of risk that allows everyone in the ecosystem to thrive: authors, presses, libraries, institutions, and readers everywhere.

The landscape remains wide open. OA feels like the most desirable future, but there’s still no clear roadmap for how to get there. If the first generation of OA pilots proved that OA can increase impact exponentially, the next generation of pilots need to find sustainable funding models to achieve this.

[1] Our costs for this work averaged $3,000. The recent TOME report prepared by Nancy Maron et al estimated an average of $7,040 for the same work.

e are entering the third and final year of the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot (SHMP). SHMP is an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–funded initiative to publish open digital editions of high-quality books from university presses in the field of history. Unlike other Open Access (OA) pilots, SHMP transforms the publishing process and outputs, while focusing on a single academic discipline. Led by the University of North Carolina Press and using its subsidiary, Longleaf Services, we have helped our partner presses (there are twenty-three) produce eleven monographs with another nine in active production. You can find the published books indexed on the OAPEN platform and the Internet Archive as well as many other open platforms. We have funding from Mellon to produce up to 75 of these titles.

Why do we say SHMP uniquely transforms the publishing process? The OA pilots most university presses are participating in are TOME (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem), Knowledge Unlatched (KU), and the various programs from the NEH (their backlist open book program, and the newer Fellowship OA program). But those programs are only funding experiments. Presses are expected to acquire, produce, and market books in conventional ways, but a cash stipend is provided to the press in exchange for the agreement to price their digital editions at zero. The workflow is usually print-centric, with eBooks converted from the print-ready file at the end of the publishing process. These pilots have been important in allowing presses to experiment with something that is culturally still challenging; they have provided much-needed financial subsidies to presses; and they have allowed hundreds of university press monographs to be completely open to scholars, students, and publics throughout the world.

SHMP is unique because it requires an intervention much earlier in the workflow than these other programs. We require standardization upstream because these are monographs whose primary use will likely be in digital formats. The way digital platforms display books requires standardization since the books are usually rendered as part of a network of scholarship that is discovered through common, linked digital tools. Bespoke cover and interior designs, which are vital to the traditional model of print cost-recovery, become less important than digital affordances like ORCIDs, DOIs, and robust metadata. In SHMP, we take a manuscript from a university press after it has been acquired, peer-reviewed, and otherwise credentialed by the press, and when it is ready to begin the process of copyediting, typesetting, and file creation. We manage these tasks at Longleaf and then distribute eBook files widely (most university presses don’t have distribution connections with OA platforms like OAPEN or the Internet Archive). We provide the press with a print-ready pdf they can use to put a pay-walled print edition into the marketplace. And finally, we provide the presses with both qualitative and quantitative usage data.

Now that we have built the required infrastructure and we’re beginning to help presses put books out into the world, we’re starting to draw some early conclusions.

Cultural obstacles at presses and among authors are significant.
Presses dedicate significant resources to intentionally create and market the printed book as a physical object, each one carefully (and usually quite beautifully) designed for a specific kind of print customer—although the number of print customers is ever-dwindling. It is certainly true at the University of North Carolina Press that print revenue continues to dwarf digital income. This is why it makes sense for presses to invest most of their human capital in the print side of the business. When we introduce a workflow that marginalizes the print side of the business, it is justifiably viewed with more than little suspicion.

At the same time, we’re not the first people to discover that many historians are dubious of Open Access. We’ve seen several examples where a press identified a project they felt would be a good candidate for the pilot, but the author expressed concerns about either our standardization, or even just the fact that the books would be free. One author said they were excited about the prospect of their book being widely available, especially in parts of the world that have historically been under-served by university presses. But they didn’t like the cover template, so they declined to participate. The desire to have their work widely available has its limits.

We need a better understanding of the intentions of OA subsidies.
Most of the other pilots for OA monographs have stipulated that subventions to a press need to be in the five-figure range. TOME is suggesting $15,000 per book. The KU numbers are variable, but they’ve usually approached or exceeded $10,000. The newest NEH program only allows $5,500, but a press can wait three years before making the eBook free so it’s already generated a significant amount of income before the OA edition is introduced. These are significant sums and many people have raised concerns about how well five-figure subsidies will scale when you consider the fact that university presses publish thousands of monographs annually.

But let’s look a little more closely at the money. At UNC Press, our gross revenue on specialized monographs is usually between $15,000 and $20,000. And the digital portion of that revenue is about 18%, so let’s say it tops off at $3,600 in digital income. A $15,000 stipend does more than cover our lost digital revenue. There may be some erosion in print when digital is free, but I’ll argue below that this issue requires further study. Getting a subsidy like that is a windfall to a university press, going far beyond hedging the revenue risk of making a single book OA. The question I would have for funders is whether they’re attempting to hedge the risk to a press in making an individual book open, or are they using OA as a new funding mechanism to more generally support presses? At UNC Press an amount like $15,000 to make a specialized monograph OA does more than cover the revenue risk going OA. It helps support our overall publishing program.

Digital-first workflows can drive down costs and thereby introduce new potential funding models.
Because of the standardization we’ve introduced, we have dramatically reduced costs. The Ithaka study on the cost of monograph publishing showed that many monographs cost between $25,000 and $40,000 to produce.[1] Our pilot provides $7,000 in Mellon funds to the originating press to offset their costs for acquiring a project (covering acquisition editors’ time, peer review, developmental editing, board review, etc.). We also use Mellon funds at Longleaf to cover copyediting, typesetting, and file preparation, which cost Longleaf about $4,000 per book. Thus, the total SHMP costs are $11,000 per book to put a high-quality digital file into the world and to provide the press a print-ready file that they can use to start selling print editions. For SHMP, of course, Mellon is funding all of that, but let’s imagine the press was taking on the $11,000 debt themselves. This compares very favorably to the Ithaka numbers, and if you sell any print copies at all, it reduces the net deficit even further.  A press would need to sell only about 400 copies of a $40 print edition to be at break-even. We’re beginning to show that OA, if done in a digital-first, standardized workflow, can be significantly more discoverable, usable, and sustainable than traditional print-centric monograph publishing.

These simplified calculations elide over some of the overhead expenses and marketing costs, but overhead and marketing expenses could be significantly reduced when the necessity for cost-recovery is significantly diminished. We may need fewer sales people, or accountants, or inventory managers, or customer service representatives, or auditors, if our goal is to stimulate downloads and usage instead of trying (and usually failing) to generate enough sales transactions to cover all of our costs. Can we imagine a new scalable and sustainable long-term OA monograph funding model where a press only needs to receive a $5,000 stipend and sell as few as 220 print copies (of a modestly priced print edition) to break even?

Analytics are tough.
One of our commitments to our partner presses and their authors is to deliver usage analytics. We’re attempting to collect data from at least five distribution platforms—Internet Archive, OAPEN, ProjectMUSE, Books at JSTOR, and EBSCO. Like others before us, we are discovering the challenges of collating and normalizing data from a variety of platforms. Different definitions, time-periods, and data delivery tools means there is a lot of manual work that will not scale. The good news is that early indications are that there is substantial usage going on. The manual work will be worth it.

There are challenges to building an OA overlay on an existing cost-recovery workflow.
Because our intervention is more substantial than other OA programs, we’re learning how disruptive OA generally, and our project more specifically, can be to an individual press. Everything from contract and permissions to metadata and file distribution are meaningfully different. Marketing—which is a very high overhead expense for most presses—looks very different when the goal is generating a download and usage instead of generating a sale. Publishing OA concurrently while doing traditional cost-recovery publishing sometimes feels like it requires two separate, but parallel, streams rather than one holistic workflow.

What happens to print revenue when digital is free?
We’ll be asking our publishers to provide us with print sales data so we can compare that activity against the digital usage data we’re compiling. Taken together, we will have a strong data set which we will openly publish and allow for others to perform future analysis. This strikes me as a great topic for a research project now that university presses collectively have published hundreds of new and backlist monographs via Open Access. A recent survey of Association of University Presses members suggested most presses either don’t know or don’t believe that OA has a negative impact on print sales. At UNC Press we opened a lot of our academic content in digital platforms like ProQuest, MUSE, JSTOR, and the Internet Archive during the early outbreak of the pandemic. But our year-over-year print sales actually increased during that time.

There may be a growing body of evidence suggesting that print does not decline significantly when digital is free—especially for specialized monographs. And it leads to a compelling and counterintuitive hypothesis that is in dire need of testing: If historians start their research in digital formats, but pivot to print when they do immersive reading, annotation, and other traditional forms of engagement, could you flip the conventional wisdom on its head and ask whether Open Access can lead to an increase in print sales?



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