Open access to research publications has in recent years emerged as a major issue for academics, publishers and funders. Discussion and policy have, however, overwhelmingly focused on articles in journals. That is where funders, including HEFCE and RCUK, have announced mandates which require open access, and with most academic journals now published in digital format it is easier to think about making them open access.
There has been only limited discussion of how open access might apply to books, even though these are an important way in which academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences communicate their research. This classically means a monograph, but research books also include works such as scholarly editions, books of research essays by different authors, and scholarly exhibition catalogues.
I say only limited discussion, but underneath the surface there has been a great deal of paddling going on. This has meant debates about how monographs (I’ll use the term from now on to refer to all research books) might be made available on an open access basis, and a variety of initiatives to find financially and organisationally viable ways of doing so.
The Finch Report on open access focused above all on journal articles, and acknowledged that more work was needed to understand the issues with respect to monographs. HEFCE explicitly recognised this when it announced that it would not require them to be open access for the next REF.
And that is where I came in. Late in 2012 HEFCE invited me to lead some work on the implications of open access for monographs. The aim was not to come up with Finch-style policy recommendations, because the development of open access for books is at too early a stage for that. What was needed was some consultation, collecting of information and thinking with a view to producing a report that would be helpful to those interested in developing policy though not in itself setting out what policy might be.
I readily accepted the invitation. Book-centred disciplines have been part of my life as an academic (I’m a historian) and in my roles in higher education and research management. The arts, humanities, and social sciences matter to me, and I appreciate the importance of securing the future of the research book in a changing world of scholarly communication.
I put together an Expert Reference Group drawn from academics, librarians, publishers, funders and others to support me in this work. Together we set about a project that from the outset was not about open access alone, but about the whole position of the monograph today. If we didn’t understand the role of the monograph in research activity and communication, if we didn’t understand its function in the cultures of disciplines and departments, if we didn’t know what was happening to the monograph today, then we really couldn’t begin to understand what open access might mean for it.
My report to HEFCE (and to the AHRC and ESRC who supported the project) was published on 22 January. It covers a lot of ground in exploring the key issues that need to be understood by anyone wanting to think about policy in this area. It needs some 70 pages plus annexes to engage with the reality of what books mean, as well as the potential and the challenges of their moving to open access. The report, therefore, has much to say about the world of research and publication in universities.
As a humanities scholar I’m used to reporting complexity where complexity exists, as it does here. Some things are nonetheless clear. Talk of the monograph in crisis is hard to sustain – they’re being published in ever-increasing numbers, academics are writing and reading them, and libraries and individuals are buying them. That doesn’t mean that all is rosy, but it is important to see open access as an opportunity rather than as a response to a crisis.
It is essential that any future for open access monographs sustains their fundamental importance in most arts, humanities and social science disciplines. That means better technology to enable many of the material qualities of the book that go beyond words alone (the format, images, layout, references and much else) to be retained in a digital future. Though few academics told us that they enjoyed reading a whole research monograph on a screen – if they like it they buy or borrow a print edition. Printed books will not disappear.
It also means being flexible about the kind of licences required for books on open access, it means overcoming the potential high charges that owners of third-party rights (to images, texts, bars of music or dance notation) might impose, and it means finding the business models that will make it work. On this last issue there are many experiments underway and it seems to me improbable that any one of them will become dominant – the future will be one with a diversity of business models.
There is much more in the report and I really look forward to its discussion, and to see how HEFCE and others will take the issues forward. Open access carries with it great potential for larger readership and easier access, and also for new ways of engaging with and using the results of research. I was struck by the constructive approach that I found in responses from academics to the question of open access for monographs.
There were, of course, anxieties and policy needs to take these into account, but there was also real recognition of the potential. My advice to HEFCE and other policy makers is that there is much to be gained by working with the grain of academic opinion, and much to be lost by not doing so. I look forward to the debate!