Back in late 2013, HEFCE announced that it would provide up to £50,000 to support English universities participating in Knowledge Unlatched, a newly developed scheme to deliver open access to research books. Along with similar support from the Scottish Funding Council and the Department of Employment and Learning (Northern Ireland), our funding helped the scheme to secure the backing of some 76 UK libraries.
The pilot enabled 28 books from 13 publishers to be made available for anyone to read and download them at no charge, and was a resounding success: after being online for just over a year, these books had been downloaded almost 50,000 times, with access provided to at least 170 countries. Such demand simply would not have been satisfied via the traditional print model, where books can be prohibitively expensive to buy.
It’s great news, therefore, that Knowledge Unlatched recently announced an expanded second round. The updated scheme will deliver open access to 78 books, with participation from twice as many publishers as the first pilot. The titles in the scheme have been carefully chosen by a selection committee of librarians, and the scheme has already attracted support from over 200 libraries across the globe.
Partnership and diversity are key
I believe that the Knowledge Unlatched scheme is particularly worth supporting, because it provides us with evidence that when the costs and benefits are balanced appropriately, libraries and publishers can work together as partners to create real change in publishing. That closer working is so important, because it is only by working together that we can design and deliver a book publishing ecosystem that works for everyone.
Perhaps even more importantly, Knowledge Unlatched also shows us that alternatives to the ‘author pays’ model for open access are viable and can be made to work in practice. People have often said to me that open access for books is too difficult because the funding for publishing charges is often not available to authors, meaning we risk good work going unpublished. Knowledge Unlatched shows us that there are other ways forward.
This is not to say that Knowledge Unlatched is the only solution. Unlike for journals, there are many different business models being tried out, as various studies have shown. But by supporting a variety of models, we have a real chance to avoid replicating the scalability problems that have affected open access for journals. We need to work together to create an environment that encourages risk-taking and diversity; this is the only way that these fledgling models for open access book publishing are going to survive to maturity and deliver sustainable solutions that can work at scale.
Libraries can sign up to the second round on the Knowledge Unlatched website. The deadline for joining is 28 February 2016.