Alastair Horne reports on an online discussion with UCL Press and seven researchers who have published open access books
Open access book publishing has been gaining momentum over the past few years across the entire scholarly publishing sector - both commercial and not-for-profit, both new and established. Last week, I ran an online discussion with UCL Press, the UK's first fully open access university press, and seven researchers who had published open access books to find out more about their experiences.
Our panellists comprised authors who'd published with a range of presses. Paul Breen and Christian Fuchs had published books with University of Westminster Press, for which Christian had been involved in setting up and now editing a series. Haidy Geismar, Bob Sheil, and Laura Vaughan had published with UCL Press, and Owen Davies with Palgrave, part of Springer Nature; Jennifer Fredette's monograph was published by Temple University Press with support from Knowledge Unlatched.
The opportunity to make their work more openly available was a vital factor in these authors' decisions to publish open access. As an anthropologist, Haidy was keen to ensure that the communities she'd worked with in her research should be able to read it, while Paul wanted to make his study of professional development available to the language teachers it was written for and about, who rarely have access to budgets for professional development. Laura was motivated by the possibilities of international impact, particularly in low income countries, while for Paul it was "all about dissemination". Owen's research project had been funded by the Wellcome Trust, a keen supporter of open access publication, and so the decision was made to publish all outputs as an OA series.
For Christian, the decision was part of a wider support for a fairer academic publishing system "not controlled by corporate monopolies", while Jennifer had, as a graduate student, sold merchandise for a musician who had built a following by releasing his music under creative commons licences; that got her thinking about open access, and her editor at Temple University Press had supported her and made it happen.
Open - and accessible
Alongside third-party permissions and assumptions about the greater value attached to publishing's more traditional models, the biggest challenge publishing open access had brought our authors was that their work needed to be not just open access, but accessible too. Writing for a wider audience brought with it a heightened awareness of the need to, in Laura's words, "manage the balance between readability and… the precision of academic writing". Haidy saw this as creating a new academic style, clearer and with references moved into footnotes; Paul noted that it connected with a culture in which academics were increasingly using mainstream media for public engagement.
The sustainability of open access economic models was also a concern, with Laura wondering whether all universities could afford to support them, and Christian arguing for collective funding models - like Knowledge Unlatched's - that would mitigate some of the disadvantages experienced by academics in the global south, for whom processing charges could be prohibitively expensive. Owen suggested that humanities research councils should allow publication costs to be included in research grants, but Christian felt that such an approach would exacerbate existing inequalities, even in the UK, and argued instead for separate public funding for not-for-profit open access publishers.
Publishing open access had been a positive experience for all our authors, helping them achieve their aims of a wider readership. Many had achieved impressive download figures, and Owen's comments about the value of being able to reach "audiences unable physically or income-wise to access knowledge" were supported by Laura's observation that her book Suburban Urbanities had been widely used for teaching, including in the Global South, and in planning debates in New Zealand; Bob added that people mentioned the Fabricate series at "pretty much every conference, symposium, or school I go to".
Our authors had tips for researchers considering publishing their own work open access. Laura urged them to check publishers' credentials - especially the services provided and their copyright terms - and Haidy emphasised the importance of establishing common definitions of open access from the start. Christian encouraged researchers to publish with a not-for-profit publisher, like the new university presses, while Jennifer recommended working with an academic press that has chosen to work with KU to apply for OA book funding through its library pledging scheme.
Looking to the future, everybody saw a growing role for open access in monograph publishing. Christian and Laura both expected it to become the dominant model, though the role of for-profit publishers remained uncertain: Owen, while welcoming open access, was keen that it should not undermine trade models of academic publishing, which "can reach audiences that aren't interested in OA"; like Paul, he saw REF as one of the major drivers of any change. Haidy suggested that the maintenance of digital infrastructure would become increasingly important - who would own and curate the access points to open access knowledge, such as search engines and repositories.
Perhaps we should finish, though, with Paul's call to action - "The more of us get involved in #OA academic publishing and chart its successes to others then the greater the role it is likely to play in the future" - and Jennifer's positive conclusion: "Frankly, who doesn't want to see a public that reads more nuanced, research-based scholarship?"