Colleges, Libraries and Presses Team Up to Publish Open Scholarship (And Rethink Model)

Colleges, Libraries and Presses Team Up to Publish Open Scholarship (And Rethink Model)

Nobody ever published scholarly monographs in the humanities and social sciences to get rich. But these days the question is how publishers can afford to produce them at all, especially as the main customers for those books—academic libraries—face ever-shrinking budgets, and the open-access movement has pumped up expectations that scholarship should be shared as widely and cheaply as possible.

Still, colleges and universities expect professors in humanities and social sciences to write and publish monographs to prove their professional worth. (In other words, it’s still publish or perish.) Ebooks seem like a natural part of the solution—but they still require skill and labor to produce and distribute, and somebody has to pay.

The problem involves many players—a fact that’s not lost on universities, libraries, and publishers. And there’s a growing sense that collective action is necessary to fix it.

The latest example of this growing partnership spirit is a just-announced venture from the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Association of American University Presses (AAUP).

The project has an unwieldy name—the AAU/ARL/AAUP Open Access Monograph Publishing Initiative—but a straightforward goal. It aims to publish “free, open access, digital editions of peer-reviewed and professionally edited monographs” in the humanities and social sciences, using funds from participating universities. “We’re trying to put together a coalition of the willing,” says Peter Berkery, executive director of the AAUP.

“Most are well aware that the train has left the station with regard to open access, and the landscape is moving digital,” says Jessica Sebeok, associate vice president and counsel for policy at AAU. “The challenge is finding the right equilibrium.”

The traditional producer-consumer relationship between university presses and libraries has shifted. A number of presses now report to their university libraries, a trend that has been under way for several years now.

“What’s been good to see is strong negotiations among the three parties,” says Doug Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, which has signed up to take part. “That itself takes us a long way past where we were a decade ago.”

Twelve universities have committed to the AAU/ARL/AAUP project so far, including Emory, Michigan State, NYU, Penn State, and Virginia Tech. To participate, they agree to pony up a “baseline grant” of $15,000 that will underwrite an open-access digital monograph of 90,000 words or less. (The grant amount and word count are negotiable depending on the press and project.) Universities agree to subsidize at least 3 monographs a year through the program, and to stick with it for at least 5 years.

As of late March, about 60 university presses had signed on to be involved—nearly half of the AAUP’s member presses. They include big operations like Oxford University Press, as well as smaller and mid-size presses including the University of Akron Press, the Johns Hopkins University Press, NYU Press, and the University of Virginia Press.

Everyone involved stresses that it’s early days yet and that many details still need to be worked out. The AAUP’s Peter Berkery says the first books aren’t likely to emerge from the pipeline until 2018.

One Among Many

Still, the AAU/ARL/AAUP experiment is worth noting not only for its hybrid mix of library, press, and university support but as part of an expanding series of experiments in the scholarly-communication world.

The University of California Press’s OA monograph program, Luminos, has been up and running since 2015. It shares costs among “all parties who benefit from publication—author or institution, publisher, and libraries.” Knowledge Unlatched, the brainchild of publishing veteran Frances Pinter, operates on a crowd-funded model in which libraries pool money to “unlatch” designated academic books and have them published open access.

As such projects have taken shape, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—long an influential player in determining what happens in the scholarly communication world—has been funding a series of grants to help presses develop the infrastructure they need to produce high-quality, digital monographs. “Those investments that Mellon made were a precondition to what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Berkery says.

Minnesota’s press just debuted the beta version of one Mellon-funded digital-publishing tool. Called Manifold, it’s designed as a sort of out-of-the-box publishing platform for interactive digital monographs. Manifold can ingest ePub files of a book (it works with other formats too) and add layers that turn those files into an interactive ebook, with annotation and sharing tools, Armato says. Two books, including a monograph on metagaming, are already published on the project website.

Another press with extensive OA publishing experience is MIT Press. Amy Brand, the press’s director, estimates that one in 10 of the press’s books is published under open access. “We’re in high experimental mode, trying all kinds of things,” she says. One example: a collaborative, open digital-publishing platform called PubPub.org, which is currently in beta.

Brand has learned that a book published open access doesn’t have to be a money-loser. The press’s top seller this year in print is an OA textbook that anyone can download for free. The book, called Deep Learning, is an 800-page behemoth on a currently hot topic. The length of the book may have persuaded many readers to invest in print rather than trying to find their way through hundreds of digital pages.

Brand sees no reason to treat an open-access monograph any less seriously than a traditional print book. “One of the things I find kind of fascinating about the conversations about open access is it’s just a business model,” she says. “Whether something is published open or not shouldn’t be any indication of its quality.” (The organizers of the AAU/ARL/AAUP undertaking note that the editorial process, including peer review, will remain the same as for traditionally published books.)

MIT’s press and the MIT Libraries have been working on their own mini-experiment in how to publish open-access monographs. The libraries are taking a small portion of their collections budget and using it to support a new MIT Press series on networked technologies.

It’s a “very targeted and it’s very contained” experiment, says Greg Eow, associate director for collections at MIT Libraries. But it represents a significant shift in how libraries see their role in the scholarly publishing workflow.

Eow invokes Lorcan Dempsey of OCLC’s idea of the “inside-out library”—one that makes resources flow outward rather than simply taking them in. “Our mental maps are about buying ebooks,” Eow says. “If libraries can use their collections budgets and their subventions to actually publish them, that’s the way forward.”

Pressure Points and Price Tags

For Scott L. Waugh, the AAU/ARL/AAUP venture arrives at a critical moment. He’s executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California at Los Angeles, which has signed up. He was also part of the AAU group that helped put it together.

“Libraries and scholarly presses are under tremendous pressure,” he says. “Getting things published is getting more and more difficult. The shift from paper to digital causes a certain amount of dislocation.”

Waugh notes the movement among universities to adopt policies that encourage faculty members to embrace open access. UCLA is one of many that have done so, along with the whole California system. Now it’s “debating how to fund the open access policies that it has in place,” Waugh says.

It’s less clear how many scholarly authors in the humanities and social sciences—not to mention the tenure-and-promotion committees they need to impress—are clamoring to publish digital open-access monographs. “That’s the one nut we still need to crack,” says Elliott Shore, the executive director of ARL.

Professional associations like the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association likely have a role to play here. With the rise of digital humanities and multimedia scholarship, demand, or at least acceptance, is likely to grow, especially as tools and pricing options improve.

Individually, programs like the AAU/ARL/AAUP venture don’t take up a lot of space on the scholarly publishing landscape. If enough of them crop up, though, they could collectively reshape it. Waugh says, “It’s one step in a process that’s going to require many, many steps.”

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