Is There a Future for Open Access in the Humanities & Social Sciences?
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, deciding whether to accept full-cost publishing grants that require open digital editions of long-form humanities and social sciences (HSS) monographs may prove to be the most important challenge university presses face over the next twelve months.
While open access (OA) has been a feature of the scholarly publishing landscape for quite some time now, largely it has played out in the realm of short-form scholarship (i.e., journals), and therefore also predominantly among scholars in STEM (science, technology, engineering, & medicine) disciplines. True, there have been pilot projects—such as Knowledge Unlatched and, more recently, the University of California Press’ Luminos platform, as well as numerous experiments with series or backlist titles at many university presses and offerings from commercial presses. Still, these initiatives so far account for only a small fraction of annual monographic output.
That may be about to change.
In March of this year, a task force comprised of representatives from the Association of American Universities, the Association of Research Libraries, and the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) invited a handful of institutions to participate in a pilot project that would fund full-cost publishing grants for HSS monographs as long as the publisher agrees to produce an open digital edition of the work. The details of the program are still being worked out and each stakeholder group has particular interests and concerns that will need to be addressed for the project to be successful. Still, the possibility that, as a result of the pilot, upwards of 200 scholars annually soon could be in a position to open their long-form work sustainably is significant.
Can OA Monographs Maintain Quality Scholarship?
For the institutions funding these monographs, there will be material concerns that editorial processes and publishing standards remain unchanged. Some will even ask how university presses can assure this result. While part of the answer to that complex question remains under discussion, it’s fortunate that AAUP in June released its Best Practices for Peer Review, a handbook for monograph publishers. The result of two years of collaboration and consultation, the handbook distills exactly the process safeguards monograph funders will be seeking. AAUP membership, at least, is contingent upon presses commitment to editorial quality standards benchmarked by this handbook.
How Much Will Long-Form OA Cost?
For university presses, the amount of publishing costs covered by such grants is a matter of obvious interest. The question of exactly what it costs to publish a monograph has been the subject of several recent studies conducted by Indiana University, the University of Michigan, and ITHAKA. While the averages uncovered in those studies are good starting points, the ITHAKA methodology demonstrated emphatically that many factors pertaining to individual book titles can vary that cost dramatically. AAUP is currently working to develop a tool (funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) based on that study’s methodology that will allow presses to track their own figures and get a better sense of what is needed for full-service OA publishing. While OA appeals strongly to many university presses for it’s potential to increase dissemination of important scholarship, it is so far unclear whether current OA platforms allow for the kind of discovery that gets a book to its audience.
Will Humanities Scholars Embrace OA?
And then of course there are the scholars. Largely, OA is an unknown and unproven quantity as applied to long-form scholarship. While OA appears a permanent fixture in STEM, it’s important to remember that journals aren’t monographs—and that humanists aren’t scientists. If scholar-authors or scholar-readers fail to ascertain sufficient benefit (including, especially, promotion and tenure considerations, of which monograph publication remains a critical component) in migrating from print to OA, all of the efforts of other stakeholders in the scholarly communications ecosystem will be for naught; without the embrace of scholars OA monographs cannot proliferate.
Will All Scholars Be Able to Access OA Monographs?
Finally, a serious concern across the entire academy is ensuring that independent scholars, scholars from underfunded institutions, and scholars from the Global South continue to have access to the ecosystem of scholarly publishing on a footing commensurate with the quality of their scholarship.
Benefits of OA: Discovery & Knowledge Dissemination
In the right context open access clearly offers several potential benefits to scholars and presses. Based on the impact OA has had on journals, there’s good reason to believe scholarship can be more discoverable on the web—though this remains yet to be proven for long-form scholarship. And of course the broad dissemination of scholarship afforded by open web access is consistent with the missions and values of university presses.
Of course, an open digital edition doesn’t preclude print sales. And there’s some evidence to suggest that OA titles will continue to sell print copies in about the same range as traditional monographs—at least initially—and perhaps as a result of improved discoverability. Still, these experiences are preliminary and inconsistent.
Even if this most recent open access monograph initiative fails to achieve critical mass—there are key issues still to resolve, and the initiative’s sponsors would like to enlist the participation of more institutions—the substantial groundwork that’s been laid in recent years is poised to achieve critical mass, suggesting that the interest in expanding open access to university press monographs is only likely to grow in the months ahead.