Open Access Monographs

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Open access publishing has become an extremely hot topic in recent months. Most of the discussion has revolved around journals publishing, but monographs are not immune and this week JISC and OAPEN hosted a conference at the British Library dedicated to exploring what the open access landscape looks like for monograph authors and publishers in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

The conference was excellent – thorough and very thought-provoking, with a great line-up of speakers and sessions. Martin Hall, Vice Chancellor of the University of Salford, opened the conference by observing that at present there is a disproportionate relationship between the availability of funding for and the overall importance of the Humanities and Social Sciences. And as he rightly pointed out, if the money doesn’t work, then no publishing can happen at all. So the OA debate, and much of what was to come over the next two days, would inevitably revolve around financial viability.

The opening keynote was delivered by Jean-Claude Guédon, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Montreal and a long-time open access advocate. He talked about the sociology of the book, underscoring the human element and the nature of HSS research as a collaborative effort, a conversation, querying the role of the traditional monograph in that context. He raised questions about authorship and ownership, a theme that participants at the conference returned to regularly over the two days.

A panel on HSS after Finch put the current OA debate in some context, with panel members emphasising the need to disseminate HSS research more widely and the role OA can play in that, the role that the various funding bodies play in the debate and their position on the currently available models (green and gold; to mandate or not to mandate), and the impact on learned societies and their members. One important thing that emerged from the panel is that, although HEFCE (in the UK) seek to encourage more research to be published open access, they are not going to mandate open access publication for monographs in the next REF as the necessary infrastructures simply do not exist yet.

During the course of the conference there were various sessions in which existing OA models and platforms were presented, including those lead by the scholarly community (Open Library of Humanities, Open Book Publishers, OpenEdition, OECD Publishing, Hybrid Publishing Lab), several commercial publishers (Palgrave, Springer, Brill) and various initiatives lead by or aimed at libraries (Knowledge Unlatched, MPublishing, Open Monograph Press). The conference also saw the launch of the Directory of Open Access Books, an OAPEN initiative that seeks to improve the visibility of OA books in the supply chain.

There was a lot of discussion around the various Creative Commons licences available to authors publishing open access and to coincide with the conference OAPEN published a useful Guide to Creative Commons for HSS Monographs Authors, available here.

One highlight of the conference, for me and many others, was Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Scholarly Communication at the MLA and author of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy (NYU Press, 2011), talking about peer review and quality. As Fitzpatrick rightly observed at the beginning of her talk, discussions about OA inevitably trigger anxieties about quality. She contended that traditional modes of peer review might not be the most helpful in overcoming those anxieties and went on to describe her own experiences of open peer review, returning to the point made by Jean-Claude Guédon in his opening address that research is a collaborative activity and that the issues at the heart of the OA debate are as much to do with the social landscape of HSS research as they are to do with the technology.

On day two we divided into three strands, the first of which was aimed at authors looking for ways to publish open access (and which saw a lively discussion about how to identify a reputable OA publisher). The second strand looked at issues to do with OA books in the supply chain, which at the moment is still a significant stumbling block. The third strand explored the role of funders and policy makers.

The conference concluded with a keynote by Cameron Neylon, Advocacy Director at the Public Library of Science (PLoS), who returned once again to the issue at the heart of the OA debate in HSS, i.e. the tension between, on the one hand, the desire for the fixity of the monograph as a physical object and the integrity of that object, and on the other hand, the reality of what that object is for, the role it plays in academic discourse. He asked a critical question: is it possible to explode the book across the web in a way that does not damage its integrity and that in the end brings the research (and the research community) back together again in one space? He observed that ‘a book is a conversation’, an object of discourse and contended that in OA publishing an old tradition and new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented good for the dissemination of scholarship.

The whole event was extremely thought-provoking and raised a lot of questions for me as a publisher. There is no doubt that open access is in our future and we need to engage with it in some way. But there was a notable absence of OA dissenters and perhaps not enough engagement with some of the arguments against (author choice, who owns the research, where do we draw the line?). A lot has happened in the last few years, but the next stages of the transition are likely to be relatively slow. The models for OA monograph publishing are still evolving and will continue to do so – as a community, we need to experiment. I’m intrigued by the role open peer review can play and we will continue to watch this space regarding policy and funding. Every discussion at the conference in the end came back to the money. But the overriding message is clear – the OA movement is motivated by a desire to disseminate research widely, to reach as broad an audience as possible, and to promote a collaborative approach to research activity and support the scholarly community in that activity. In fact all of us involved in academic publishing share that objective and we all have a role to play in making it happen.

Sarah Campbell, Editorial Director