Thursday 30 March 2017

'Just do it': highlights from the ALPSP Open Access seminar

photo Martyn Lawrence

Martyn Lawrence attended last month's ALPSP seminar How to build a Successful Open Access Books Programme which was chaired by Frances Pinter.

He offers his thoughts on the day.

This one day seminar on Open Access monographs brought together a mixed – and refreshingly perky – group of publishers, librarians, funders and authors.

On the heels of the R2R conference, held on the preceding days, chair Frances Pinter set the scene in a room full of industry heavyweights, traditional presses, societies and start-ups. She had briefed the wide range of speakers to talk about challenges overcome and how their offer could be scaled up, not just to showcase their companies.

Here, rather than a blow-by-blow account of each presentation, I’m offering the top ten takeaways from a thoroughly enjoyable day.

1. Monographs are important

The tone was set from the outset. There’s an intangible thing with books: even though you can read on a device, there’s something about a printed book that provokes different emotions from a printed journal. Yes, chapters in edited collections are akin to journal articles (scholarly ‘stuff’ to use the language preferred by Toby Green and Tom Clark) but monographs, by and large, arouse different responses. That’s partly because of their dominance in the humanities and social sciences: because HSS research is so often about the idea, rather than the data, the venue for that idea is venerated – as is the means of expressing it. As the Crossick Report stated: ‘The writing of the long-form publication IS the research process’.

2. Books are under pressure

The problems are hardly new: low sales, declining library budgets, tough distribution, pressure to make publicly-funded work freely available and a changing environment in a platform-led world.

For some disciplines, it’s a relevancy issue in the fake-news, barriers-first world of Trump and Brexit. If STM creates new drugs and builds planes, HSS needs to explain what it offers. Indeed, as Rupert Gatty so eloquently said in favour of Open Book Publishers, it’s time to re-evaluate the entire publishing model. If access to your title results to a 300:1 success in favour of the open version (based on data from his presentation), it takes a lot of effort to justify prioritising the single digit. We should be able to communicate in more ways, not fewer.

3. HEFCE monograph policy

Funder attention and OA policies have hitherto focused on journals publishing, because of the desire to kick-start innovation and drive new business models. It’s also been driven by academic priorities in the big-money STM areas.

Ben Johnson (HEFCE) explained why HEFCE is interested in OA for all published outputs:

  • it leads to greater efficiency when university finances are stretched
  • it improves quality of research
  • it leads to impact and reach outside big institutions

A diverse system means that people can choose how they communicate. In STM, 98% of REF returns were journal articles. In HSS, by contrast, the monograph dominated.

The REF after next will require OA monographs, and pilots are being put into place for that. In ten years, there will be a significant percentage of OA books. The equivalent REF value isn’t yet given to e-monographs but that will change.

4. We’re going to play nice

The journey to OA for journals was heated and not always constructive. HEFCE hopes to avoid a repeat for monographs (which, given the expected length of the journey, is a blessing), and it’s worth emphasising that the atmosphere in the room was considerably different from the ALPSP OA event in June 2016 which focused predominantly on journals. There was precious little mention here of ‘drive your APCs’ or ‘milk the P&L’. HEFCE set the tone and subsequent speakers reinforced it: all parties should respect that the pace of change will be up for debate.

5. University presses may be the future melting pot for OA

Perhaps the most interesting news was that initiative for change is less likely to come from the legacy publishers, nor yet the start-ups, but from the growing cohort of university presses. Often housed within university libraries (and therefore with a strong mandate to champion OA), they are often far less reactive than the legacy publishers. Two careful presentations from CUP and Taylor & Francis bore this out: progress is cautious in the global publishing houses, partly because agitation from the author community is not high, and partly because of varying geographical and disciplinary opinions about open research.

In the UPs, by contrast, commissioning can be driven by ‘what’s the story?’ not ‘where’s the money?’. The rationale for editorial excellence is as strong as ever, but removing the pressure of profit margins means OA books can be more eclectic, more interesting, more exciting than ever before. ‘The value to the university is in profile and reputation, not in income’, said Sue White of University of Huddersfield Press. No one is going half-measures on this, either. As Lara Speicher (UCL Press) noted, authors are watching closely and they’ll quiz publishers over their sales and marketing plans for a title. Having said all of that, the (small) list of OA books published by CUP was notable for its breadth and quality: there’s no indication that OA diminishes the value proposition for readers.

6. Systems really stink

Publishers don’t build systems to give away books for free. OK, so there’s a wisecrack hiding there, but try as you might, it’s really difficult to convince a legacy e-commerce system to offer an article or an entire book with a zero price tag. They simply weren’t built with OA in mind, and rescaffolding sites is one of these things that everyone assumes is easy until they try it. Time and again, this issue emerged as a remarkable stumbling block.

7. Discoverability ain’t great either

Three kinds of metadata are needed to make an OA monograph fully discoverable, and they are non-negotiable, functional essentials:

  • content (eg keywords and BIC codes)
  • digital (eg DOIs, ORCiDs, ISBNs)
  • OA-specific (eg specific CC license for both articles and images, embargo period, funders, location of Version of Record)

Without this, scalability of OA programmes will prove tricky. It doesn’t help if third-party vendors don’t make it clear that a print book is digitally OA, or if elements of the metadata drop out on the book’s journey through the post-publication environment. (I was reminded at this point of a recent Scholarly Kitchen piece by Jill O’Neill, in which she described the convoluted process of tracking down what she called ‘an OA monograph in the wild’.)

Simon Bains, Head of Research Services at the University of Manchester reinforced this point. Unless metadata is strong, Manchester doesn’t give OA books the same priority. In Bains’ view, JSTOR discoverability is good; OAPEN and DOAB are poor; Hathi Trust and Internet Archive are non-existent. They also prioritise reading list books.

As Euan Adie said, ‘metadata is a love-letter to the future’. Without it, OA founders.

8. OA encourages audience-first publishing

Some of the most fascinating presentations came from researchers. Vanesa Cast├ín Broto, Senior Lecturer at UCL, made the forceful point that if academics are not inspired to produce something, they will drag their heels. Broto was adamant that she didn’t want to produce something held only by an elite group in the English-speaking global north. Her OA research on Mozambique, published by UCL Press in English and Portuguese, has seen downloads in 152 countries: ‘it’s a massive incentive for me to publish open and in a language other than English’, she said. This motivation, she said, trumped any accusations about OA vanity publishing.

Broto’s conviction raised an important issue. The bigger publishers are ploughing time and money into an OA monograph programme as a business need: they’re packaging it as part of a wider author services offer. By contrast, the authors are taking risks because they are in the business of communicating their research discoveries to the widest possible audience. In one sense, these factors are symbiotic: authors need publications to be widely available, and publishers are in the business of making that happen. But it’s intriguing to see how these two different rationales will converge, given the issues of scalability and sustainability. For the most part, publishing ‘closed’ in the right journals is still more important than publishing ‘open’ in smaller journals.

9. OA enables innovation

Book launches kill budgets, but authors love them. So in a platform-driven world, what’s the alternative? Online parties, says Xinyuang Wang at UCL, who reported on a campaign supporting her OA book with a MOOC and YouTube videos translated into multiple languages. The greatest impact of this was the means of attracting new and wider audiences to the work. It’s an audience-first model that legacy publishers will struggle to match.

The larger point seemed to be that OA publishers, particularly those without legacy models to protect, are potential incubators of innovation. Without a cumbersome legacy model to restrict format or dictate price, they can engage more fully with the long tail of high quality titles. Diversity, said Andrew Lockett of University of Westminster Press, has much greater value once you’re not obsessed with the US library market.

10. Print isn’t going away

Despite everything, physical books still make a difference. Ultimately, that’s why the transition to OA monographs has taken so much longer than journals. Lots of university presses are offering books as short-run PODs (often 100 copies) to ensure they cover demand, and OA isn’t replacing print. This was the funding message too: academic choice is a big part of the HEFCE approach. Data from Brill and UCL suggests that print sales are not decimated by OA (it’s the effect on ebooks that is more notable).

And this is what’s so interesting – the mix keeps us going. When it comes to OA monographs, what do we want? Everything.

Martyn Lawrence is Publishing Manager at the Royal Armouries Museum, with oversight of the books programme at the museum's three sites (Leeds, the Tower of London and Fort Nelson). He is a frequent contributor to international publishing workshops and training events, including seminars for ALPSP and London Book Fair, and he has chaired numerous conference sessions around the world.

ALPSP organises a full professional development programme of seminars, training workshops and webinars. See for details.

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