For Open Access Monographs, Peter Pays Paul. Who Pays Peter?

By Joseph Esposito, from The Scholarly Kitchen

The underlying economic assumption of the movement for open access monographs is that provosts will pay for what librarians will not. Never mind that libraries get their funding through the provost’s office; what matters is the shell game: move the money around and somehow or other it will grow in size. And if it does indeed grow, what’s not to like?

Here is how this works. If we go back a couple decades, we had a university press world that was partly supported by sales to libraries. Over the years the percentage of press books purchased by libraries has dropped. About 5 years ago I did a survey and estimated that about 25% of university press sales went to libraries, down from about double that 20 years ago. (About an equal number found their way into college classrooms.) There is a problem with this survey, namely, that we can’t know for sure how many press books find their way to libraries because virtually all sales are on an indirect basis, with an assortment of middlemen sitting in the value chain between publishers and libraries. On the other hand, I was able to get in touch with some of the distributors and got some off-the-record information. The decline of press sales to libraries is well-documented but not definitively and publicly documented.

There is a lot of hand-wringing over this information. Aren’t libraries falling down on their job if they are not building comprehensive collections of university press books? Why the bias in favor of STM fields and STM journals in particular, when university presses concentrate mostly on books in the humanities? Isn’t the library supposed to support all of a university’s activity, not only those fields that have heavy support from funding agencies and governments? It’s just not fair!

And maybe it isn’t. In my view, though, libraries are doing their job and doing it well. Libraries are not buying STM journals over university press books because of a bias toward the sciences (scratch a librarian and you are more likely to find an English major than a particle physicist), but they do have a bias, and that bias is to the actual usage of their collections. With the usage of STM journals recording big numbers and many university press books circulating rarely or not at all, the bias is built into the data: the best collection is the most useful collection. This does not mean that monographs don’t circulate or that they have no or little scholarly value; rather the point is that with finite resources, librarians have to make tough decisions. It’s a very difficult thing to be on the wrong side of a tough decision.

Let’s imagine an alternate universe where monographs are in great demand. A librarian reviews the usage statistics for books from the university presses of Kansas, Colorado, Toronto, MIT, and Rutgers and notes that the books circulate so often that the library has to purchase multiple copies or renegotiate its agreement for ebooks and short-term rentals. Meanwhile, the librarian’s colleague notes that no one reads Nature or The Lancet any more. Do the librarians conclude that the library’s patrons are simply wrong? Do they fail to acquire university press books because the institution wants to look better in STM? Of course not. Libraries acquire what people use. The problem that monographs have is that their demand is simply not as great as that for STM journals. Thus fewer books are acquired. It’s a cruel thing to say, but the market has spoken. For my part, I don’t know any librarians who would not acquire more books if resources or demand were greater.

The problem that emerges from this situation — in which librarians are doing their job and doing it well — is that the monograph publishers find it increasingly difficult to continue to publish monographs. Those monographs serve not only as a form of scholarly communications (in which they make a tepid contribution if they are not read by an audience sufficient to support the books financially) but also as a means of certification. Without a published monograph, scholars in many fields at some institutions would find it hard to have successful tenure and promotion reviews.

Enter the open access monograph. As a rule, open access is not so much an innovation as it is a capitulation — a capitulation, that is, in that it recognizes that the marketplace sets a high bar. There may be insufficient demand to read a particular monograph, but the demand to publish that book is enormous, beginning with the author and extending to friends and colleagues. Inasmuch as the funding for monographs and the research underlying them is small and often nonexistent, authors naturally look for help in paying the fees for Gold open access. Thus the provost is brought into the discussion. If the provost can be persuaded to pay for publication (for a book that is fully peer-reviewed and deemed to be outstanding from a scholarly point of view), then everybody is happy. The author finds a publisher; the publisher speaks with the authority of the university with which it is affiliated; tenure and promotion committees have third-party validation of an author’s work; and interested parties (all of whom are assumed to be impecunious) can read the book at no cost to them.

It will be immediately observed that there is an easier way to make these books available. Institutions could increase library budgets and they could increase their support of their presses. But those options are not on the table. So now the provost, having declined to step into the library’s operations or the local press’s funding, begins to make large grants to guarantee that members of the faculty find an outlet for their work.

Where will this additional money come from? It seems not improbable that it will start with newly budgeted sums. The real test of this model is what happens over time. An economic recession (not even open access can do away with recessions) could make money tight on campus. Will the local press be asked to provide some of the funding for the Gold open access fund? Is there an inexhaustible supply of external funders? Will some departments on campus argue that the money going toward open access monographs would be better spent on graduate students in life sciences? In flush times these conflicts are small; in bad times people behave badly.

What is so ironic about this is that open access in theory is about providing access to people who don’t otherwise have access. But the problem with monographs is not that people don’t have access but that there has been insufficient demand for libraries to ensure that all monographs are represented in their collections. A book that circulates once in ten years does not make a strong case for opening up access further. The problem is demand, not access. Gold open access for monographs is solving for the wrong problem.

Meanwhile, we might ask where all these newly tenured faculty will be teaching. If there is a crisis in credentialing, that must mean that there are open positions waiting for certified people to come along. I personally am not aware that there is a plethora of job openings waiting for university presses to send qualified candidates. Perhaps this is the underlying reason behind the weak demand for monographs. This is not something publishers can solve.

While the open access situation plays out, university presses will continue to do what they have long done: publish important books for the scholarly communities they serve. The monograph world is mature, but it is not going away. The university press sector is doing far better than the common perception. Of course, some presses are doing better than others, and there is a reason for this:  they are better publishers. They are better in identifying outstanding authors, in matching a book to its potential readership, and in promoting the heck out of it. This is another way of saying that they live and thrive within an environment of demand, capitulating to no one.