The 2015 Report to HEFCE on monographs and open access: reflections four years on
We’ve been talking about open access for monographs and other long-form publications for some years now, and it’s worth asking what have been the drivers behind that interest. Some of it for sure has been driven from within the academy and associated experimentation of form and infrastructure. But much of it, especially as discussion has intensified in recent years, is because open access for monographs seems the next step after open access for journal articles and before the next step, which for many seems too challenging to contemplate but which does need thinking about, practice outputs. They certainly fit together within the discourse about open access and open science, but to see it as a linear progression from journal articles on to monographs is in my mind a mistake. The first reason for that is a practical one that is important for how open access is accepted within the academy: the digital reading of journal articles in disciplines where they dominate scholarly communication had become normal long before there was a push for digital open access. The transition was a great deal easier because people were used to reading the work on a screen. The second reason to question the linear progression is a more fundamental one, and it is that the monograph has a different place within research – the process of research as well as its articulation, sharing and engagement.
As a consequence of this progression, the belief that open access for monographs necessarily follows that for journal articles does not just come from enthusiasts for open access but is also assumed by research funders. And whereas the academic proponents of open access have experimented and proselytised for open access monographs, the issue for research funders has become one of mandates, of requirements that monographs be made available through open access. That is the background to these reflections – what happens when broad discussion about how open access might work for monographs and the challenges of getting there is overtaken by another and much narrower debate, one about the introduction and character of mandates.
Let me explain. In 2013 HEFCE asked me to write a report on open access monographs. It was to help the UK funding councils prepare for the Research Excellence Framework after 2021 when they had signalled that they were inclined to require books submitted to be available through open access. The question HEFCE asked me to address was not what mandates should be introduced but, rather, to identify some of the core issues involved in moving towards open access for monographs. HEFCE was absolutely right that without that understanding of the broader academic and infrastructural issues involved they could not shape appropriate mandates. This work was commissioned by HEFCE with the agreement of the other funding councils while the AHRC and ESRC, as the research councils responsible for book-heavy disciplines, supported it and the British Academy was also represented on the Steering Group. I worked with an invaluable reference group some of whom are here today.
The title of my project was Monographs & Open Access. Not open access monographs. As I went round the country speaking about my work I made much of the ampersand, arguing that plunging straight into the question of open access would make it very difficult to shape policy amongst those developing open access publishing for monographs as well as amongst funders seeking to introduce open access mandates. The report therefore starts by asking about the place of the monograph within the practice and culture of humanities and social science disciplines, why this attachment to the book when it disappeared long ago in STEM? It also asks whether and in what way there is a crisis of the monograph, because that was one of the conventional arguments for open access from within the academy, especially amongst humanities scholars for whom a generic sense of crisis has become a normal condition. The third dimension of the report’s work flows from the first, and it asks how innovation in publishing and access models might affect the monograph.
The report was published in April 2015 and, in addition to explaining why the monograph was such a significant feature of arts, humanities and social science disciplines, it went on to identify a range of challenges that needed to be addressed before an extensive move to open access could be contemplated let alone achieved. It is now four years since the report appeared – where have we reached? The report deliberately eschewed recommendations, instead identifying issues for consideration by policy makers and others, so you don’t have to listen to me bewailing, as report authors habitually do, that their recommendations have been ignored. My main concern is how limited has been the progress on some of the key issues that the report identified as needing to be addressed. This is not primarily because they are difficult, though most of them are. Rather, it is because funders and the academy have focused instead on mandates. Whether for the REF after 2021, or the more general mandate set out in Plan S (although the latter has now decided that thinking about open access for monographs can be left for several years). As a result, the debate has come to focus on precise problems associated with precise mandates. It is inevitable that when challenging issues arise from the requirements of funders or regulators, even when presented through consultations, debate homes in on those people, practices, relationships that may suffer. That is what has happened and the bigger picture, the one to which I hoped to contribute through my report, is lost to view.
Why do we have mandates from funders? They are surely not just to drive publishing practice in relation to research related to those issuing the mandate. They are introduced in order to move forward the culture within the academy and the innovations in infrastructure without which the broad practice of open access publishing of research cannot be achieved. The danger is that the mandate comes to distract attention from these longer-term goals for which it exists. Yes, we must ensure that the way any mandate is implemented means that problems are minimised, unintended consequences avoided and so on. And I’m not criticising Research England which has sought to be as consultative as possible in developing its mandate. Nonetheless, once we see funder requirements we narrow our field of vision and think little about the bigger issues facing any move towards extensive open access for monographs. The debate has become narrow, polarised and at times Manichaean.
My report gave a good deal of attention to why monographs and other books are so important across most arts, humanities and social science disciplines. Without understanding that we’d not be able to see why monographs were different, rather than their just raising practical problems as we move along the continuum from journal articles. The monograph has a distinct place within the ecology of research practice and scholarly communication and is central to most (though not all) of these disciplines. It allows the length and space needed to allow the detailed examination of a topic, presents complex and rich ideas and argument supported by contextualised analysis and evidence, and it weaves them together in reflective analysis and narrative. All of this in ways that are not possible in a journal article or a series of journal articles. The monograph is also fundamental to the research dynamic, captured in the idea of thinking through writing the book which is a process of structuring ideas and argument and relating them to evidence. The monograph is thus much more than a way to communicate the outcome of research. All of this generates a culture of attachment, helps explain why academics feel a strong sense of identity with the books they write. Which might also explain some of the vehemence in responses to policy interventions.
The report asked what, in this broader context are the implications of a move to digital and open access? The materiality of the book is fundamental, as I put it in the report, a place where text does not reign alone. There are many non-textual dimensions – images, layout, the way one turns through a book, the way one holds it. Reading a chapter is easy on a screen but reading a whole book in that way is something with which people are far less comfortable. That is not primarily about time but about the process of engagement with the book. The report saw real opportunities with digital and open access because print books have limitations as well, and the experiments in enriching the digital text in ways that cannot be achieved with a printed page are exciting. Nonetheless, the printed book is fundamental to what the monograph is currently about in the research culture which is why print books seem to sell well alongside their open access version.
That was the background to identifying some big challenges that faced any large-scale move to open access monographs. It wasn’t a question of how to lay down requirements but, rather, how to ensure the move to open access protected the core features that made the monograph so fundamental to many disciplines while allowing the benefits of digital and open access to be secured. In the report I called on funders to direct attention to overcoming these challenges and proposed that a working group monitor progress on the key ones and, where appropriate, took initiatives where progress seemed problematic. These core challenges seem to me to remain. There is no time to go into them in any detail. The technical challenges remain considerable, above all getting closer to the experience of reading a print version, recognising that a monograph is not simply a linear text. If these technical issues are not resolved then the open access monograph will become merely a set of discrete open access chapters and the distinctive place occupied by the monograph will have been vacated. I was intrigued by the latest Ithaka Faculty Survey which found that younger scholars in the US were the most likely to say that electronic versions of scholarly monographs were important for them but the least likely to think that hard-copy books will not be needed in the future. They above all recognised the current limitations of the digital format.
Third-party rights was another major challenge, one that grew in importance as I worked on the report, finding so many disciplines where images, texts, notation were fundamental to the research argument and evidence, and whose current difficulties in negotiating and often paying for permissions from rights owners were likely to become far more onerous with limitless dissemination. This would influence what is researched even more than it does now. I can only mention other key challenges ranging from open access licenses to career progression, but the biggest elephant in any room where open access monographs are discussed is business models. Except that the elephant seems to have been given the new name of Book Processing Charges. There is, of course, no such thing as free open access but that doesn’t therefore mean that one business model – someone paying the publisher for Gold open access publication – is the only or the best way forward. There is a healthy proliferation of initiatives and experimentation, and the report concluded that it was neither likely nor, given the benefits of community and other experimentation, desirable that one business model should prevail. There are new open access university presses, traditional publishers using book processing charges, freemium models where the sale of print editions is one of various sources of income, there are mission-oriented models, co-operative crowd-sourced approaches such as Knowledge Unlatched and others that fall between these categories. It is not clear that any one is scalable and the problems of scaling up are distinctive to each. I concluded that far more work was needed to identify the range of business models and their place in an eco-system of scholarly communication, and that a working group could lead on evaluating and initiating progress. Instead, the debate has homed in on the cost of Book Processing Charges because of the need for urgent and therefore familiar solutions to be found, even though BPCs would contribute to neither innovation nor efficiency.
There has been a good deal going on in recent years, in the UK, elsewhere in Europe and in the US. A range of reports and initiatives that Graham has highlighted in his overview, and I’m not saying that things have stood still, far from it. What I am asking is whether, in the UK context, the core issues that I identified as needing to be addressed were progress to be made with open access monographs, have been the subject of focused attention in the way I called for in 2015. The proliferation of studies and initiatives is welcome but, without some authoritative drawing together of progress and identifying what more is needed, key challenges remain. These are not merely practical challenges but are central to winning support for open access monographs, and four years ago I felt tackling them was a key prerequisite to building a framework within which mandates would take their place, not just as requirements but as a way to move culture and stimulate innovation.
Instead, we’ve collectively focused on the mandates as the end in itself. This is hardly surprising. Open access is about the communication of research knowledge and the creation of communities for its sharing and development, and mandates are introduced to further that cause. But these cannot be extracted from the wider context of employment, career development and institutional management structures in which they take their place and which they inevitably influence. With strained relationships in these and other areas it is hardly surprising that they fuel critiques of open access mandates. One cannot expect to extract any discussion of research strategy and funders’ policy from their context. Nonetheless, in identifying in 2015 a set of issues that needed addressing, I tried to take a broader view of what was needed were open access monographs to develop and be successful, and on which progress had to be made as a background to shaping funder mandates. Once a funder announces a requirement, trenches get dug and anxieties get stoked. Even in Research England’s case when it has been committed to consultation. Mandates are mandates and they can displace the larger debate.
My regret is that in the last four years more policy-led progress has not been made with respect to some of the key challenges I highlighted. If we’re going to move towards greater open access for long-form publications then we need to understand the framework of research activity and scholarly communication within which they sit, and how that framework and its imperatives would change in an open access environment, while retaining the key features that make them sustain arts, humanities and social science research. Mandates can move things forward but only if progress is underway and key challenges are being overcome.
These, then, are my reflections four years after my report to HEFCE was completed. Let me end on a final reflection as a historian. That is to ask whether open access for monographs is the disruptive force in an otherwise relatively stable system of research practice and scholarly communication? I’m the kind of historian who is always wary about the supposed importance of transformational conjunctural events. I prefer to look to the longer-term structural changes that are underway. In that perspective, the system of scholarly communication has for a long time been disrupted by major changes, long before open access for monographs became a serious issue. We can track significant shifts over recent decades: for example in the character of monograph publishing and its profitability, in library financial pressures and acquisition strategies, in globalisation and market competition in higher education, in research assessment and impact, in digital technologies and new forms of scholarly communication and discoverability, and in new ways of reading and user expectation of much faster location and retrieval of content. All of these have been going on for some time and they have been transforming the way research and scholarly communication takes place. It is therefore important that open access for monographs should not be seen as a force disrupting a fairly stable system but as an issue that arises in the context of that disruption and is embedded within it. Which is why the broader challenges I raised in my report need to be addressed rather than assuming that mandates will themselves drive the solutions.