Posted on December 10, 2014 by Colleen Skidmore
Open Access (OA) is an immensely simple concept: complete texts of the results of peer-reviewed research, accompanied by supporting materials such as data and images, should be available on-line immediately upon publication and at no cost to readers.
Parameters for respectful, responsible, and cost-free use of the material are also simple: the researcher/author gives permission, such as by means of a Creative Commons license, for free use of the information and materials, and the reader/user is required in turn to attribute the research findings when used or further disseminated.
While OA was originally conceived and implemented to facilitate the dissemination of science research reported in the form of peer-review articles, Canadian university presses in principle support the concept for monographs, as well.
The contemporary concept of Open Access dates to the 1960s. Since the mid-1990s, its practice has been increasingly advocated by HSS (humanities and social sciences) and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) researchers who recognize that the internet can make scholarly research more readily available to a much wider community. Substantially-increasing costs of subscriptions to science journals produced by commercial presses further fueled interest in developing an alternative dissemination model.
In Canada, three national bodies have signed the 2003 Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. The first to sign was the Canadian Association of Research Libraries in 2011. Member libraries have been especially active in finding ways to gain traction for OA. The annual Open Access Awareness week on university campuses is one example.
The Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences also signed the Berlin Declaration in 2011, followed by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada in 2012. While the Canadian Institutes of Health Research has had an OA policy since 2008, a Tri-Agency Open Access Policy is expected late this year to take effect in May 2015.
Despite widespread support for the concept, the application of OA principles and practices to HSS monograph publishing has proven to be complex. Technology is not the issue. Publishers are still seeking a digital model that readers will embrace as widely and comfortably as print and that will remain as accessible as print in the long run, but that will come. Current platforms, despite shortcomings, are adequate in the short term for researchers’ needs. The more immediate challenge for publishers operating on a razor thin bottom line is creating a viable financial model that accommodates both free access and revenue income.
Open Access makes publications freely available to readers, but monographs are not free to produce. University presses are not-for-profit enterprises working in a commercial market economy and publishing specialized scholarship that commercial publishers cannot afford to publish. Quality is assured through peer review assessments, and by academic members of press committees and editorial boards that decide which manuscripts to publish. Manuscript development, impartial and informed peer review, text editing and proofreading, text and visual design, marketing, and distribution of published research “output”, whether print or electronic or both, is the work done by university presses as part of an institution’s research mandate to disseminate research in readable, discoverable, and permanent form.
In Canada, university publishers generally have four revenue sources: government grants, publication grants and project fundraising, institutional subventions, and sales.
First, national funding agencies such as the Department of Canadian Heritage and the Canada Council award grants to presses for monographs based on four criteria: Canadian authorship, a print edition, sales, and royalties paid to authors. For OA to become a viable model, these funding agencies will need to reconsider the sales, print edition, and royalty bases on which funding is awarded. As matters stand, when a press offers a new title as OA, it loses grant funding; free downloads do not count in this funding model.
Second, university presses also receive support, albeit indirectly, from the Awards for Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP) of the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Presses nominate researchers whose manuscripts have been successfully peer reviewed and approved for publication by the press committee of academics. Following vetting by the ASPP, a publication grant of $8000 may be awarded to the researcher. The ASPP supports up to 180 titles annually, less than half the average number (386) of academic monographs published each year by university presses in Canada. The ASPP is planning to begin awarding a small amount of additional support to authors who choose OA publication; however, the agency does not yet have a new funding envelope to support such a policy.
The Association of Canadian University Presses (ACUP) estimates that an HSS monograph costs on average $30,659 to produce, digitize, print, and distribute. In turn, a typical monograph earns an average of about $15,000 in sales. Once indirect costs are calculated, an average loss of about $20,000 is generated, a significant figure in the not-for-profit sector. Author publication fees, which now range up to as much as $4000 in a medical science journal, could offset losses, and run between $15,000 and $30,000 when scaled up to a monograph. Granting agencies, such as SSHRC and ASPP, are essential players in rethinking this part of the scenario.
Third, most university presses receive some amount of institutional subvention, most commonly from operating funds, but also occasionally from philanthropic endowment payouts. The amount of institutional support and the percentage of the costs covered by an institutional subvention vary. The three university presses in Canada that operate in whole or in part as OA receive significantly higher operating funding from their institutions to invest in monograph development, publication (digital and print), marketing, and distribution. These are the University of Ottawa Press, Athabasca University Press, and the University of Calgary Press. Some presses, including the University of Alberta Press, have published individual Open Access titles. The Atlas of Alberta Railways, for example, was published in 2005. It continues to be accessed frequently and from around the world.
Fourth, sales revenues and, in some cases, additional business activities such as book distribution (University of Toronto and UBC presses, for example, operate as distributors) are key financial elements. Sales revenue has always been comparatively low and uncertain as most Canadian university presses are mandated to publish Canadian HSS topics for which there is limited international readership. In the past two years, sales revenue has fallen further because of changes in academic library acquisition models and application of the new educational fair dealing clause in Canadian copyright legislation.
OA may well have a much smaller impact on sales revenues than might be expected. In its submission to the ASPP during OA consultations in 2014, ACUP presented data on sales patterns and identified risk to revenues if digital monographs are made freely available within a year of publication. Andrea Kwan, in contrast, reports in her master’s thesis on open access and scholarly publishing that the three Canadian presses that have implemented OA have found surprisingly little impact on early sales figures. Numerous new models for university presses wanting to offer open access have been proposed or tried but no clear, sustainable model has yet emerged.
The role of university presses rests at the core of the academic research enterprise: to disseminate quality-tested research outcomes. An Open Access environment is a tremendous opportunity to do so more quickly and to far more readers. To serve this role well in an Open Access age, presses need to be academically and financially supported by their own institutions as well as others without presses but whose researchers need access to publishing venues. University presses also need to be supported by the research and student communities, to ensure that responsive, technologically-contemporary publishing venues remain in place and viable. Funding agencies need to support presses as well, to ensure that their investment in research is fully realized by being made available in an accessible and timely manner.
The 2007 “Ithika Report” on university publishing in the digital age calls on academic administrators to reimagine funding models. Professors, post-doctoral fellows, and graduate students have a role to play, too, to enable university presses to disseminate new knowledge more rapidly and to as wide a community as the internet can reach.
We need to:
- Advocate more and larger grants for the HSS research community that take into account the true costs of publication. While STEM research is most expensive in the discovery stage and funded accordingly, HSS research is more expensive in the dissemination stage when reported in monograph form.
- Encourage sufficient institutional support for our presses, and new ways of realizing such support. Such ways could include research institute collaborations with presses, subventions through federal indirect costs of research payouts received by universities, and operating funding of presses as part of the academic enterprise that they are, rather than as ancillary cost-recovery units like parking and residences.
- participate actively in assisting researchers to realize the full potential of their work through insightful and thoughtful peer review and press committee service.
By doing so, we can help ensure that Canadian researchers continue to have access to publication venues so that our research results reach the audiences and make the impact that they should.