Working in a library school, the UCL Department of Information Studies, for 15 years, I was aware of the growing and swirling discussions about Open Access, and have been part of the wider OA community for a while: one of the journals on whose editorial board I serve, Digital Humanities Quarterly, has always been fully open access with no publishing fees, and is now 11 years old. I’m reluctant now to publish any of my research in journals which are paywalled.
False barriers to access, and gatekeeping, are hugely problematic for the dissemination of research, as are the financial models which profit massively from academic research without giving much back into the system. When it comes to books, though, the costs of production obviously make OA discussions much more difficult, and it’s very much a live discussion in the UK academic community: now that open access book publishing is going to be mandated, who will pay the book processing charges?
My first book, Image to Interpretation, came out in 2006, and mainly sold in physical copies. Like most monographs, it had a short print run – 300 books or so – and they have mostly sold out. I get a royalty cheque for £2.73 or so every six months for the electronic version of the book, which still sells occasionally. I’m incredibly proud of it, but I was aware that it could only ever reach a small audience.
Picture-Book Professors was a research project that grew out of online discussions, as it stemmed from a few jokey asides on Twitter, and then moved to corpus building on Tumblr. It was carried out always in the public eye: an early blog post on the topic of how academics are featured in children’s literature had a large readership, and it was only afterwards that I was persuaded I should write it up properly. It seemed to me that it had to be open access: why would I condemn all that work and what had been a public discussion to only 300 sales of a text?
I exercised my privilege, though, and fought hard for support: given the grant income I had brought into UCL during my time there, I successfully argued that my employer should pay the £6,762 to cover the open access book processing charge with Cambridge University Press. It is still rare for universities to give this type of support to academics, particularly in the Arts and Humanities, and I’m aware of the level of support I’ve had here. There’s new ground to be worked out, too: how to deliver this material best is a live discussion with CUP as I write this!
The accompanying book, The Professor in Children’s Literature: An Anthology, is also available in open access. I see this very much as an exercise in showing your workings out — the equivalent of “open science” when you are dealing with a topic in literature. It’s also about how digitised material can be curated and repackaged to bring together a resource for others. This is the first fully open access book from Fincham Press, and they are exploring what this means for them, too. I don’t mind saying that there will only be a short physical print run, which I’ve paid for, but for this book the freely available digital versions are really the main product, with other copies being made available in print on demand, as readers might want them. In lots of ways, I’m taking the open access book discussion for a walk; seeing how far I can get, and how much I can play in this space, while being cognisant of having access to resources which allow me to do so.
Experience as an Author
One of the surprising things has been that people — publishers, libraries, authors, illustrators — have been baffled by my request to feature their work in an open access volume. The monograph has many images — 32 — and 25 or so had to be licensed, with fees to be paid, as they were in copyright. Rare items also had to be digitised on demand from libraries and archives. That mechanism and fee structure is well known (if variable), but adding “and can I make it available for free online?” to the equation caused many publishers, and even leading libraries, to stutter. There are a few items I could not include as I could not get electronic distribution rights to the images, even though I was happy to pay for them.
In the end, the rights fees added up to over £1500. These are books that needed resources behind them! It also took months to obtain these rights clearances, as the open access question added much time to the process.
In general, knowing from the start that you want this to be an open access text informs your style of writing — I hope the texts are academic ones which are written in an accessible manner, even with humour in places. I think it has changed the tone and tenor of how I wrote the books, knowing they would be out there, at some stage.
Open Access Books in the Humanities
We are at a juncture where the sands are shifting: the major funders and government bodies are moving towards requirements for open access monographs. We don’t have a choice; we have to embrace these requirements, but there is a lot of work yet to be done about who will pay the costs for production. I believe that most universities could afford to absorb the costs of open access monograph production, much in the same way that they pay for lab costs or scientific equipment: it should be viewed as a centrally borne cost necessary for creating and sharing academic knowledge. It shouldn’t happen that individuals are asked to pay these costs themselves, as that is untenable. I can see people are concerned about how their personal costs will be met — and it is up to universities and presses to grapple with this. The danger is the open access premium: that only those who can afford to publish in open access will reap the benefits of having their work made accessible to a wide audience, and we have to keep our eyes open to that, as the academy needs diverse voices (as Picture-Book Professors and The Professor in Children’s Literature say!)
I can’t understand why anyone would be nervous about offering their academic work to a wide audience. Books take years to write, and academic books never make much royalty money. Why would you want to hide it away and restrict access, if you can allow as wide an audience as possible to get free access to it?