University Presses Take Their Stand

Group tries to outline how open access would affect scholarly publishing -- and pushes to include monographs in the discussion.
February 28, 2007

The open access debate is one of the hottest topics in academic publishing, with advocates for access and publishers battling for political and public support. University presses have been feeling somewhat in the middle and sometimes ignored -- and they responded Tuesday with a policy paper outlining their perspective.

In many respects, the document from the Association of American University Presses focuses on potential harm that could be done to their operations by the open access model, talking about the potential for it to hurt circulation revenues, and emphasizing that university presses are not exactly wealthy institutions. But the paper also talks about the many experiments university presses are undertaking with open access or alternative pricing models -- and goes one further. While the open access debate has focused on scholarly journals, the presses suggest that models that work for journals may well also work for monographs.

The phrase "open access" most broadly refers to the idea hatched at a meeting sponsored by the Open Society Institute in Budapest in 2001: that new research in all fields should be available free and online. Turning that idea into reality has resulted in legislative initiatives in both Europe and the United States. In the last Congress, the Federal Research Public Access Act was at the center of the debate and while it did not advance to passage, its framework is attracting increasing support in academe and among politicians. The legislation would have federal agencies require grant recipients to publish their research papers -- online and free -- within six months of their publication elsewhere.

Many individual faculty members, not to mention university administrators, love the idea. They are angry about skyrocketing journal prices, tired of watching their librarians agonize over which journals to cut, and frustrated by the idea that institutions don't have access to the work done by their own colleagues. But many publishers say that this proposal would make it impossible for them to survive financially and would destroy the peer review system. These publishers include corporate giants, scholarly societies (some of whom depend on journal revenue for a range of purposes), and university presses.

So where do university presses come in on this debate? The paper released Tuesday opens with the famous quote with which Daniel Coit Gilman, president of Johns Hopkins University, in 1880 outlined the purpose behind founding the first university press in the United States: "to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures -- but far and wide." It's the sort of rhetoric that could turn up easily in an open access document. Further, the university presses note that they weren't created with commercial goals. And so, the paper says, it's not surprising that university presses support a range of projects -- such as The New Georgia Encyclopedia, Columbia International Affairs Online and Rotunda -- that place materials online and are either open access or use nontraditional pricing models.

But while the press report expresses enthusiasm for such models, it then outlines what it sees as severe economic consequences of imposing the "more radical approaches" to open access, which "abandon the market as a viable basis for the recovery of costs in scholarly publishing."

Among the concerns:

  • If publishers lose revenue from selling copies of journals, their support will need to come either from authors or other sources, such as foundations and libraries. The AAUP paper warns that scholars at institutions unable to make such contributions "may experience greater difficulty in publishing."
  • Requirements that journal contents be made available online and free will "undermine existing well regarded services," such as Project Muse, that sell access to packages of journals to academic institutions.
  • If university presses lose significant portions of the $500 million they generate in sales (90 percent of their operating costs), those funds will need to be replaced or the presses will have to cut back on what they do.
  • If, as some have threatened to do, some commercial publishers back out of scholarly publishing in the wake of any open access regulations, would university presses be expected to pick up these projects and, if so, who would pay for them?

While those points express skepticism, another part of the paper suggests a broadening of the open access concept. "Open access need not be limited to journals," the presses state. And while applying the model to monographs would create another set of issues for university presses (the paper notes that only 17-20 percent of publishing costs for monographs are on manufacturing), there might also be models that mix print and online, open access and fees, the paper suggests. It adds that it would be "unwise not to explore the implications of open access for all fields of knowledge lest an unfortunate new 'digital divide' should arise between fields and between different types of publishing."

Underlying the specific issues raised, the paper says that university presses could function in open access in the "gift economy" model (in which they aren't expected to generate revenue streams that would disappear), but that policy makers need to recognize the extent to which this represents a shift from the current model, which even if it includes subsidies, is a market economy.

The paper closes by saying that presses are willing to explore "new publishing models, mindful that it is important to protect what is most valuable about the existing system."

The AAUP statement was drafted by a group led by Sandy Thatcher, director of the Penn State University Press, who was traveling Tuesday and couldn't be reached.

Peter Suber, director of the Public Knowledge Open Access Project, said he understood (but disagreed with) some of the university press concerns and praised the publishers for putting the issue of monographs on the table. While Suber has been quite critical of commercial publishers, he stressed that he recognized the difficult financial situations facing university presses.

"It's true that the nonprofit publishers have more to fear from subscription losses than corporate giants. They are more vulnerable," Suber said. But he said that some scholarly publishers have found ways to thrive with open access. And he added that scholarly, nonprofit publishers "are vulnerable even without open access."

The bottom line, Suber said, is that "the subscription model is essentially unsustainable because the volume of published literature is growing faster than library budgets will ever grow, so we need to look for another model."

Suber was especially pleased to see the university presses raise the issue of book publishing in the open access model. He said that experiments suggest that open access does not hurt sales because readers of scholarly books use open access to decide what to buy, "not for close reading," he said. Additionally, authors will welcome the increased attention to their work and need not fear a loss of royalties because the royalties being paid are so minimal, if they exist at all, he said.

"The authors can benefit," he said.


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