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Last week University College London Press, Britain’s first fully open-access university press, celebrated a milestone -- one million downloads of its free academic books.

The three-year old press, which only publishes content that is free for all to read, has so far published 80 books, including monographs, edited collections and textbooks. The most popular title is How the World Changed Social Media by Daniel Miller et al., which has been downloaded more than 227,336 times since it was published in early 2016.

How the World Changed Social Media was the first book in a series of books that explores the impact of social media in different countries. The series, called Why We Post, has been extremely popular with readers, who, UCL said, come from all over the world.

The popularity of the OA titles is proof that open access is the most effective way to reach a wider, more diverse and global audience, said a UCL Press in a news release. Traditional monographs sell an average of 250 copies, but UCL Press’s OA titles are being downloaded thousands of times on average.

Top 5 Most Downloaded OA Books From UCL Press

  1. How the World Changed Social Media by Daniel Miller et al.
  2. Social Media in Industrial China by Xinyuan Wang
  3. Social Media in an English Village by Daniel Miller
  4. Textbook of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery by Deepak Kalaskar, Peter Butler and Shadi Ghali
  5. Fabricate 2017, edited by Achim Menges, Bob Sheil, Ruari Glynn and Marilena Skavara

A million downloads may sound significant, but Joseph Esposito, a digital media, software and publishing consultant, said download statistics by themselves are not meaningful. Esposito said he would like to know how many people read the content they download, and whether they understand it.

Charles Watkinson, director of University of Michigan Press, described UCL Press’s achievement as “impressive,” but he agreed with Esposito that there are “some complex questions about what ‘downloads’ actually measure that need dissection.”

UCL Press, the University of Michigan Press, the University of California Press and Cornell University Press recently collaborated with Knowledge Unlatched Research to look at how people who downloaded OA books from the digital library JSTOR used them.

Most of the OA books reviewed in the study were in the social sciences, with anthropology highlighted as a particularly popular area. The majority of readers came from the U.S., but the study revealed that academic institutions in developing countries such as the Philippines are also heavy users. Among institutions in the U.S., Watkinson said that community colleges such as the Lone Star College System, and high schools like Lakewood High School in California, also frequently used the resources.

The question of what the most meaningful indicators of OA engagement are doesn’t have an answer yet, said Watkinson. The University of Michigan Press’s most downloaded OA title is Strange Science: Investigating the Limits of Knowledge in the Victorian Age, but data from Altmetric -- a tool that measures publishing impact -- suggest the most talked-about OA book from Michigan on is Campaign Finance and Political Polarization: When Purists Fail. Which title did readers engage with more?

The University of Michigan Press is about to embark on a new project to try to better understand this question -- creating a framework for measuring and reporting usage of OA books. The project will begin today and is being conducted in collaboration with the University of North Texas, the Book Industry Study Group and KU Research, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Though there are many university presses in the U.S. that offer open-access publishing options, there are relatively few that, like UCL Press, are fully OA. The first fully OA university press in North America is thought to be Athabasca University Press in Canada.

Megan Hall, acting director of AU Press, said that by far the most popular titles at the press are in the field of online education. The press has a series called Issues in Distance Education, and titles in that series are downloaded tens of thousands of times each year, said Hall. Like others, AU Press is in the process of determining how to better track how many times each title is downloaded, as it can be difficult to track downloads that take place outside one's own site.

Mark Edington is the director of Amherst College Press, a fully OA press that launched just after UCL’s. Edington said Amherst College Press monographs typically sell around 300 print copies and are downloaded several thousand times. Popular OA titles at Amherst include The Rise of Trump: America’s Authoritarian Spring by Matthew MacWilliams and The Limits of Religious Tolerance by Alan Jay Levinovitz -- topics that “speak to the body politic,” said Edington. He added he was not surprised to see UCL Press “find a winner” with its timely social media series.

Though there are a handful of fully OA university presses in the U.S., there is more of a push toward this model in Britain, said Edington. In Britain there are open-access mandates attached to university funding that will soon include monographs as well as research articles. The London School of Economics, for example, launched a new OA press a few weeks ago.

But even in Britain, running a fully OA press is challenging, said Lara Speicher, publishing manager of UCL Press. Many university presses are not subsidized by their institutions and are required to fund themselves or make a profit. UCL Press receives around 400,000 pounds ($533,000) annually from UCL, but also has revenue streams from print sales, book-processing charges for non-UCL authors, grants and providing consultancy and publishing services to other institutions looking to launch their own university presses.

Erich van Rijn, director of publishing operations at University of California Press, said that finding a sustainable funding model to support OA book publication on a large scale is “one of the biggest impediments to a ‘flip’ to open access for university presses.” UC Press has an open-access monograph-publishing platform called Luminos that is partly funded by contributions from authors’ institutions, as well as funding from UC Press and sales from print editions of books.

Top 5 Most Downloaded OA Books From Luminos at UC Press

  1. Taiwan and China: Fitful Embrace, edited by Lowell Dittmer
  2. Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor, edited by Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson
  3. Finding Jerusalem: Archaeology Between Science and Ideology by Katharina Galor
  4. The Dream Is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr's California Idea of Higher Education by Simon Marginson
  5. Afghanistan's Islam: From Conversion to the Taliban edited by Nile Green

Companies like Ubiquity Press have emerged to help university presses move toward OA. Brian Hole, founder and CEO of Ubiquity Press, said that the number of fully OA university presses worldwide is growing rapidly, though many of the company's 30 fully OA university press partners are outside the U.S.

Within the U.S., however, there are promising initiatives to support OA university presses, said van Rijn. These include the initiative Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem (supported by the Association of American Universities, the Association of Research Libraries and the Association of University Presses); the Move It Forward project, being organized by the University of California, Davis; and Lever Press, an OA press that will fund publications with pledges from more than 50 liberal arts institutions; as well as Michigan Publishing and Amherst College Press.

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