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MIT Press published its first open-access book in 1995, but leaders of the university press are still trying to figure out the best way to make more scholarly books available to the public for free.

This problem is not unique to MIT Press. There is broad consensus among university press directors that open-access monographs are desirable, as they increase access to scholarship. But producing scholarly books is expensive, and institutional and philanthropic funds for open-access initiatives are often available only on a short-term basis.

Finding a sustainable model for open-access monograph publishing has been a focus of several recent research efforts. The University of North Carolina Press, for example, is trying to slash publishing costs to around $7,000 per book so that existing open-access publishing funds might stretch further. A 2016 Ithaka S+R study found that monographs can cost anywhere from $15,140 to $129,909 to publish, depending on overhead cost, staff time, design, production and marketing costs.

MIT Press is looking at another route: institutional subscriptions. The press started selling its ebooks directly to libraries through a platform called MIT Press Direct earlier this year. Amy Brand, director of MIT Press, plans to find out whether these libraries would be willing to consider supporting open-access publishing as part of their subscription to paywalled content. This model will be explored as part of a new research project. 

“When I joined the press, I made it a priority to come up with an open-access model that honored both the value of print and the need to disseminate scholarship as broadly as possible,” said Brand. She wants to pursue a model that doesn’t compromise the production value or marketing costs of the press’s titles. She also wants to respect the preferences of individual authors -- not all of whom want to publish openly. 

The push toward open publishing isn’t just to create more equitable access to content. “We are seeing so much of what we publish, if not everything, being pirated,” said Brand. Book sales at university presses aren’t what they used to be. Until the mid-1990s, most U.S. university presses regularly sold 1,300 to 1,700 units, but today monograph sales are typically in the 300 to 500 range, she said.

MIT Press announced earlier this month that it had secured a three-year $850,000 grant from Arcadia, a charitable fund founded by academics and philanthropists Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, to conduct a monograph publishing cost analysis and develop a business plan for publishing open-access monographs.

The research will assess whether libraries would be willing to subsidize open-access monograph publishing at MIT Press and develop a subscription model, said Brand. In communication with authors and libraries, the press then hopes to use a large portion of the grant to facilitate a transition to this model. Though MIT Press will be the guinea pig, Brand hopes to share insights and make recommendations so that the model can be scaled and employed at other university presses. The press has commissioned Raym Crow, a senior consultant at SPARC, to assist with the research.

Convincing institutions to contribute to materials that they could get for free may sound like a tall order. But the model has already shown promise in other settings. Annual Reviews, a non-profit publisher with 50 journals in a range of disciplines, recently developed a program called Subscribe to Open, which leverages institutional subscriptions to make journals freely available. Brand said that the MIT Press subscription model could perhaps be “a variation” on the Subscribe to Open model, though what exactly the subscription will look like is yet to be determined.

Kamran Naim, director of partnerships and initiatives at Annual Reviews, explained that the publisher has selected five journals this year that it wants to make open. The publisher contacts its institutional subscribers and offers them a 5 percent discount if they renew their subscription. If every institution commits to renewing their subscription, the journal will be published openly. If subscriptions drop, the journals will remain behind a paywall.

“We’re not asking for a donation; this is not an altruistic appeal. It’s a straightforward business offering,” said Naim. “It’s been remarkably well received. We haven’t had anyone say they aren’t going to participate yet.”

Naim thinks the program has been well received because it isn't asking institutions for more money. Nor does it require institutions to reconfigure their budgets. "It's still a subscription," he said. 

Dave Ghamandi, open publishing librarian at the University of Virginia Libraries, noted there are several scholarly publishers using subscriptions to support open-access publishing. The Open Library of the Humanities, for example, relies on voluntary contributions to publish open-access journals. In exchange for their institutional contribution, which is priced on a sliding scale, university representatives are invited to participate in decision-making at the publisher. The names of these institutions are also featured prominently on the publisher website. 

The Open Library of the Humanities is a more collaborative model than Subscribe to Open, said Ghamandi. 

“That model is a lot more appealing to me. You get to be a genuine partner. No one is holding content hostage and saying they require a certain number of subscriptions for the open-access model to kick in.”

While institutions are encouraged to renew their subscriptions by the promise of open content, no one is being forced to participate, said Naim.

“We are asking those institutions that have expressed a demand for our content to continue contributing. There’s no lock-in. We do expect a little bit of attrition year on year. But we go out and bring in new customers as well.”

The Subscribe to Open approach could be promising for books, because it “leverages existing purchasing relationships,” said Charles Watkinson, director of the University of Michigan Press. Like MIT Press, the University of Michigan Press recently started selling directly to libraries.

“We’ve been excited to see an emerging group of forward-thinking libraries purchasing from the UMP ebook collection because they want to support a value-based approach to publishing, and working together with them to make 'open' possible seems like a logical next step," he said. 

“The challenge in all of this is how to make sure that presses like MIT and Michigan, who have the resources to launch their own ebook collections and establish direct relationships with libraries, don’t get all the benefits. Maintaining biblio-diversity is important, and we need to ensure we’re also creating mechanisms for smaller presses to also access library support for open-access books.”

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