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Open-access publications can generate significant revenue, despite hesitancy among universities to embrace free and open online access to research, a new report finds.

The Association of University Presses, in collaboration with Ithaka S+R, published a report Tuesday looking at print revenue and its relationship to open-access monographs. Monographs, while defined differently depending on the audience, appeal to specialized academic readers and are typically longer than journal articles.

The study categorized “open-access” monographs as any monograph that was free within 12 months of publishing. It also defined openness broadly, where the monograph may be free online, for example, but not free in a print version.

According to the study, about 4,000 monographs are issued annually, a volume that has remained consistent since the 1980s. However, sales of these monographs have declined over the last 20 years.

Of the university presses’ total new monographic output, less than 5 percent is open-access titles.

“Open access book publishing remains on the fringe of most university press book programs,” the study said. The report attributed that, in part, to the relatively unknown impact of open access on print sales.

The study reviewed 976 titles published between 2005 and 2022 to analyze the impact on print sales and how print sales fit into the open-access model. Participants included 26 publishers—most of them based in the U.S.—that represented about 16 percent of the university press community.

On average, open-access monographs generated about $16,000 in revenue, mainly from print sales but also from modest digital sales. Of those books, 30 percent earned more than $10,000 in revenue.

The study noted the average includes 13 top-selling outliers—each making over $100,000. When removing those top sellers, the average open-access book revenue dipped to about $8,800.

The study stated that open-access books can generate “significant” print revenue, “despite the preconception that there is an inevitable tradeoff between OA editions and print sales.” Mixed with other sources of revenue from library fees, grants, press subsidies and institutional support, the sales revenue can help build sustainable open-access monograph models, according to the study.

Hardcover and paperback open-access books both fared well in sales, the report found. For electronic sales, such as through Amazon Kindle books, 53 percent earned at least some digital revenue, and 20 percent of open-access books generated more than $2,000 in revenue.

Nearly half of the monographs in the study were in the social science disciplines. But STEM-focused monographs largely outperformed those focused on history, arts and humanities, and social sciences, with an average revenue of more than $380,000. The lion’s share of that revenue stemmed from computer science monographs, which racked up an average of roughly $292,700.