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An image of a digitized open book on a high-tech background with blue streaks

MIT Press is leading an effort to change scholarly publishing with an open access model for books.

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The COVID-19 pandemic fueled a mass push toward digitizing just about everything, from e-books to online courses. That trickled down to the scholarly publishing industry, most notably making journal articles available in digital format. The push has bled into the book world, with the MIT Press—one of the largest university presses—leading the charge with an open-access model.

The sustainability of that approach, for MIT Press and beyond, remains to be seen. While multiple presses have adopted their own versions of the MIT Press model in the three years since its inception, experts are cautious about speculating if there will—or even could—be a mass industry shift.

How It Works 

When MIT Press launched its open-access model, Direct to Open (D20), in 2021, Amy Harris had the simple hope of providing more access—and ultimately eyeballs—to the press’s books.

The model has largely done its job: A report from the press this month found that its open-access books in the humanities and social sciences were used nearly four times more often when compared to paywalled counterparts, and they received 21 percent more citations. For STEM fields, the open-access books were used nearly three times more often and received 15 percent more citations.

“Instead of this sad narrative that library sales are down and monographs are only read in ivory towers, this is finding a way to make the money work, to make sure these works are open to the world,” said Harris, a senior manager of library relations and sales at MIT Press, “where they can benefit by getting used more, cited more and by reaching out to audiences who may not have had the ability to access them.” 

MIT Press is not simply converting scholarly books into a digital format; it is changing the entire business model behind producing and distributing them. Instead of libraries buying a collection of paywalled books, they fund the open-access model before publication. Universities pay a flat rate, depending on their size (the largest libraries pay roughly $83 per new, open-access title, while the smallest pay about $21).

Then, should MIT Press receive enough funding, the press publishes the collection under a digital, open-access model. If MIT Press does not receive enough funding—to cover publication, editing, marketing and more—the university presses get their money back, and the collection is published in the traditional, hardcopy format. Open-access books are available for anyone to read, versus paying a licensing fee to access the books.

The latest model is an expansion of a 2019 MIT Press initiative, which sold eBooks directly to libraries through its MIT Press Direct Platform.

In addition to gaining access to the collection, participating libraries also receive a backlist of more than 2,500 MIT Press books, or those on the market more than one year. Offering those titles provides an incentive to university libraries to participate.

“It’s tough, especially for smaller publishers,” Harris said. “They use backlist sales to raise funding for new open-access books but for them it’s one at a time. We wanted to do it at scale for scores of books, versus dozens.” 

MIT Press also wanted to make the process as seamless as possible. 

“For libraries already buying a lot of MIT Press books, it’s, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing, no need to pay any differently,’” Harris said. “That was our hope that this would be a no-brainer, especially for people purchasing a lot of MIT press books.” 

In an attempt to make the D20 model affordable for libraries of all sizes, MIT Press offers the program below the market value. The press subsidizes the loss with other revenue streams, including the sales of print editions. There are also yearly increases to the program’s annual fee, to keep up with inflation. But the ultimate goal as a nonprofit, Harris said, is to break even while expanding access. 

Although Harris said there has yet to be a time where the libraries were not able to fund a collection to become open access, there have been naysayers.  

Roger Schonfeld, vice president at Ithaka and of the Ithaka S+R’s program on libraries, scholarly communication, and museums, noted that most publishers cannot hope to just break even and must make a profit to reinvest in the business. 

“Depending how these models are engineered, they often limit how much upside benefit there can be,” he said. “Once it hits whatever amount of revenue, we’re going to make it available to the whole world— once that happens, who else would say, ‘It’s free but I still want to subscribe because it’s so valuable?”

Expansion in Other Presses  

Harris admits the D20 program is “altruistic and potentially idealistic.” While open access has been fairly widely embraced for journal articles, MIT Press focuses on scholarly books, which creates new hurdles.

“Books are challenging; they’re expensive, they take a long time and scholars invest a lot of their time into it,” she said. “It hasn’t been an easy challenge to surmount but there are more publishers motivated to serve their authors in a better way and make sure their work has the greatest possible impact.” 

MIT Press was not the first to dip its toe into the open-access world. Athabasca University Press, in Canada, started in 2007 with an open-access journal and monograph program. TOME, an acronym for “toward an open monograph ecosystem,” was founded in 2017 by the Association of American Universities, the Association of Research Libraries, and the Association of University Presses. It aimed to shift the traditional publishing model away from post-publication sales and toward front-end publication grants.

MIT Press also released a white paper on its process for others to use.

Bloomsbury Academic, which started as an open-access press in 2008, and the publishing company Taylor & Francis’ Pledge to Open initiative have both used a modified version of the MIT Press model.

“It’s gaining proponents through the publishing world and our experience shows it’s possible for a smaller publisher to use this to essentially flip their books program to open access,” Harris said. 

But many presses face challenges in embracing the model. 

“A lot of university presses might like to be able to do this, but they don’t have their own digital platform to provide access to the books, or they don’t have a sales team that can do the outreach work,” Schonfeld said.

“A lot do not have that kind of scale,” he said. “We can celebrate what MIT has done here and also recognize the model they used is not going to be applicable for everyone.” 

The Future of Open Access: Focus on Journals

Further hesitation from librarians and publishers could come partially from contending with in-flux budgets and a rising focus on digitizing journal articles, versus books. 

“University librarians care very much about open access. That doesn’t mean that they’re in a position to provide direct financial support to every possible open-access project,” Rick Anderson, a librarian at Brigham Young University, said in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

“One very important thing that drives their resource allocations is the demonstrated needs of their users. Most library patrons (both students and faculty) are much more concerned with access to journal content than with access to scholarly monographs,” he added. “So I anticipate that journals, much more than books, will continue to drive the development of open-access models for the foreseeable future."

Schonfeld agreed, saying much of the focus from the publishing side is on digitized journals and e-books and less on open-access books. 

“It’s not a criticism; it’s an observation: It seems many presses are looking to see how we can sustain our business in a path to digital publishing,” he said. “Journals have largely transformed to digital models. It’s not the case with books, and navigating that transition keeps a lot of people up at night.” 

While Harris is not entirely sure of the future of this model, she does sense a shift in publishing. 

“I see a big generational change in favor for open access,” she said. “They see it as a great way to get lots of citations, make an impact, reach beyond the academy and reach policy makers. I think it’s just getting started.” 

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