What is open access?

Open Access (OA) is a simple idea, but it’s also one that challenges our established norms of scholarly communication. Peter Suber (2012), who directs the Harvard Open Access Project, defines OA as making “research literature available online without price barriers and without most permission barriers.” The growth of the Internet has provided scholars with the power to widely share their knowledge in digital format, freely available to all readers and at virtually no distribution cost. But this basic definition often raises deeper questions about the entire academic publishing enterprise, and its tangled relationships with authors, libraries, and readers.
Historians of education may be somewhat familiar with the idea of OA journals, including the excellent multilingual journals Historical Studies in Education/Revue d’histoire de l’éducation, and the recently-launched Espacio, Tiempo y Educación and Nordic Journal of Educational History, to name just a few.

But what about OA books? What do OA books look like?

They can include monographs, edited volumes, conference proceedings and other types of scholarly publications. Many are PDFs whose format mirrors their on-paper incarnations. Some can be downloaded while others may be viewed online only. Some incorporate multimedia and opportunities for commenting or annotation. One example of an OA book is the volume of essays we co-edited, entitled Writing History in the Digital Age, which is free to read in both a blog-like interactive WordPress version and in an online version of the final text hosted by its publisher, University of Michigan Press. Media-rich formats such as Scalar, which have so far been used to create media-rich companion and extension websites for traditional print monographs, offer fascinating opportunities for the creation of born-digital (that is, digitally-conceived and -produced) monograph-length OAs scholarly publications.
Interestingly, having a book published in OA form does not preclude its simultaneous publication in for-purchase forms, including print on paper or in some other proprietary electronic form such as Kindle. In other words: not all digital books are OA, and OA books may exist in additional forms that cost money to access.

Who publishes OA books?

Individuals and institutions, including major academic and for-profit publishers. Well-known publishers of OA works include The University of Michigan Press, Oxford UP, Cambridge UP, Palgrave Macmillan and Routledge. There are several catalogues of OA books published by academic publishers, including doabooks.org, oapen.org, and knowledgeunlatched.org. The history of education is not well represented in such catalogues – not yet, at least.

Does OA book publishing require different financial models?

Conventional book publishers rely primarily on post-production sales revenues to recover publication costs. This means that academic institutions typically pay twice for scholarship: once for the faculty salary, and a second time to purchase the book for the library.

OA publishers tend to rely on pre-production budgets, with support from academic libraries and/or authors’ fees, to pay expenses. For example, when we published Writing History with the University of Michigan Press, the Press had just moved into the University Library system, with a mission and budget to freely disseminate its digital culture book series on the public web, regardless of paperback book sales. Alternatively, Routledge’s OA books program requires the author to pay GBP 10,000 (plus tax) upon manuscript submission. In other words, OA makes a book free to readers, but is not free to produce.

Does OA mean that authors give up copyright?

Not necessarily. Many publishers accommodate OA publishing under Creative Commons licenses, which allow authors to retain copyright and distribute their own work freely with (or without) stipulations regarding attribution, commercial sales, and derivative products.

Does OA result in lower or higher-quality scholarship than conventional publishing?

The short answer is: it depends. Judgments about scholarly quality are separate from how works are distributed. OA books published by well-known academic publishers normally go through the same processes of peer review and editing as conventionally published works. However, even the old-fashioned proxies (with blind or quasi-blind peer review) were not necessarily reliable across the board.

Most importantly, OA publishing allows your work to reach more readers who can judge your work on its own merits, which allows for more engagement with your scholarship, more chances for feedback, review, and citation, and a furthering of scholarly conversation and of historiographical understanding in general.

Does OA publishing make more sense for some types of scholarship than others?

In general, we think OA is suitable for any author in search of readers. OA journal articles get read and get cited more often than traditional publications, and although OA book publication is relatively new, it’s reasonable to expect that the same will be true for books in general as well.  Want people to read the study you spent years and plenty of blood, sweat, and tears on?  Let them access it freely by publishing it OA.
Having said that, OA may be of particular benefit to authors of particular types of works, including

  • born-digital, multimedia, and non-linear works. This includes works moving beyond (improving upon!) the traditional book form to provide direct points of reader-author interaction (e.g. commenting or annotating), or incorporating video, sound or other media. OA digital publishing is also especially suitable for forms of non-linear historical analysis that publications on paper simply cannot accommodate.
  • those pursuing topics, studying periods, or using methods that for-profit academic publishing houses consider unmarketable: if publishers don’t think they can sell enough copies, they won’t publish it – no matter how high its quality. OA allows such works to reach readers.
  • expensive-to-publish works (e.g. long works, or those including many figures).

Do any mandates require scholars to produce OA works?

Researchers at some colleges and universities have voted for OA policies that strongly encourage colleagues to place papers and articles in library repositories, but books have usually been exempt. Also, some research funding bodies now require OA publication as a condition for receiving funding, but whether this will extend to book-length works is unclear.

Can I get a job (or tenure) if I publish OA books?

Yes. The American Historical Association has recently published guidelines for the evaluation of digital scholarship, which in their definition includes “scholarship that is either produced using computational tools and methods or presented using digital technologies.”  OA books – whether simple PDFs or media-rich web-based interfaces — certainly fit this description. Here, too, judgments about scholarly quality are separate from how works are distributed, so that high-quality OA works may be expected to contribute positively to evaluations for the purposes of hiring, tenure, and promotion.