authors & readers

OAPEN-UK focus group: Authors / Readers (Academics): 29 November 2011

The OAPEN-UK focus group for academics focused upon four main areas: what matters to authors and readers, formats and rights issues, drivers for change, and barriers to change.

What matters to authors?
Reward for monograph publication comes in several forms – for example, royalties, prestige, good performance in the REF. Participants debated the importance of author royalties; most felt that this is a marginal benefit and questioned why authors need royalties when they are paid by the state. However participants agreed that for many authors, royalties are a matter of principle and that there does need to be some agreement about what happens to royalties in an OA system, particularly if the book was previously sold under a royalty-based agreement. Participants suggested that authors may be prepared to give up income from sales if they knew publishers were doing the same.

Prestige is also important, and authors still choose their publishers based, in part, on whether they will get a hard copy of the book. It may be possible to measure prestige in new ways in the future – for example, via ‘recommends’ on social networks. Career advancement is closely linked to prestige and academics still need to write books in order to be promoted. However participants suggested that because the REF (which is directly linked to career progression), treats a monograph equally to a single book chapter or article, authors could be  producing less monographs (perhaps just the one) and more journal articles which require less work than a full book.

Participants debated whether authors and publishers have the same aims in producing a book. Authors want books to be published early and read widely; participants felt that publishers may have moved away from these aims to some extent. Publishers provide marketing support, although participants felt that sometimes the burden of marketing falls more upon the author; they undertake copy-editing, although this is a service that other parties could provide; and certain imprints provide prestige, although again participants felt that this could be provided by someone else – learned societies, for example. It is important to remember that authors will continue to produce content, regardless of whether a system exists to ‘publish’ it.

Format and rights
Participants agreed that the end user must be able to use content however they like, and should be able to transform content without technical restrictions. They discussed, briefly, what should be included in an open access publication and agreed that, while underlying artefacts such as data, code and analysis tools should eventually be made available, academics might take some convincing and the OAPEN-UK project could be distracted by focusing too much on content other than the monograph. Participants also recognised the importance of a version of record, particularly in view of possible technological changes, and were concerned that electronic publications are not currently subject to legal deposit arrangements.

Some participants have moved to a fully-electronic environment, while others still print everything they want to read. The group discussed changes to academic working practices, and in particular how referencing would work (and how students would be taught to reference) with electronic-only content, as proposed in an open access model.

In the current system, there is confusion over who owns rights to content. Most academics assign their intellectual property to universities as part of their employment contracts, but also give it to publishers when they publish a book. Recently, some universities have stepped back from claiming intellectual property rights for their employees, as this causes problems for distinguished visiting professors, particularly in vocational disciplines such as art and design. There was also some confusion over what rights are claimed by different publishers, and participants felt that a single database amalgamating this information would be helpful, as authors may choose a publisher based upon their open access credentials. Participants also highlighted the problem of image rights for open access content, which will affect disciplines such as art history in particular.

Drivers for open access monographs
Participants discussed the impact of new start-ups and open source technologies on publishing. New companies such as Mendeley may change the way that we currently think about the publication process. Peer-to-peer (P2P) tools allow easy file sharing where demand actually increases availability, but the current copyright model works against this, and forces technology to be closed and protected, which is against its nature. There is an assumption that P2P tools are unsafe or illegal and are often banned by institutions, but they could in fact support the publishing process, and open access publishing in particular.

Participants suggested that there are problems with the existing publishing process which might also drive a move towards open access. Publishing is perceived to be getting cheaper, and participants questioned whether publisher provide as much support and value as they used to. Publishers play a key role in filtering submissions to ensure only high quality monographs are published, but participants questioned whether they were uniquely qualified to do this. They felt that, since academics already do peer review and publishers outsource sub-editing, the functions could transfer to new organisations (such as learned societies) with relative ease, if an alternative mechanism were to be established.

The group also felt that publishers’ are not worried about high sales and wide dissemination of titles as their current focus is on sales to libraries which provide upfront revenue. Participants suggested that this is a precarious business model in an environment where library budgets are declining, and thought that the decline in library budgets may prompt a move to open access. They briefly discussed the possibility of making monographs available in an open access format after a specified embargo period, underwritten by ongoing sales of print copies to libraries, but were unwilling to accept any delays in their own access to  research monographs as a reader or to their own monograph as an author

Finally, participants mentioned that institutions are becoming more aware of open access and may start to drive change through institutional policies mandating the deposit of publications in repositories.

Barriers to open access monographs
Most of the barriers identified by the group related to apathy or inactivity on the part of various stakeholders. Participants mentioned that some researchers are heavily invested in the current system, with high financial rewards for being on editorial boards for prestigious publications, and are therefore unlikely to push for change. They also re-emphasised the importance of prestige, and felt that this explains why so few academics self-publish or start their own imprints. Participants also noted that researchers are strongly bound to their work and many will not have even thought about the issues discussed in the focus group, and therefore this group is not representative.

Research funders in the humanities and social sciences are not pushing very hard for open access, and though they could be influenced by academics in their peer review colleges, this is not currently happening.

Universities have technical limitations which make it hard for researchers to self-publish: and many do not have the skills to do so in any case. Within most (but not all) institutions, researchers are divorced from their library acquisition budgets and often buy the books they need via Amazon: this leaves them with little understanding of the real costs of providing monograph content to users (both in print and electronic formats) and therefore little incentive to save money by pushing for open access monographs.

Participants also emphasised that publishers will need to be forced to move to open access for monographs, and that they are unlikely to do so of their own volition.

Read a blog post by one of the academics that attended