OAPEN-UK publisher focus group: 28 November 2011

THE OAPEN-UK focus group for HSS monograph publishers focused on five main areas: changes to publisher business models, brand and platforms, users’ needs, consistency and standards and costs. They agreed that it was difficult to separate issues into technical, administrative, financial or attitudinal, and suggested that this reflected the complex nature of the subject area.

Changes to publisher business models
Participants agreed that in adopting any new business model, including open access, publishers still need to make a profit. There are many ways that they could do this – for example, treating components of the book differently, or charging for additional services – and publishers will need time to identify the best options. Change will not happen overnight.

Publishers fulfil a number of roles in relation to HSS monograph publication: in an OA model where the publisher is paid up-front, participants suggested that there would be a risk that some of these roles would be less attractive as they would no longer be linked to profitability. For example, what is the incentive for publishers to provide detailed editing or to market and to stay involved with an OA monograph once it has been published? Will they treat OA monographs in the same way that they treat out of print titles – they have the money and the job is therefore done? Participants did however acknowledge that in a pay-to-publish model, the risks to the publisher are significantly reduced.

There were concerns about the loss of profits from ‘bestsellers’, which are traditionally used to support the less profitable books. But publishers might benefit from not having to predict sales in order to determine print runs, especially if they move to a print-on-demand model.

Participants discussed the how a publisher adds value to something that is being given away for free and the impact on the business. They suggested that services overlaid on OA content – such as custom publishing or repackaging – would become the main source of income: again, without this additional profit revenue, there would be little incentive for publishers to move to an OA model. Publishers could provide design and production services to smaller university presses which do not currently have in-house systems: the University of Michigan Press already offers such services. It may also be possible to profit from auxiliary services to support discovery, such as MARC records and ONIX feeds.

Participants talked about the internal resource implications for a move to OA. Sales teams will see OA as a big threat, although they could respond by focusing more on textbooks, or by helping authors to raise publication funds at the beginning of the process, rather than selling content at the end of it.

A brief discussion around publisher systems showed that there was little appetite for moving to open-source platforms such as Open Monograph Press or PressBook, as publication infrastructure is a sunk cost. But participants recognised that finance systems would need to adapt, and tracing money as it moved around the publishing system would be a big challenge. Funders of books would determine invoicing procedures, which means that publishers may not be able to operate with a single system.

Participants also felt that an open access model will have an impact on CLA contracts, and that the method employed to calculate use may have implications for legal teams and the rights management work that they would have to handle: this might include renegotiating CLA ‘fair use’ deals.

Brand and platforms
Participants also questioned whether publishers would continue to provide a platform for content. It was suggested that this may not be necessary, because content would be held in so many places, but best practice suggests that a definitive version should be held somewhere in order to address issues of version control (which already exist for e-books). One possible solution would be to work with a service like Europeana, which could hold the definitive OA content but drive traffic back to the publisher’s platform for enhanced content. However, it is not clear where the money for such a service would come from.

Participants recognised that a strong brand helps attract authors, which is central to a publishers business – ‘publishers are their authors’ as one participant said. In an OA environment, working out how to attract new authors and re-attract existing ones, especially if there were no royalties on offer, would be critical – what is it that differentiates a publisher from another – how is value established? Participants discussed the role of citations and impact factor and the REF and how, in an OA world, these are hard to establish and how this is linked to the perceived value of the publisher. Of course, the reverse is true and OA could also become an asset in attempting to attract authors.

Identity is linked to brand, and participants felt that open access would make it much harder to manage and maintain identify as their offering (content) would be dispersed across many platforms, although this is already a problem when electronic content is accessed via aggregators. One participant suggested that as soon as content leaves the publisher’s platform and enters the supply chain, brand is lost.

The role of aggregators was also discussed. Aggregators would not profit from OA monographs, which might discourage them from including them on public-facing platforms. But participants felt that they would need to include OA monographs to demonstrate that they have comprehensive coverage, which is important for sales of their service. Participants briefly debated offering OA content to one aggregator on an exclusive basis for a few months post-publication, before realising that if such content were truly OA it would not be possible to do this.

What do users want?
Participants felt that authors value the intensive support they get from desk editors and the marketing undertaken by publishers, and that they want the publishing process to be as easy as possible. These things will need to continue in an OA model.

Authors want to be able to re-publish their work in different places, and some already do so despite contracts with publishers which forbid such activity. Currently publishers seek to retain all rights and moving to an OA model, where authors retain their rights is a complete change. Participants felt that some authors might actually be quite motivated to move to an OA model and retain their rights, and that this behaviour may increase if universities begin to employ ‘publishing advisors’, who would work with academics to ensure that they are more aggressive in their negotiations with publishers, and do not sign away all their rights.

In the absence of author royalties (the importance of these was debated), usage information will become even more important in attracting and rewarding authors. The easiest way to track usage is using DOIs, but these will be prohibitively expensive for small publishers. OA, with its multiple platforms, will cause problems for accurately tracking usage, but this is an exacerbation of existing e-book problems rather than an entirely new one. Publishers can, as now, build a picture of ‘typical’ usage by collecting data from the main platforms: the most important thing is that measures are comparable and consistent across different publishers. Another important draw for authors might be the explicit recognition of OA in future REF exercises, although this would not help attract overseas authors.

Participants felt that readers were most interested in quality, although there were some suggestions that readers might be prepared to accept a 5-10% drop in quality if the content were free. Participants felt that this might set a dangerous precedent for scholarly publishing.

Consistency and standards
A book is simply one arrangement of content, in most cases containing a number of chapters. Participants discussed that it would be important to establish at what level a creative commons licence applies – is it at the book level or the chapter level – would it be possible to make the book OA but still charge for individual chapters? This would be important for business models such as T&F CustomPub, which allows researchers to mix chapters and create their own book.

Participants questioned what is meant by open access (different levels of OA exist in in the journals and ebook market) and felt that it is vital that in order for monographs to move to an OA model, publishers’ understanding of what OA means must be consistent and consistently applied in terms of CC licence.  Publishers are unlikely to accept a version of the CC licence which allows their content to be cut up and reused by their competitors.

Participants debated the need for a centralised independent discovery platform for OA monographs. The focus of this discussion was on best practice and standards. A central platform would provide perpetual access to files that are distributed, hold the definitive published version and act as a benchmark of standards – making it something that publishers want to be part of and users want to use. The central source would drive traffic to the publishers’ platforms where the user could purchase the monograph in different formats. This may also help in evaluating usage and citations. But participants also recognised that it may be difficult to find funding for such a platform, and that librarians may not appreciate having another set of data that must be incorporated into their discovery services.

Participants questioned whether there was enough money in the system to underwrite a move to OA. There will be additional costs in an OA model – for example, image rights (which are very important in disciplines such as art history) will become extremely expensive to clear in perpetuity and worldwide. Public-domain images, such as those on Europeana, would not cause these problems, but only publishing to books that use publicly-available material would restrict scholarship. It will also cost more to manage the complex payment system mentioned above.

Open access models (methods by which funding is sourced) are national, but open access, by its very definition is international. The participants discussed who pays and how the costs are managed in such a model. There will be a two-tier system in the UK, separating researchers in an institution from those outside. Money would need to be provided for non-university researchers to publish. It was also not clear that universities would be prepared to pay for publications, or where the money to do so would come from. It may be possible to shift library purchasing budgets to OA monograph publishing budgets, but this will be a slow and challenging process.

Cost is also an international issue. In an OA system, the responsibility for underwriting the costs of publication shifts from the publisher to the author. Participants questioned why foreign authors (which they estimated made up around 60-70% of all their authors) would choose to publish with a UK publisher, where they would have to pay to publish, rather than one based in other countries where they would not. Other countries may not have an incentive to move to an OA model. For example, in the US system university presses are already subsidised by their parent institutions as well as making money from sales, and are therefore unlikely to move to an OA model, where only the former income stream would survive.