How I Published My Scholarly Book With an Open Access CC-BY License

[Open Access Week in 2014  is October 20-26.]

Have you noticed that scholarly books are getting more and more expensive? It’s not just the journals that are exorbitantly priced. Yesterday I didn’t buy a really interesting anthology in my field because it cost over $100. More and more of the monographs I’m interested in cost £50 or £60 or even £80.

You can download Seeing Ourselves Through Technology for free. Actually, you can download it, remix it, mash it up, buy or borrow the print book, photocopy it as much as you like, and even make tea towels or a corset out of it and resell it at a profit without asking permission. It’s published with a CC-BY license, which means you can do whatever you like with it so long as you mention that I wrote the original version.

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I decided a while ago that I didn’t want to publish any more books that were closed access. I’m a public employee, so my research is paid for by ordinary peoples’ tax money. It makes sense that my taxpayer-funded research should be accessible to everyone. Not just to scholars in rich institutions in rich countries that can afford to paid skyrocketing prices for scholarly journals and books.

So when I saw that Palgrave, which is known for publishing quality scholarship, had set up a system for open access books, I was interested. Palgrave’s model is pretty simple. You pay. You pay quite a lot. My book is a Palgrave Pivot, which is a series of short books (mine is 40,000 words or about 100 pages) that are published in just 12 weeks after the manuscript is completed. (That in itself is reason enough to publish with them – I hated waited a year or two for my other books to actually be available.) To make your Palgrave Pivot book open access, you pay Palgrave a fee of £7500. Longer books cost up to £11000.

I’m fortunate enough to work at the University of Bergen, which established an open access publishing fund last year specifically to pay for fees like this. The pay-to-publish model was not familiar to me. It’s more common in the natural sciences, where closed access journals will allow you to make your article (but not all articles) openly available for a fee. I don’t think UiB’s open access people had specifically considered funding open access books as well as articles, but they loved the idea when I asked whether I could apply for money to make a book open access. Certainly the Norwegian Research Council’s open access funding specifically mentions articles, not books. In the UK, as far as I can see, you can get this kind of funding if you have a RCUK grant (apparently the funding is distributed via the universities, so see for instance Bristol‘s or Oxford‘s policies), which is, I assume, far more common in the sciences than in the humanities, and of course it is in the humanities that the book is a common form of publication. Some journals, like the prestigious Nature Communications, are going fully open access using author paid fees of up to €3700 per article, though they will give waivers to authors from low-income countries, and a list of links to ways scholars in different countries can get funding for this purpose(Note on Oct 21: I initially incorrectly wrote Nature is going open access, it’s actually Nature Communications.)

I hadn’t heard about the idea of authors (or their institutions) paying for open access publishing until fairly recently. I’m familiar with another model that is quite common in the humanities, or at least in the digital branches of it: open access, online-only journals run by academics with no publisher involved. Game Studies, Kairos, the Electronic Book Review, Dichtung Digital, Fibreculture, Surveillance & Society and Digital Humanities Quarterly are just a few of the excellent journals I read that have been run for years in this way. Truth be told, I prefer this way of funding open access scholarship to the author-pays model – but we need to realise that this also has its costs. Editors and peer reviewers work for free – indeed, so they do at the closed access and author-pays journals, so that isn’t too remarkable. But there is also the work of designing and maintaining a quality website and of copyediting and proofing, and these things are often not so easy to find funding for. As universities and research councils begin to fund open access publishing more explicitly we need to make sure it’s not all on the terms of the commercial publishers: there are other, perhaps more sustainable ways of doing this. But we do need to actually fund them.

Open access book publishing is a lot less common. Open Humanities Press is the only scholar-run, peer-reviewed effort I know that publishes all its books online and open access. They also allow for non-traditional content in their books. I think publishing a book is a far more time-consuming task than publishing journal articles – and yet books are key in the humanities, and for good reason: there are lines of thought that simply need more space than a journal article.

Sometimes scholarly presses will publish individual books open access without fees. Danah boyd talked her publisher into allowing this for It’s Complicated, and Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost
Jeremy Douglass, Mark C. Marino, Michael Mateas, Casey Reas, Mark Sample, and Noah Vawter did the same with their book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 on MIT Press. But these are sort of sleight of hand events. They’re exceptions, and if you approach MIT Press or Yale University Press you can’t expect to be able to make a similar deal – although you could certainly try. These books also come across as sort of half-hearted open access, at least from the publishers’ standpoint. In neither case did the publisher promote the book as open access. If you try to buy the book at an online bookshop or from the publisher you will see both the paper and digital editions are for sale and there is no information about a free digital edition also being available. (Update Oct 21: See Nick Montfort’s comments below – and I should also add that both danah boyd’s and Nick Montfort et.al.’s books clearly state they are CC-BY on the “copyright” page in the front of the print and digital books.) You need to go to the author’s website to find the free copy. In danah boyd’s case, she was required to not go public about the book’s being open access until a week after publication, presumably because they were worried that sales would drop. Cory Doctorow famously requires his publishers to make his novels openly available, but even so, publishers sometimes drag their heels. His Norwegian publisher did sort of release the translation of Little Brother freely, by adding a note to the online catalogue stating that if you email the publisher they would send you the PDF. But that note is now gone and there is absolutely no indication on the website that the book is supposed to be open access. (update Oct 21: Thomas Brevik writes a bit more about this in the comments.) Perhaps the individual editor Doctorow worked with was the only person aware of the agreement. And you can see why the publishers would be leery of giving away books when selling books is their business model. Maybe they’ll sell more books if they give the digital version away, as Cory Doctorow argues. But they can’t be sure of that.

What finally sold me on using Palgrave’s open access model was the way they promote the works so clearly as open access. When I saw the (to my knowledge) only other open access book Palgrave has published in the Amazon store, I was thrilled: it states very clearly that you can pay so and so many dollars for the print book, and the Kindle version is explicitly listed as free. $0. That’s what I wanted for my book – and I got it.

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Yes, my university paid Palgrave quite a lot of money for my book to be open access. But because of that very explicit exchange I have a contract that very clearly states that the book is published under a CC-BY license, and Palgrave have done a great job of showing that clearly in the catalogue text and when distributing to bookshops (although Google Books apparently doesn’t read the CC-BY license and treats it as closed). It’s not half-hearted open-access-but-don’t-tell-too-many-people-about-it, Palgrave is unabashadly proud to be publishing an open access book. I’m sure they’d love to publish more, because this is a model that might be sustainable for them as well as for me.

Paying for open access is not without its controversies. Melissa Terras wrote an empassioned blog post last November explaining why she refused to edit a book series on the digital humanities for an unnamed publisher (maybe Palgrave?) that had a fee structure just like Palgrave. She’s right, of course, that today most academics don’t have systems in place to fund these kinds of fees. When the ability to pay for open access is unevenly distributed, as it clearly is today, we risk building a two-tier structure where scholars who have strong institutional backing or are independently wealthy can pay for open access and thereby simply be read more than other scholars. I’m sure some will argue that I am buying into this unfair system – and Melissa argues strongly that we should boycott it by not publishing with such publishers and not even doing peer review for them.

Obviously I disagree. I chose to publish my book open access for a fee because I think the alternative systems for publishing monographs in the humanities are just as unfair and iniquitous. If the cost of not paying an author fee for open access is that any would be reader has to pay £80 to read the book any better? What about early career academics and scholars and students from low income countries who in practice have no access to humanities scholarship because the books all cost a fortune? Palgrave’s attempt to find sustainable models for open access publishing is a good faith attempt to build something that might work. On their website they also write that they’re working on figuring out how to make the author-pays system work for scholars from low income countries. Perhaps there are ways it could work. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that fees for rich countries like Norway might be higher in order to help subsidize open access publication for other countries. For such a system to work, though, accounting for how the money is spent should be far more open than it is today. Another perhaps fairer option might be international funds for open access scholarship, for instance financed by the EU and others, where a portion is specifically for low-income countries’ scholars.

Another possible danger of an author-pays models for open access publishing is that it could devolve into vanity publishing or predatory publishing. I wasn’t worried about that with Palgrave because they have such a well-established reputation, and the peer review process was completed and the book accepted on its own merits before we signed the open access contract. Palgrave would have published the book without the money from UiB, but they would have sold it for £50 or maybe more for each copy.

Somebody needs to pay for the work involved in publishing a scholarly book. And there’s a lot of work involved, not just for the author and the peer reviewers. Peer reviewers at Palgrave get £60 or twice that in books, which is a fairly typical rate of pay in my experience, so obviously most of their actual time spent is not paid for by the publisher but by their universities or they are donating it from their leisure time. But although peer review is immensely important, it is not the only work involved in getting a book published. The most obvious points on the list would be

  • the editor’s knowledge of the field, which takes time to build and involves lots of experience, time, going to conferences, reading – this is the same kind of work that academics do, I imagine, and is necessary.
  • coordinating peer reviewers, assessing the reviews
  • selecting manuscripts
  • editor’s professional feedback – this varies. When I wrote Blogging the editor (Andrea Drugan at Polity) not only asked me to write a proposal, she worked closely with me on the details of it. With the World of Warcraft anthology we had far less direct feedback from the editor (Doug Sery at MIT Press), but we also had a far more complete proposal when we approached the publisher.
  • copyediting and proofing
  • layout
  • cover design
  • the index (the author does most of this but page numbers are adjusted)
  • contracts
  • organising the ISBN and DOI and so on
  • distribution to bookshops and direct sales of print book
  • electronic formats, distribution of ebook to bookshops
  • website that is well put together and search engine friendly
  • marketing

Maybe I forgot something. I’ve never worked at a publisher’s, and although Palgrave states that the open access fee only covers costs and doesn’t leave them a profit, they don’t provide a specified bill breaking down actual costs. I would like to see that kind of accounting, actually.

I don’t get any royalties from Seeing Ourselves Through Technology. At first I thought I should get royalties from sales of the print book, but Palgrave insisted there was no profit to them from it and so there wouldn’t really be any money for my royalties to come from. I didn’t realise, at first, that the price of the print edition of the book would be much lower than other books in the series. My book costs £20 in print, whereas other Palgrave Pivot books are priced anywhere from £45-£65. That’s a big difference!

Royalties are pretty meagre for most scholarly books, anyway. No doubt some superstars get a nice chunk, but my royalties for Blogging and for the World of Warcraft anthology have amounted to an annual check of about $70-80 for the anthology and between £80-£200 for Blogging. The £200 was last year, when the second edition came out. Apparently Blogging sold quite well, well enough that Polity wanted to do a second edition, anyway. But ”quite well” in academic publishing apparently means a thousand copies or so over several years. Not that I actually know what others are selling. I’m sure if you write a popular textbook you’ll do much better than I have on royalties.

Given that researching and publication are already part of the job I’m paid to do, I don’t need royalties. Obviously this would be very different for a literary author or a non-fiction author who is not already being paid by a university to write and publish. I don’t think everything needs to be open access. But publicly funded research should be.

We may come up with alternative systems than peer review and publishers for ensuring that scholarship is sound. Figshare is one example of a possible alternative model: a site where you can publish your research data and findings freely, and metrics like how often its retweeted or cited are supposed to give readers an indication of its quality. Open peer review is another and probably better idea: publish scholarship in a journal or system where your peers can discuss and vet the work openly. And of course, once a work has been peer reviewed and published we use citations as an indication of how influential it is (although some fields cite so much more than others that it is difficult to read citations as value in any absolute sense).

For now, though, I think we need to try out models like Palgrave’s.

19. October 2014 by Jill
Categories: University politics | Tags: , , | 15 comments

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