OA Made Simple . . . and Not So Simple

Want a quick way to explain open access to your faculty and students? This article from Auntie Beeb can help. It’s short and to the point.

A tad more complex (and required reading for academic librarians) is the statement on open access from the Association of American University Presses. The idea of taking pricey for-profit publishers out of the loop that produces new knowledge (through often publicly-funded research) and makes it publicly available (through often publicly-funded library collections) is easier to grasp than when open access risks dismantling a disinterested and public effort to select, edit, design, market, and promote the fruits of scholarship – which is what university presses do. They add value, but they’re forced more and more to turn to the commercial publishing sector for business models.

Here’s a simple fact: university presses are not like Random House. Like libraries, they are not profit centers. They are cost centers. And they need support, because university presses are a necessary part of bringing scholarly work to the public, for the public. Faculty depend on them. Libraries need them. And so does the public.

So here’s our homework for today:

Any decision to switch from a market to a gift economy requires very careful thought and planning. The AAUP and its member presses welcome the opportunity to collaborate with university administrators, librarians, and faculty in designing new publishing models, mindful that it is important to protect what is most valuable about the existing system, which has served the scholarly community and the general public so well for over a century, while undertaking reforms to make the system work better for everyone in the future.

This is a group assignment. Each member of the group must contribute equally. It’s worth 100% of the grade.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

8 thoughts on “OA Made Simple . . . and Not So Simple”

  1. There’s some good discussion on this over at if:book including some library projects already underway. Do we have any programming at ACRL Baltimore relating to the economics of university presses?

  2. Great minds, Marc – I had just been over at If:Book when I saw your comment. Peter Suber does a good job of responding to some of the assumptions in the AAUP statement (not all OA depends on author-funded models, for example, but much traditional publishing does – and university presses and other scholarly book publishers are more and more often asking authors to put money on the table.)

    I’d love to hear from libraries involved with their university presses – or simply getting into scholarly publishing. How can we respond to the call to solve this problem together? How have we so far?

  3. I’ve also just contributed a comment to the discussion at if:book. My answer to Barbara’s question about how we can respond is: educate ourselves. Herewith a few things to ponder —

    First, to clarify: UPs are not at present big cost centers. Most of them try very hard to break even — according to the AAUP they average only 10% of their revenues from university subsidy, with 85% from sales. Further, in 2005, only 15-20% of those sales were to libraries. These facts make the shift from a market economy to a gift economy that much more challenging — how many of us work in a university where administrators are seeking out new costs? It won’t be easy for UPs to walk away from their (increasingly hard-won) sales in the marketplace beyond the campus.

    Another challenge is that while any university worth the name has a library and requires peer-reviewed publication for tenured faculty, but most of them do not have a press. The university presses therefore do work that supports communities far beyond their campus walls. This leads to a reasonable question–why should local provosts (taxpayers, donors, etc.) support the scholarly communications needs of those “free riders”?

    I could go on, but won’t. I want to suggest, however, that to address this problem will require us to understand it thoroughly.

    I’m a new librarian, formerly a university press editor, now starting a center for digital publishing at NCSU Libraries. My brief time as a librarian has suggested to me that there are widespread misconceptions about the work that university presses do, and resulting expectations that publishing can be fairly easily moved into the library. Perhaps a session at a forthcoming meeting (or an article?) that spells out some of those misconceptions would be a good starting place.

  4. Monica – Thanks for your comment. You bring us special expertise, it would be great to see an article by you followed up by a few conference talks. How can it be that only 15-20% of sales at UPs are to libraries? Who is buying the books? Is it true that much of the sales are from more mainstream type books and that these sales subsidize other books which don’t sell as well?

  5. Thanks, Marc. Do you have any suggestions about a good home for an article on these issues?

    I can’t make a definitive statement about UP sales, but that 15-20% probably has several factors: As you know, serials costs havie been eating into library monograph budgets for decades. Most university presses publish monographs, but many of them do not publish journals, so that erosion hits UPs hard. The UP journals (generally) tend to cost considerably less than those from commercial presses, so bring in less revenue that librarians might assume. Consortia can buy 1 or 2 copies of monographs and share them. Fifteen years ago, most university press monographs sold 750-1000 copies to the library market. Now that figure is more like 200-300.

    As decline in the library market was underway, UPs had to look for new markets (and note the distinction between an audience and a market — the latter pays books). UP books are sold to a lot of different buyers. Many presses have taken up “regional trade” publishing — guidebooks, history titles, natural histories, or cookbooks that appeal to local or tourist readers. UPs have also entered the text market, not with traditional intro-course textbooks but with supplementary titles. Online booksellers are effective sales outlets for long-tail titles, but they often expect rather high discounts. And some UPs publish books for mainstream readers, although these are both competitive to acquire and expensive to promote, so by no means guarantee big profits. All the publishers I know work by balancing the mix of their lists, relying variously on steady backlist sellers like texts that are adopted year after year (although that market is eroding with efficient online used-book vendors), the contributions of a much-loved regional title, the occasional infusion of income from revising a classic (say, the Chicago Manual of Style), and/or the surprise break-out title, like an excellent but obscure book on a middle eastern country that becomes essential when that country invades or is invaded, or simply an elegant work of scholarship that reaches beyond the academic audience. The scholarly book business is quite a gamble.

  6. Monica, a good place for an article would be in C&RL News! ACRL could also do a podcast with you related to this question of libraries as publishers vs universities as publishers. I would be the person to contact regarding podcasting at ACRL (kdeiss@ala.org).

  7. Thanks for the informed insights, Monica! I admit, my information is old – when I wrote about trade publishing back in 2000, I talked to UP publishers, and at that time (according to my sources) they were trying to come close to breaking even or to “hemorrhage less money” but weren’t expected to be profitable. Remember that shortly after that UP titles were on the bestseller list – not because they had bowed to the market but because they anticipated it. They had books on Islam on their backlists that suddenly people needed to read.

    My feeling is that expecting university presses to compete with trade publishing is a disaster. And yes, academic libraries have played a role by making interlibrary loan so efficient. But if book publishing is so precarious that efficiencies in sharing books and selling used books brings it to its knees, there’s something wrong with the model.

    You can’t count on cookbooks and titles like On Bullshit to subsidize sharing important ideas. And we shouldn’t. Isn’t it a delicious irony that the sequel, published by a trade publisher, wasn’t a smash hit? Somehow people were less interested in On Truth. There’s a moral in there, somewhere.)

  8. Barbara — breaking even is pretty much the goal for most UPs. My comments above are not intended to suggest that this is the way we *should* support monograph publishing. I’m simply hoping to convey the situation as it exists for many university publishers, and to give a small idea of the variety of ways that they cope.

    Perhaps I should also make clear that I left a quite nice job at a university press for the brave new world of digital publishing from within a library. I had many reasons, among them a frustration with the business model that felt (to me) increasingly rigid. It seemed that libraries had opportunities for experimentation that the small margin of university publishing did not easily allow.

    What I hope my new librarian colleagues can do is recognize that their cross-campus peers at the university press are operating in a financial reality that is considerably different from the library’s. Each press has its own situation, and my comments are not intended as any kind of blanket “truth.” So if you’re a librarian wondering how to collaborate with your press, open a dialogue. With better understanding, I believe it will be easier to come up with efficient ways to support the goals we all share.

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