Wednesday, 27 November 2013

I'm not going to edit your £10,000 pay-to-open-access-publish monograph series for you

Over the last three or four months, I’ve been talking with an academic publisher – one of the big names that most people have heard of – who approached me to talk about launching a series in Digital Humanities. Now, Digital Humanities is quite fashionable at the moment, with many presses launching books and series about digital arts, culture, humanities and heritage, but goodness knows there is a need for a series that would publish only academic monographs in the area, rather than text books like this and this. I’ve been enjoying talking through the issues of publication with the press in question, and I asked Bethany Nowviskie to join me as co-editor, hoping to work together and thinking about how we could do something that suits our academic neck of the woods: offering good digital as well as print content, and tackling the open access monograph issue in as brave a way as possible, committing to delivering a high quality print publication that would also be available in open access too.

Last week they emailed me with their new company policy on open access. They are fully committed to offering high quality open access versions of their high quality academic books. But to produce open access versions, authors would be required to pay £10,000 (with applicable taxes added on top) to cover the “number of costs” that are involved to “produce” these titles.

I believe – at a time where rumours are flying that the next Research Excellent Framework will require all submissions to be available in open access, including monographs (although, please see later update at the end of the post about this) – that placing a £10,000 cost-to-publish fee onto monographs is iniquitous and will exclude many, if not most, early career scholars in the humanities from publishing their books in open access, as well as excluding any academic who is not at a very rich institution who has the resources to meet this publisher’s ransom demand. (There's an excellent blog post by Mercedes Bunz which demonstrates this very point).  This will have deleterious effects on humanities academic career progression, as the monograph is still seen to be the proof of academic excellence (even if “just print” will no longer “count”.) I believe that this stance by publishers to place the costs of publishing open access monographs onto humanities academics (in particular) is perfidious, and the only way we can counteract it is to stop engaging with presses who behave in this manner, refusing to submit manuscripts to them, but also, refusing to peer review manuscripts for them, and refusing to edit manuscripts – or a series of manuscripts - for them.

So I'm not going to edit their £10,000 pay-to-open-access-publish monograph series. And here is my reply to them. I’m not sure about the legalities of talking about this, so I have stripped out any identifying information regarding the individual publisher to safeguard myself. I would very much welcome your comments.

Dear (doesn’t matter which particular publisher, this could be directed to the whole shower of those who are asking for £10,000 for pay to open access publish a humanities monograph).

I understand that you are operating in a world where traditional publishing mechanisms and relationships have been turned on their heads. I understand that you have revenues to make to cover your costs, and profits to report to shareholders. I understand that, given a lot of authors from now on will have to provide open access versions of their research, you see this as an opportunity to further extend your profits. But I cannot understand the maths involved in calculating that it will cost £10,000 to turn a ready-for-print PDF proof into an ebook (seriously, I've been round the block a few times in book production, and that's some hourly rate those folks are charging you). You have looked at the £2,000 per academic journal paper model for open access in the sciences, and simply multiplied it and stuck it onto what you think is an humanities equivalent: a monograph equals about five journal papers, right?  It would be more honest for you to say: we are charging £10,000 to offset the open access copy against loss of potential revenue for book sales. I understand that this is a concern for you, of course I do, and it would be better to say this up front.

But even with this concern, I do not see that humanities authors are the people you should be targeting to make a profit.

The £10,000 cost for open access is not a commitment to open access at all. It is is a shield behind which you can keep open access away from those who might harm your profit margin. But think of the poor humanities academic who *has* to publish their work in open access. What are they going to do? Turn to their institution? Only the best ranked institutions in the world will be able to cover their costs: are you seriously saying that only those in the top universities worldwide are welcome to publish open access with you? Even within those institutions, only the top ranked individuals with prior grant income would have such a request entertained: here's a secret which you probably haven't figured out: most humanities faculties aren't rolling in money. So should aspiring book writers get the £10k from grant income? But you are applying a model from the sciences that doesnt apply to the humanities: in the UK the average Russell Group humanities academic brings around your cost for open access in grant income a year, and funding councils who have had their own incomes slashed cannot expect to prop up the publishing industry. Some have suggested that the £10,000 is seen as an "investment in self" where individuals would seriously pony up the £10,000 from their own meagre funds (read: credit cards), in the hope that they would recoup this through promotion, tenure, etc. Its a huge gamble to take, at a time when many - including most early career scholars - are exhausted from carrying the student debt albatross round their necks. As a result, the numbers publishing open access with you will be few and far between. With your "commitment" to open access, you will still be able to publish print editions for those who do not care about securing an open access copy. There's your open access commitment right there - you are more likely to never, ever have to publish an open access volume, even though you have a "policy", as it is just not achievable for all but the independently wealthy. And academic success for all just moves that step further away again. Hurrah for building the pristine ring-fenced arena that no-one can ever use, unless they bring their own polo horse! *snort*. It's just odious. 

I know that my list of suggestions for pursuing an open access monograph series in Digital Humanities were not usual (just to recap, I asked for: the print book for sale, with full contents available for free in an open access digital version, with a creative commons license to be agreed with each individual author (some of them might allow commercial reuse, such as CC-BY, some of them might be more conservative going for ND). This would be Diamond Open Access -so full peer review process, item available free in digital form, but no "author pays" model, and the resulting book should be published in various ebook formats, with no digital rights management (DRM). The author should retain copyright. Ideas for offsetting costs and potential lost revenue include lowering the level of royalty payments, or increasing the point at which the publication will start to recoup costs, depending on a realistic cost model, which we could help work out.) I'll also point out that I have never once asked for payment in any of this (and just for math's sake: what proportion of that £10,000 per open access book will go to the series editors? Oh that's right, none). So you expect to use my contacts, and to use my time, and for me to help feed into a exclusionary model that keeps your wheels turning, that takes money from institutions, or grants, or individuals, and to do that for you without even listening to anything I have been saying about the need for open access in the humanities, particularly within our community, or what we can do to fix – or at least experiment with - the existing model to be in everyone's favour?

The open access agenda is a huge issue in Digital Humanities. It is at the heart of the discipline: doing things in the open, experimenting, being the voice for the humanities in the digital age, showing people how it is done. Digital Humanities is big business at the moment, as can be witnessed by the explosion of Digital Humanities titles published in the past year alone (which is why you are talking to me, after all). Goodness knows we need more research monographs to come out that give people the space to seriously consider and present their research ideas amongst all these textbooks. But this can only be done by operating within the research modes of the community. We could have committed to doing a trial of, say, 5 or 10 books that would be printed with diamond open access too, and being absolutely open and honest about the costs and the revenues and the potential losses and gains, and really led the way in a discussion about where open access monograph publishing goes, and what works, and what doesnt, and what the realistic costs of producing open access research to a high standard is. We would have been famous, we would have sold books, we would have attracted the best and brightest minds with the most brilliant texts, no matter what their bank balance was. As it is, your £10,000 (plus taxes) seems entirely one-size-only-fits-you, jumping on the bandwagon of a scared publishing industry whose fear is contagious, copying an approach which doesnt work for anyone, but allows you to have a policy that will never actually have to be exercised. I'm sad, as I see this as a missed opportunity for us to work together.

I am at a stage in my career where I do not have to take on anything that I do not want to do, or do not agree with. I am at a stage in my career where I should be sticking up for what I think is right, and also looking out for early careers scholars coming up behind me. I am uncomfortable in putting my name to a Digital Humanities series that touts a £10,000 pay to publish open access policy as fair or egalitarian.  I'm not going to edit your £10,000 pay-to-open-access-publish monograph series. I doubt that any leading figure in our field would, but I wish you well in finding the person to take this book series forward.

I hope your book series in Digital Humanities is a success, I really do. Its been a pleasure scoping out what a book series could have looked like, especially with the challenges that face us in the digital environment. But I am left frustrated that we could have done so much together. Please do get in touch in the future, when this £10,000 open access model doesn't work for you, when you may like to - or have to - be braver.

Update 28/11/2013: Since posting last night, this has gone a little... viral. With the result that, ring-ring! that's HEFCE calling (via a tweet from Ben Johnson, thanks Ben) to point out the current state of affairs on the requirements for open access in the next REF. This is sketched out in paragraphs 46-50 of this policy document. So there wont be a requirement in the next ref for open access, but their view is "that open access publication for monographs and books is likely
to be achievable in the long term".

Obviously, if I had been able to find this (rather than the rumours) this would have tempered a couple of sentences in my blog post above, but only a couple, so I'm not going to retool it. The fact remains that open access monographs are on the horizon, and that publishers are attempting to profiteer from this without any adequate costing model as to how to achieve them. I'm not happy about being any part of that, and will not give up my time, advice, and hard work to support a model which excludes many from taking part in making their work available via open access.