Skip to content
Search Digital Science
See all posts →

Open access monograph funding

17th September 2020
By Alex Jackson

Part of the State of Open Monograph Series

In part two of the State of Open Monograph Series (Economics of Open Access Monographs), we continue our conversation with Lara Speicher, Head of Publishing at UCL Press and Erich van Rijn, Director of Journals and Open Access at University of California Press. 

We previously discussed the real and perceived costs of open access monographs in part one. Here, we take a look at where funding for open access monographs should come from as national funders (e.g., UKRI, NWO) consider open access mandates, return on investment and a sustainable future. 


Sara Grimme and Charles Watkinson spoke to Lara and Erich about investments in open access monographs.

How Will We Pay for Open Access Monographs? And How Do We Justify the Investments?

Erich: “Last year the Association of University Presses charged an open access task force to investigate some of the issues around openErich van Rijn access publishing. Lara and I served on that group. When the task force asked university press directors and staff what their biggest challenge in open access book publishing was, around 80% indicated it was finding funding. I don’t think that this is something that presses are going to be able to solve for themselves. Different presses have such different financial situations. Some presses, for example, have a commercial operation that cross-subsidizes their money-losing monograph program. Given the current financial state that a lot of universities are going to find themselves in, I don’t know if there is still the library appetite to come up with a collective-funding consortium. There are a lot of interesting roles that private funders can play but they’re not going to be able to provide an operational subsidy in perpetuity for monograph publishing. There has to be institutional commitment at a national level.”

“Compared to the US, it’s clear that OA publishing has a lot stronger foundation in the UK and in Europe where national governments have made great strides in the central funding direction.”

Lara: “I would say similar things. I think what we’ve already seen is that the sources of funding for open access are varied. They include philanthropy for major projects or individual books or series, institutional funding, library funding, research grants, crowdsourcing, national funding, book sales . . . .  There are so many different sources of funding, but even all of those have only funded a very small number of books to become open access so far.Lara Speicher

It seems unlikely that there will ever be a single source, and I’m not sure how the money is going to be found to flip everything. Currently 86,000 monographs are published globally every year as reported in the 2019 State of Open Monographs report. How we get to scale is another question.

What Erich is saying about national funding is really important because in Europe in particular there’s already an acceptance that scholarly works, particularly in other European languages from English, are just not commercial but still need to be made available. Participating in the European OPERAS framework are a number of publishers that expect to be fully funded at the national level and have no expectation that they could operate commercially. It’s ironic that the way in which a very few scholarly publishers in the English speaking world have been very successful commercially still influences how many people see publishing as a whole. There needs to be a wider understanding of why certain types of publishing cannot necessarily fully cover costs, especially when they are mission driven.

“There also needs to be a greater understanding of the difference between journals and monographs to understand why monograph publishing in particular needs a different approach to funding.”

Erich: “I think the transformative agreement route is an interesting one to think about for books, but… one of the challenges with transformative agreements is actually implementing them. When you’re talking about publishers with the scale of an Elsevier or Springer Nature, you need that scale to implement and manage transformative agreements, particularly those that involve multi-payer workflows where you might have money coming in from third party funders, the University Library, etc. It’s a tremendous amount of overhead to administer those deals and I think it will be difficult for university presses to manage that, even the largest among us.

However, I do think that a bulk support model is part of the equation. The library membership model we set up for Luminos has been partially successful in taking money from the library budget that was previously used for other things, and diverting it to help build an open monograph ecosystem. This kind of consortium library membership model is something to think about going forward but asking libraries to shoulder the burden of supporting the open monograph ecosystem on their own is not, I think, going to be a successful strategy. That is one of the reasons why I was encouraged when the TOME initiative was developed and involved the Association of American Universities because you do need to get the chief academic officers involved to get institutional commitments beyond the library to funding monograph publication.

Lara: Do you think there is a future for monograph publishing in the current commercial model?”

Erich: “Well, I’ll give you an anecdote from the Choosing Pathways to Open Access conference in late 2018. They were talking about the monograph ecosystem and the funding dynamics around monographs and said, “if you’re going to experiment with open access models in any type of publishing, monograph publishing would be the place to do it because the economics are already broken. So why not break it a little bit more and then at least you would learn something.” I think that it’s valuable for people to think that now might be the time where we’re getting pushed to do some experimentation. Having said that, if you’re a press that can afford to do that experimentation or have the ability to cross subsidize your monograph program with other activities, that would lead you to be more adventurous than if you’re a smaller press that doesn’t have the resources to do that and where your cost recovery is something that’s being demanded of you by the university administration.”

Lara: “Moving to your question about how to justify the value of open access monographs, for us, it’s clearly about making research more widely available around the world and seeing global usage – UCL Press has recently celebrated exceeding 3 million downloads for its books and journals since launching. In terms of return on investment, the value is in making the research available to as wide an audience as possible which benefits the author, the institution, and the reader. As well as how to justify open access, I wonder if in straitened financial circumstances whether there are also questions of how to support the current monograph system if library budgets are going to be squeezed very severely.

“In the current pandemic situation, the value of open access is being seen more clearly than ever.”

Erich: “Monographs have to be published because it’s the way that academic work is done in some disciplines. It’s also about enhancing the university’s global impact. When we look at where open access monographs that are the product of so much academic work get used, it’s globally. There are places in the Global South where I would have never expected to see large usage for our monographs. The use is in territories where, generally, library budgets just can’t accommodate adding monographs to their collections. But we can see geographically that they are used, or at least downloaded, in those locations. Even through the rudimentary data gathering that we’ve been able to do is absent some of the more advanced solutions that are being explored by the Open Access eBook Usage data trust initiative, we’ve been able to see enough to indicate to us that these works have a global impact. If you shut them up, either in a print library collection, where only 150 or 200 libraries will buy them, or in ebook collections where they need to be purchased to be added to a library collection, it’s going to restrict usage. The authors that come to us who want to publish open access do it because they want to see use. That’s the driver for them and, even absent a national funding landscape, they’re willing to go knock on department chairs’ doors to try to get funding to help them in that endeavor. So right now the OA monograph ecosystem in a lot of cases is being driven by passionate faculty who understand the value of openness and ultimately I think they’re the best advocates.

Lara: “We certainly also see interest in societal impact in certain disciplines. Academics in, for example, anthropology explain that they’re very keen for their books to be widely available to the subjects of their research as well as to other researchers. That’s one of the reasons open access is really important to them and for some of our authors that’s also influenced the way they write the book. They’ve wanted to make sure it’s written in a very accessible style and jargon free because they wanted to have that societal impact and for the book to be not just freely available but also accessible to a very wide audience. We also see this in some of the books we publish on sustainability and area studies where the authors feel that their book will be very beneficial for policymakers. 

In the UK, showing societal impact is one of the expectations of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Some authors who’ve published with us are submitting REF impact case studies about their work, and they use the download figures to demonstrate impact, although that’s not necessarily enough on its own because you have to show that your research has led to policy change or other very tangible change.”

Erich: “I worry anyway about applying those kinds of numerical usage metrics to some kinds of publishing that we do. Those kinds of quantifiable metrics are useful in some ways, but a lot of the impact of a monograph is in how it shapes the discourse in a field of inquiry, and that’s a lot harder to measure.


DOI for this blog series:

© 2021 Digital Science & Research Solutions Ltd. All Rights Reserved