The Infrastructure for Open-Access Monographs: An Unsettled Landscape

Earlier this year, The Rebus Foundation produced a Mellon-funded report, An Open Approach to Scholarly Reading and Knowledge Management. The intent of the project “was to focus on how the Open Web — its technologies, its business models, and its ethos — can improve scholars’ access to and interaction with scholarly monographs”. Their project encompassed the development of a prototype scholarly reading management system and a series of interviews and surveys in order to determine whether such a system actually met critical user needs. How best to decouple a scholar’s reading experience from that experienced by consumers on a closed platform, such as Amazon’s Kindle? Ultimately, the project will allow the Rebus Foundation to partner with non-profit aggregators, such as Project Muse, JSTOR, and the ACLS Humanities e-Book, in better satisfying the needs of an academic readership.

In May, the Open Research Library was announced by Knowledge Unlatched (KU). The press release included a quote from Dr. Sven Fund, Managing Director of Knowledge Unlatched. “It is important to us to create a modern infrastructure with as many different like-minded people as possible, thus making it easier for researchers to find and use relevant content”. In a promotional interview with Porter Anderson, appearing in Publishing Perspectives, Fund noted that KU had interviewed several hundred scholars and researchers to learn their thoughts as to what improvements might be made to the reading experience in the specific context of open-access (OA) monographs. In that context and based on the feedback from researchers, the aim of the Open Research Library initiative is “to combine all available [OA] book content under one search and hosting interface and to ensure that the provision of corresponding catalogue data is made available to library systems.”  In an earlier 2017 interview with Rick Anderson on The Scholarly Kitchen, Fund had made the point that a significant frustration for the various user communities arose from the users’ irritation in trying to navigate between OA materials and pay-walled materials. KU’s May announcement positioned ORL as a step towards assuaging the identified pain point by uniting curated collections of OA monographs on a single platform equipped with tools and a robust interface, all designed to work well with existing discovery systems.

Almost immediately, critics asked whether a platform like this was needed.

Infrastructure may not be the new ‘black” but it clearly is occupying the time and attention of stakeholders across the information community. The non-profit association, EDUCAUSE, noted additional activity in platform infrastructure for publishing OA monographs in an article, Open Access Monographs: New Tools, More Access. The article notes the differences in funding models for producing monographs as compared with journal articles, citing active projects such as TOME (Towards An Open Monograph Ecosystem), the University of North Carolina Press’ Sustainable History Monograph Project (recently written up by Inside Higher Ed) and Luminos from the University of California Press. A critical concern are the costs associated with publishing a monograph. As the EDUCAUSE article notes, “In 2016, Ithaka S+R examined first-copy costs...They calculated an average per title of $28,747 for basic costs (staff time and direct costs) and $39,892 for full costs (including press-level overheads).When financial models set a ceiling on publication subsidies at $15,000 per title, what does that suggest about the future of long-form content? The same piece notes as well innovative platform offerings from various universities — Fulcrum (University of Michigan), Manifold (University of Minnesota and the City University of New York) and PubPub (MIT). However, these platforms need to do more than simply offer access to content.

Given the critical importance of a published monograph in granting tenure for scholars in the humanities and social sciences, there has been sustained pressure from academics for clarification of how OA book titles will be evaluated and ranked. Any information infrastructure hosting OA monographs must be able to support and integrate new approaches for gauging the contribution and use of such output. Digital humanist Martin Paul Eve announced in May an experimental bibliographic intersect tool (funded through Jisc) that may serve the purpose.

There are on-going investigations in this area. In 2016, Universities UK formed their Open Access Monographs Working Group, an entity that subsequently sought to collect data from OA publishers about the challenges in satisfying researchers’ needs in this area. Rupert Gatti of Open Book Publishers made public his responses to the questions put forward by UUK. Of particular interest was a question of whether there were infrastructural challenges hindering the broader and quicker dissemination of OA monographs. That response as posted to the OBP blog follows:

Definitely. The existing discovery and distribution channels for digital books are not well suited for Open Access content, nor easy for small or new publishing initiatives to interact with. They are dominated by both revenue considerations and DRM, and are all gated-access – so difficult to upload content into. There is very little scope for any technical innovation in new content within these channels either. In addition we are seeing the creation and emergence of large-scale digital content platforms that are owned, managed and controlled by single entities. These are not designed to be openly managed by the scholarly community and so are liable to take-over and control by parties with vested interests.

A difficulty presently is that the primary public funding route for OA publishing is via APCs and BPCs to commercial publishers – who have strong financial incentives to create their own managed digital platforms. To maintain research and researcher independence, to encourage broad innovation in dissemination processes and practices, and to fully realise the potential OA has to offer, it is essential to create alternative platforms – and this requires alternative funding routes. It also requires coordinated coalitions of scholars to manage and control the platforms – rather than leaving it to the service providers themselves, who will be incentivized to distort the platforms for their own objectives.

As Gatti’s response makes evident, behind much of the discussions about OA platforms is a long-simmering distrust of for-profit publishers’ role in acquisition and delivery of scholarly output, (whether long- or short-form) and the infrastructure supporting those activities. To counter the influence of commercially-controlled platforms, a coalition of individuals and organizations has been formed, Invest in Open Infrastructure (IOI). A number of NISO members are listed as expressing their support for IOI, including Hypothesis, Columbia University Libraries, University of Michigan, and Northwestern University. Additional details about the coalition may be found in this webinar slide presentation.

The daring of the IOI coalition (as well as its biggest challenge) is captured in a blog entry by Samuel Moore, a humanities scholar who has been actively engaged in the promotion of OA models. In a blog post, Standardisation and Difference: The Challenges of Infrastructures in Open Access, Moore makes the cogent point that large-scale information environments invariably have to be designed with a certain amount of homogeneity; that is, such systems are designed for an “average” user. Of necessity, there will be aspects of access and use that will advantage some portion of the population and disadvantage others. It’s why we need a variety of platforms in the marketplace; no single infrastructure can successfully satisfy the needs of all users.

In other words, as a recent article in The Atlantic noted, while we may find this process of working out the requirements for emerging next-generation infrastructure in hosting OA monographs to be disconcerting, the disruption offers value. The author of that article suggests, “A positive way of looking at these changes is that we are witnessing a Great Sorting within the library, a matching of different kinds of scholarly uses with the right media, formats, and locations.”

It is precisely in this context that organizations such as NISO may be of greatest value to the information community. Every initiative noted in this article, every content and platform provider named, seeks to develop infrastructure to the marketplace that will satisfy some set of user needs in working with long-form content. While competition is inevitable, the greater focus should be on encouraging collaborative efforts at innovation. The institutions, agencies, societies, and commercial enterprises that make up the NISO membership can collaboratively develop the standards and necessary best practices that enable infrastructure that successfully does match “scholarly uses with the right media, format, and locations”.