by Jonathan H. Harwell, Rollins College
Our main hot topic this week is whether publishers are willing to consider publishing books based on open-access electronic theses and dissertations (ETD’s), and how this affects the authors’ decisions about embargoing their works in institutional repositories.
A couple of weeks ago I received my new issue of College & Research Libraries. It contains an intriguing article by Marisa L. Ramirez, et al., “Do Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertations Diminish Publishing Opportunities in the Social Sciences and Humanities? Findings from a 2011 Survey of Academic Publishers.” I read it with great interest, because (full disclosure here) I happen to be seeking a publisher for my own book that is a revised and expanded version of a thesis that’s available in open access. The article finds that many monograph and journal publishers are in fact willing to consider publishing revised versions of open access ETD’s. It also finds that at least three academic presses are hesitant to publish them, specifically because of their fears that librarians won’t purchase them. All three cite approval plans such as those from YBP, which allow librarians to exclude revised and/or unrevised dissertations from their automatic purchases (along with a long list of additional subject and non-subject parameters they define in their approval plans).
A few days after this issue was published, the American Historical Association (AHA) announced a new statement “strongly encourag[ing] graduate programs and university libraries to adopt a policy that allows the embargoing of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form for as many as six years.”
As one might expect, this set off a firestorm as big as a Fox News interview with Reza Aslan.
Among those writing about the AHA’s policy are Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed, Rebecca J. Rosen in The Atlantic, Kevin Smith (and Kevin Smith again) at Scholarly Communications @ Duke, Cara Burnidge at Religion in American History, and Rick Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen. There’s also been a spirited discussion at LIBLICENSE-L. One perspective from that discussion list is most enlightening. It’s from Michael Zeoli, VP of Strategic eContent Development & Partner Relations at YBP Library Services.
By permission from Mr. Zeoli, here’s the complete text of his e-mail (lightly edited by Mr. Zeoli for sharing here):
Regarding the article on dissertation publishing in CRL (http://crl.acrl.org/content/74/4/368.full.pdf+html), I was disappointed that the researchers neglected to contact important sources discussed in their survey findings to check facts. An article which discusses the decline of dissertation publishing and sales, particularly among university presses and university libraries, should include the numbers, not just anecdotal evidence. YBP Library Services (aka Yankee Book Peddler) was mentioned more than once as a reason some university presses are reluctant to publish dissertations. YBP was also cited as a source for (incorrect) information on university library collecting habits in regard to dissertations. In their conclusion, the surveyors write: “It is unclear if these comments [by university press directors regarding YBP] represent a minority view or are shared by a larger group. This is an area for future study.” None of the researchers contacted YBP Library Services. I wonder how many collection development and acquisitions librarians were contacted?
I cannot comment on university press policy towards ETDs, but I can clarify the role of YBP in the distribution of content and the relative success of ETD-based monographs in the academic library market. It is substantially different from what has been portrayed in the CRL article.
The topic of academic library purchasing of dissertations has been debated at length on LibLicense. Academic librarians and publishers have weighed in, but the whole truth lies beyond what has been expressed there. A misunderstanding developed many years ago from the loose throwing around of the term ‘dissertation’ and then attaching the term inexactly to Approval Plans. Approval Plans are used in one form or another by most academic libraries in North America and many other parts of the world. Approval Plans underpin much collection development work for books. These plans involve a department of highly skilled and experienced selectors who ‘profile’ in-hand each academic book. Mechanical means are also used to capture standard bibliographic information. The Approval Plan selectors answer thousands of specific library questions each week generated as part of Approval Plan profiles. The taxonomy and questions have come from libraries over many decades (they were not dreamt up in a back room at YBP). Among the more than 120 pages of taxonomy YBP uses in building library Approval Plan profiles are the terms:
- Revised Dissertation
- Unrevised Dissertation
There is no stand-alone term “dissertation”. This is an important distinction. Too many discussions on dissertations overlook this distinction. It is a critical one in library collection development. Most libraries will not purchase an *unrevised dissertation*. There have been a few exceptions (the University of the West Indies Press used to publish many *unrevised dissertations* on topics related to the Caribbean which were unique sources of information; libraries would make an exception for these unrevised dissertations on Approval Plans).
There is another important distinction. Libraries recognize that part of the mission of the *university press* is to support scholarship that might not find support among *commercial presses*. The UPs routinely publish *revised dissertations* and libraries collect them fairly strongly. The presses provide much editorial direction and by the time the *revised dissertation* appears, it may in fact bear little resemblance to the original dissertation.
Let me offer some facts:
In 2010, among publishers handled by YBP, university presses published 720 Revised Dissertations. On average YBP sold 86 copies. That same year these presses published 10,021 books total; on average, YBP sold 89 copies (I understand that this difference may not be “negligible” to presses, but dozens of other titles at all of these presses sell fewer copies for reasons for all sorts of reasons). There were 13 Unrevised Dissertations – YBP sold just 21 copies on average.
During the same year, commercial presses published 1,153 Revised Dissertations. YBP sold just 39 copies on average. They published 89 Unrevised Dissertations and YBP sold just 9 copies on average. This is persuasive evidence that University Press publications are valued – and valued above commercial press titles – by academic libraries (keeping in mind that most STM content is not published by UPs).
As a specific example, in 2010 Penn State University Press published 77 new titles. 58% of YBP sales were made on auto-ship Approval Plans, i.e. no specific order was placed by libraries. There were 8 Revised Dissertations (no Unrevised Dissertations). 52% of the sales of these titles were made on auto-ship Approval Plans.
I’ve traced the publishing and sales rates of Revised Dissertations back to 2004. Each year since then more Revised Dissertations have been published and the average number of copies sold has remained stable. Having written many Approval Plans over 15 years, I know that libraries do not punish this category of books anymore than others, at least not when published by university presses. Libraries apply various Approval Plan filters to all titles. Hundreds of other elements weigh in the balance that will ultimately decrease or increase sales. A Choice review or New York Review of Books review or an award will boost sales. Autobiographies, Personal Narratives, Reprints and Journal Monographs are just a few of the factors that guarantee much lower sales. Many factors weigh in the relative success of a title based on a dissertation.
Academic libraries and academic book vendors, at least, are getting tarred unfairly in this discussion. Books based on dissertations may sell less well than other types of monographs outside of the academic library market (which typically represents 20-25% of university press sales).
Incomplete reporting on sources of information in studies like the one in CRL perpetuate untruths and further damage the publishing environment for young scholars. These untruths are then projected anecdotally in other publications, e.g. Ry Rivard’s piece in Inside Higher Ed last week. It would have been easy to pick up the phone to contact YBP (others have). We would gladly have provided numbers in support of this survey. The old Josh Billings line comes to mind: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you think you know for sure, but just ain’t so.”
Real losses in revenue, and so opportunities for young scholars to publish, are a crisis in university presses. The causes have nothing to do with dissertations.
PS. I agree with the problem Rick Anderson indicated of mixing journals and monographs in the survey. The forms, production, and modes of sale and library acquisition are all substantially different. I also agreed with his observations on this topic in The Scholarly Kitchen (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/07/26/dissertation-embargoes-and-the-rights-of-scholars-aha-smacks-the-hornets-nest/).
In other news, author Robbie Blair has 8 Predictions on the Future of Digital Publishing; 42-48% of articles published in 2008 are now open access (!);Alexander Street Press is beginning to offer patron-driven acquisition of videos; a coalition (Minnesotans for the American Community Survey) has formed in support of census data; JSTOR and MIT have both released new statements about Aaron Swartz; and is copyright detrimental to the availability of books?
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.