v31 #3 Op Ed — Stop, Look, Listen

by | Jun 28, 2019 | 0 comments

Open Access at the Crossroads:  Why Books and Journals are Supposedly Different — and How that Harms the Model

Column Editor:  Dr. Sven Fund  (Managing Director, fullstopp GmbH, Society for Digitality, Wartburgstraße 25A, 10825 Berlin;  Phone: +49 (0) 172 511 4899)  www.fullstopp.com

Open Access (OA) has been of growing importance in scientific publishing for two decades.  And although the phase of experimenting with free access to content has long since given way to a professional approach to the model, the differences between journal articles and book content on the one hand and various fields of research on the other continue to be repeated and seem to be widening.  The different speeds at which the model is adopted in the academic disciplines are not problematic. Rather, it is the cementing of constructed differences that may have been meaningful in the past, but are increasingly losing their substance in digitality. Stakeholders in libraries, publishing houses and the promotion of science must take care not to leave untapped transformation potential.


Scientific publishing and its library equivalent have been drifting apart for decades.  The schism occurs along the disciplinary boundaries of science, technology, medicine (STM) on the one hand and humanities and social sciences (HSS) on the other.  While representatives of the “hard” sciences publish a large number of articles mostly in journal format, their colleagues in the humanities and social sciences concentrate on writing books.  In addition, research at the STM is better financed, often by third-party funding from interested industry, than scientific work in HSS disciplines. 

The consequences are well known:  Journals in the natural sciences are highly profitable economic objects, the consolidation of the sector among a few publishers is well advanced.  Libraries are coming under increasing selection pressure from subscription prices, which have been rising for decades; the so-called journal crisis is taking its course, mostly at the expense of monographs.  As a reaction to falling unit sales per title, the prices for books have been rising for years, and in this case as well, of course, more efficiently enforced by large publishing conglomerates with massive quantities of new titles per year.  In both markets, small publishers fall by the wayside economically, if they do not consistently focus. Market consolidation continues to run its course, with big publishers including smaller ones in their portfolios and so on.

Open Access was originally intended to clear up this ordoliberalism in the publication market and break the oligopoly of the big players.  This was not successful. With the Public Library of Science (PLoS), Hindawi, Frontiers and a few other companies, newcomers have managed to enter the journals market by consistently implementing the Open Access concept, forcing traditional large corporations such as Elsevier, Wiley and SpringerNature to adapt their business models.  Had they not been on the market as an alternative, the political mandates of the European Union, various nation states and major research funding agencies would never have developed the explosive energy that is currently turning the science market upside down.

Financial investors are increasingly nervous as to whether science publishers are still a good investment target.  While these were previously in demand as defensive investments primarily in times of crisis, the development of Open Access is increasingly turning financial participation into a speculative element — not exactly what investors are looking for in terms of security.

At the same time, books are increasingly falling off many peoples’ agenda when talking about Open Access.  There is hardly a conference that does not regret the fact that developments are diverging noticeably — only to quickly concentrate again on the “core topic” of journals.  The problem for the book disciplines concerned is no less serious than for those subjects whose researchers primarily use journals to impart and acquire knowledge. While market researcher DeltaThink estimated the market for journals in Gold Open Access at around 600 million U.S. dollars in 2018, SIMBA’s competitors expect an OA book market of 37 million U.S. dollars in the same year — less than 6% of the total market and thus considerably less than any library would spend on books from its budget.


The causes of this development are not only factual.  Of course, the supplier market for books is much more fragmented than for magazines.  As a result, providers are often less potent when it comes to scaling and thus implementing a model.  Secondly, magazines are grateful economic units, highly standardized and easy to negotiate due to their structure.  The funding and financing landscape for research that leads to articles in journals is often financially strong, well-organized and interested in science policy.  The book as a medium is usually not on the agenda of these sponsors. 

In my opinion and observation, however, the different treatment of a model in the two major areas of research is primarily a consequence of different perceptions.  Publication traditions in the sciences and of scientists play a greater role than financial or technical restrictions. Science policies are easier to implement with a bundle of money in your hand than with a well-intentioned appeal alone.

Only recently have sponsors in the humanities and social sciences increasingly adapted their behavior to their rhetoric, which has long been fundamentally supportive of Open Access.  Libraries are also increasingly moving towards financing Open Access in the monographic field, via so-called Book Processing Charges (BPC) or on the path of institutional funding, for example through Knowledge Unlatched and Language Science Press internationally or initiatives such as OpenEdition in the French-speaking world.

In addition to this behavioralist component, in an environment in which OA monographs are gaining in importance, at least in quantitative terms, three major problem complexes can currently be observed that are proving to be obstacles to the faster implementation of the model:  Financing, quality perception and infrastructure.

(Shared) Problems

Financing issues on the one hand and (lack of) knowledge and attitudes of scientists towards Open Access on the other have accompanied the model in its development since its inception.  While in the case of journal articles it has been possible to dispel initial concerns about quality perception by a massive increase in downloads and citations — and as a consequence very often also the impact factors of OA journals — it is much more difficult to provide this empirical evidence in the case of monographs.  My own studies have shown that researchers still consider Open Access as a model for monographs to be inferior in quality in many cases, not least because they — usually wrongly — assume that the print version of a book will not be available. I attribute this in particular to the fact that respondents usually do not receive concrete usage statistics for their titles.  In the digital environment, regular reporting of key figures and clarification of their significance are mandatory. Only competent information can objectively change perceptions of quality over time.

According to my observations, the quality perception of Open Access is significantly influenced by the integration of OA publications into existing programs, both in terms of content and formats.

The content aspect is known from scientific journals and has shaped the discussion on hybrid publishing for more than a decade:  Researchers are not particularly interested in the business model of a given publishing house (especially if funding is available), but rather the reputation of the environment is of decisive importance — in the case of books, in other words, publishing brands, their programs, series profiles, editorial committees, etc.  In this respect, pure OA publishers certainly have reputational disadvantages to make up for, but they can often make up for them with better author services.

The format aspect relates to the availability of printed editions of books.  I don’t know of any major publisher that would do without it — but the perception is obviously different, especially among market-leading companies.

Science publishers always emphasize their coordinative role in science communication — in addition to the peer review aspect.  There is no doubt that it is thanks to them that global communication can be given structure even where science lacks the appropriate structures.  Despite numerous initiatives, the structures in Open Access remain fragile, both in the area of pure OA hosting solutions and in vital detection systems.

Especially in hosting, the fragmentation of provider models seems problematic, as it massively influences the search experience and comfort of researchers’ work.  It is unanimously estimated that there are about 15,000-25,000 Open Access eBooks available that meet scientific standards. They are neither fully indexed nor can they be used under a uniform search and work interface.  The Open Research Library is attempting to counter this trend, initiated at the beginning of May this year by an international consortium.  The model aims to bring together all the OA books in the world for publishers and users on one platform free of charge.  It is open to all publishers, but above all also for further use in library catalogues, discovery systems and academic networks.  It provides usage statistics to participating publishers and libraries.


Open Access, which has long been a successful model in some disciplines and for some product types, is developing increasingly unevenly.  However, this path is neither positive nor irreversible for the various disciplines. On the contrary, it is precisely the humanities and social sciences, which have hitherto been rather disadvantaged, that would benefit from a broader use of the access model.  Research could accelerate and become more international if access to current literature were improved. In addition to the consistent use of funds for publicly funded research, the provision of joint, central infrastructures is a necessary prerequisite for the stronger pooling of existing resources.  Libraries in particular have a high degree of responsibility in both cases. In recent years they have regained freedom through massively improved coordination of their negotiation and acquisition strategies, which they themselves probably no longer thought they could claim. Now it is their turn to follow frequently formulated wishes with budgetary action.  This is not an easy task, since it presupposes redefining one’s own role. Not only the hesitant allocation of funds to Open Access can be critically questioned. Practical issues such as the cataloguing, hosting and repository strategy also need to be discussed more intensively — and, above all, the responsible persons need to act with due respect.

The greatest risk of Open Access is the loss of a holistic view of the goals and prerequisites of the model in libraries and for publishers, in favor of short-term optimization of egoistic interests.  Such a view may create an attractive new model for some, but a fundamental change is not possible. Only if system-establishing and -stabilizing cooperation and healthy competition can be balanced within defined limits can the science policy intention succeed.  This requires an infrastructure that is robust enough to accommodate traditional publishing systems and makes use of new ways of measuring usage.  


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