Lara Speicher argues that open access publishing can disseminate knowledge to an extent impossible under traditional models
In an article in the Guardian in February, Stephen Curry, Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College London, described the public health emergency of the Zika virus, and the response of a consortium of funders, institutes and publishers that have made a commitment to sharing data and results relevant to the crisis "as rapidly and openly as possible". The article called for a total rethink of the current journal publishing model for science, where the publication of crucial data is often delayed and behind a paywall.
While publishing for the arts, humanities and social sciences may not address the kind of life and death matters facing science, the argument for free availability to research in these areas still applies. Publishing in the arts and humanities is mainly in the form of monographs and edited collections, rather than journal articles. During the last couple of decades, a vicious cycle has emerged where sales figures for scholarly monographs have decreased, often to just 100-250 copies in their lifetime worldwide, and retail prices have consequently increased. This has occurred for a number of reasons, including the rise of digital publishing and the squeezing of library budgets by journal subscription costs. Increasingly, this scenario is proving unacceptable to many academics, their funders and institutions, who believe that research, which has often taken years to produce, should be read and accessed as widely as possible.
Breaking the cycle
The open access model can break this cycle of decreased sales and increased prices, as it allows content to be freely available, either to be read online or downloaded in PDF form. Funding models currently include institutional subsidy; BPCs (book publication charges), usually paid by funders or the author's institution; or "freemium" models, where only an online version is available freely and all other formats such as ebook and print are charged for.
UCL Press launched in June 2015 as the UK's first fully open access university press. The 11 books we have published so far have been downloaded more than 18,000 times in nine months. A particular example of how the open access model reaches readers around the world in ways the print book cannot may be seen with Participatory Planning for Climate Compatible Development in Maputo, Mozambique. The book was published in November 2015 and sold about 20 copies in print form, a figure that makes it commercially unviable. However, it has been downloaded more than 1,300 times across 90 countries in three months. This demonstrates that the book does have an audience, but one that is made up of readers spread far and wide, often living in countries that are difficult to reach with print copies and where they might be unaffordable in any case.
When I was setting up UCL Press, there was scepticism from some towards open access. But there were also some notable authors already convinced of the benefits of the model. Among them were Professor Lisa Jardine, eminent Renaissance historian and author; Laura Vaughan, Professor of Urban Form and Society at UCL's Bartlett School of Architecture; and Danny Miller, Professor of Anthropology at UCL and author of many books, including Consumption and Its Consequences and Tales from Facebook. Miller has argued for open access publication for some time, and believes that: "We have ceded control of dissemination to inappropriate commercial concerns that come to stand for what should have been academic criteria."
When Miller first told me about his global social media project, Why We Post, which had nine anthropologists working in field sites round the world studying social media, and that he wanted to publish a monograph on each country of study, I was immediately enthusiastic.
Two years on, and the first books in the series are gathering well-deserved media attention. These are fascinating and readable insights into the ways people use social media, and the differences and similarities that can be seen around the world - it is intriguing to learn about the lives of young Turkish women living on the border with Syria, and factory workers in China who have joined one of the greatest migrations ever seen, from rural regions to industrial towns.
These books are about people's lives. But they are also academically challenging; author and academic Tara Brabazon has said about Miller's own book in the series, Social Media in an English Village: "I'm going to summon a word that I rarely use in relation to social media scholarship: radical… From this book, many influential studies will emerge."
Overcoming the barrier
Distributing books in print form in many of the countries that are studied in Why We Post will be difficult, and open access publication will overcome that barrier, so readers in India, China, Brazil, Turkey, Chile, Trinidad and Italy, as well as in England, can freely access the books. The results: within a few days of publication, the first three books were downloaded 2,500 times, in 80 countries. The project results are also published on a dedicated website in the form of articles, blogs and videos, and the project has also produced a MOOC (massive open online course) in eight languages, to which 12,000 people have subscribed.
Perhaps the future will see more research outputs being published in this way: openly and in multiple formats, made truly accessible in order to reach the widest audience possible. The benefits are enormous - from giving isolated people (and indeed, cash-strapped students) access to education and information, to finding solutions to health crises such as Ebola and Zika.
Lara Speicher is Publishing Manager of UCL Press.
This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch London Book Fair Show Daily.