MIT Press’s Direct to Open, part three: Bridging the library and press divide

Part three of our deep dive into the MIT Press’s new sustainable framework for open access monographs, with the Choice Authority File podcast

In March 2021, we announced the launch of Direct to Open (D2O), a sustainable framework for open access monographs. D2O moves professional and scholarly books from a solely market-based, purchase model where individuals and libraries buy single eBooks, to a collaborative, library-supported open access model. Instead of purchasing a title once for a single collection, libraries now have the opportunity to fund them once for the world through participant fees.

Recently, Emily Farrell, Library Partnerships and Sales Lead at the MIT Press, and Greg Eow, President of the Center for Research Libraries, appeared on the Choice Authority File podcast to talk about the model and the opportunity it presents. Their conversation was distributed as a four-part podcast series. Go back and listen to the first and second episodes here.

Listen to the third episode in the series and read along with an adapted transcript below.


Bill Mickey: In this third episode of our four-part series sponsored by MIT Press, we dig deeper into Direct to Open's model, key performance indicators, and how models like these can re-engage libraries and university presses. What I'm also very curious about—obviously we've said that the model's not just for MIT Press, but a version of it can be adoptable by any other press—and I'm wondering what that might look like down the road. Will it be similar to what you're doing? Are there other variables built into the model that other presses could implement based on how they conduct their own business? What might that look like in terms of other presses using this model?

Emily Farrell: That's a good question. In putting the model together and taking the structure of it and working with our own content, there are a few things that we wanted to do that didn't end up fitting, and I think other presses will find the same issue.

One of the central ones was it would have been preferable to have three collections, three subject areas to bring the possible threshold lower, so we would be able to fund one third and two thirds and so forth. But especially at a press with the program that we have, which is incredibly interdisciplinary, trying to do that is not simple; trying to create three evenly-spaced or sized collections was complicated. We needed to take into account the backend logistics. One of the things that we've learned a lot about in the process of having our own ebooks platform is the amount of work it takes from our data services side to ensure that books are going into the right collections without too much manual labor. Having to work line-by-line on every single book to make sure that happens is labor intensive.

So we wanted to make sure that this model was built in such a way that it's not adding too much more labor to a reasonably lean team. And I think that other presses will probably find the same thing, or may find that they want to have very specific subject collections—a history collection, a politics collection—and choose only to do that. I would hope that in the context of using this model, a press that feels most comfortable about making their military history program open will be able to do that and have it be a smaller scale project to start with—or only do that and go from there. And to me that is what I think will be most beneficial and how it will differ the most is in how presses choose to put their content into the model.

Bill Mickey: We’ve talked about how one of the success factors is a certain threshold of library participation in the model. But I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about some of the other key performance indicators that you'd be examining along the way as you roll this out. Obviously number of libraries committing is one; what might some others be?

Emily Farrell: Something that I find interesting about open access books in particular—and Greg already talked about what a complex landscape it is for libraries—is it's also complicated for presses, but it's also complex for authors, for researchers. And I think that there are ways that, particularly in comprehensively opening scholarly books, we are able to piece these fragments together a bit better, and to try to make things a little easier for authors as well, and for them to understand what's going on and what a press is offering, what their options are.

I would hope that—particularly for authors in humanities and social sciences disciplines for whom monographs are most important, but who I think are still the most hesitant and concerned that there may be some sort of lowering of value when it comes to making your book open—we're able to sort of show authors how valuable that is. So I think that is one important performance metric, if you like, to see that we have buy-in from our authors and that they see the value of it, they see that their books are more widely read or more widely cited. I know that's also not necessarily easily shown as a one-to-one, but I think that the researcher piece of this is incredibly important.

Even beyond whether this model is successful, continuing to increase the collaboration with libraries—we've talked about that already, but I think that can't be stated enough how valuable that is in how we're going to change this landscape—and really listening to the feedback that we get. We just launched the Press's first library advisory board this January. And so the value of those conversations really are more and more central to what we're doing, and this model is just a piece of that picture.

So I'd say those are the two important parts of it. And then as well, in the longer term, to see the model taken up in different ways by other important monograph publishers and seeing this provide a more financially sustainable way to publish high quality monographs.

Bill Mickey: Greg, I'm wondering—putting on sort of the “consortia hat”—how they might influence the model, so to speak, and/or perpetuate OA concepts more broadly, and for university presses more specifically. I'm wondering what types of conversations you might be looking forward to with MIT Press in this regard, but maybe other presses too, as hopefully the model gets adopted elsewhere.

Greg Eow: Well, I think that one of the things that consortia can do is use the power of their network to help focus attention on worthy models. Because when I think of the scholarly communications crisis or the Serials Crisis, we oftentimes think about that in terms of costs. But I increasingly think about it in terms of cost on attention. It's just hard to think of all the capacity lost among research libraries or presses or faculty, just trying to make sense of this incredibly complicated and dynamic ecosystem.

So we at the consortia level are looking at all of these different experiments, and we believe that these four or five experiments in the OA space—whether it's journals or monographs in this instance, or maybe another partnership in some way—this is what we want to invest in. This is what deserves our attention. I think that alone could be helpful because there's such strong appetite among the hundreds of libraries, thousands of libraries in the country to get involved in this open game—but how can you do it in a way that makes sense, and isn't duplicating efforts, or working across purposes? And I think consortia could play a really helpful role in guiding library attentions to projects that seem especially promising. I'm keen for CRL to play that role, but that's something that all consortia could do to one degree or another.

Bill Mickey: That makes me think, Greg, as you look at some of these models—and you don't have to speak specifically to CRL, but more broadly even—what would be some criteria that one might use to evaluate a model to know that it's important enough to get behind?

Greg Eow: When it comes to creating long-form scholarship, peer reviewed scholarship, academic publishing, I look to partners that share the same incentives. And commercial publishers, their main incentive is profitability. But a university press, it's certainly to recover costs, cost recovery—but it's to further knowledge production.

So the first thing I look for is if there is truly mission alignment at the level of incentives? And so I'm looking for nonprofit publishers—you can get more granular, you can get into business models within the nonprofit space—but I look for, "Are we aligned in terms of mission and incentives?" That's one, and that's probably the most important thing. The second thing I'm looking for is, "Does this experiment produce and incentivize excellent content, really good scholarship, books and monographs that the world is better for them existing? Is good content a result?"

And the third thing I'm looking for (and this may sound a little strange, but I think it's essential) is, "Does this experiment meaningfully change the conversation between academic presses, university presses, and libraries? Does it change the relationship? Does it change the conversation in some meaningful way?"

I refer to this as the ice cream social challenge. When I was at the MIT libraries, we wanted to work with the MIT Press; they're part of the same organization, literally the same administrative organization on campus, but also part of MIT. We would have our annual library ice cream social, and we started to invite all our colleagues at the Press, of course, because we're all colleagues. And I look at a measure success as if, year on year, there would be fewer pockets of just Press and just library people at the ice cream social. That is one of my key success metrics.

And here's something I wanted to do in a prior conference I was at. We had librarians and archivists in the room, and we're talking about open access and the schol-comm crisis. I didn't ask this of the audience but I really wish I had; the question would have been to this audience of librarians, "Raise your hand if you have a personal relationship with a sales representative from a for-profit company." I'd expect all the hands to go up. And then I would say, "Leave your hand up if you have a single relationship with a staff member of a university press." Those hands were all going to come down, or a very large number of the hands are going to come down. That is a key data point in the schol-comm crisis.

Bill Mickey: One of my questions was going to be, this model sounds like it can re-engage libraries and university presses over a common passion, which is obviously open access, but also the shared mission of disseminating research and knowledge as widely as possible. Emily, what ways would this model encourage that? And what are some of the ways these partnerships might strengthen ties between libraries and presses?

Emily Farrell: Hear, hear to all of those things. Being at a university press that really is one of reasonably few that has a library sales or library relations position is such a privileged position to be in, to get to have that relationship directly with libraries. But even at MIT Press, this position hasn't existed for all that long.

So, I do think that there are so many conversations going on on the library side about commercial consolidation, about the importance for university-owned infrastructure. And that's what university presses are: we are university infrastructure and we do have a different view on, or are able to be more part of the conversation about things like data privacy, about archiving and why that matters. It's easy to sort of summarize that all by saying, "mission alignment, values alignment." But I think the great thing about having these conversations directly is that we can talk about all the pieces of that and what that means. How are we approaching open data? How are we approaching university repositories? Are there ways that we can be doing that better as a press that is part of an institution?

But the conversations do have to be sometimes about it being the “ice cream social,” in the ways that those sort of comfortable, friendly conversations happen between sales reps at commercial presses and with librarians because of the resources that are available at those sorts of presses. But the first step is doing that with your own institution, if you're at a university press: talk to your library, go in and make sure that they know that you aren't just part of some large conglomerate. There's so much that university presses do.

And also on the individual level, I feel like a lot of the people at university presses are a lot more like people that staff libraries. There's an incredible number of very idealistic, nerdy, bookish folks that really they love what they do, and they do it because the mission really matters personally. And I think that personal resonance and connection shouldn't be undervalued in terms of what that can produce in a cultural shift between libraries and presses and how that sharing of knowledge can change what we do.

Keep listening with the fourth and final episode in the series.


Learn more about D2O or sign-up to become a participating institution

D2O was developed with the generous support of the Arcadia Fund, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. In the summer of 2021, the Press will release a report on the D2O program that peer institutions can adopt and adapt, with the aim of making it possible for many more scholarly monographs published each year by university and other mission-driven presses to be discovered, accessed, and shared broadly.