Starting from Scratch: Finding a Place for Open Access Monographs

Thanks to a three-year, $850,000 grant from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, the MIT Press is performing a broad-based monograph publishing cost analysis and will develop and openly disseminate a durable financial framework and business plan for open access (OA) monographs. The Press, a leader in OA publishing for almost 25 years, will also undertake a pilot program to implement the resulting framework for scholarly front and backlist titles.

Recently, Terry Ehling, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the MIT Press, and Raym Crow, a Senior Consultant at SPARC who is working with the Press on its OA publishing model initiative, appeared on the CHOICE Authority File podcast to talk about the project’s progress so far. Their conversation was distributed as a four-part podcast series.

A stream and edited transcript of the second episode in the series—”Starting from Scratch: Finding a Place for Open Access Monographs”—can be found below.

Bill Mickey: Welcome to the Authority File. I’m Bill Mickey, your host and the editorial director at CHOICE. In the next several episodes of this podcast, we’re going to be talking about open access monographs. More specifically, I’ll be joined by two guests from the MIT Press, which, thanks to an $850,000 grant from the Arcadia fund, is embarking on a three-year project to develop a financial framework and sustainable business plan for publishing OA monographs—a business plan that virtually any university press can implement. If the university press mission is to distribute knowledge and research as broadly as possible, then many in the market are increasingly looking to open access as a way to support that mission to its fullest.

Print monograph unit sales have plummeted in the last 20 years, clearly impeding that mission and causing presses to be more dependent on subsidies or other subventions as well as trade- and journal-based editorial strategies to remain viable. Joining me for this series are Terry Ehling, Director of Strategic Initiatives at MIT Press, and Raym Crow, a Senior Consultant at SPARC who is working with MIT Press on its OA publishing model initiative. In this second episode of our four part series, Terry and Raym describe MIT Press’s first steps in its Arcadia funded OA monograph publishing plan and what they’re discovering so far about the underlying economics of monograph publishing and distribution.

Bill Mickey: And Terry, I think it sounds like you’re the lead on MIT Press’s initiative here. Is the sustainability part of this project what you guys are really looking at? Right.

Terry Ehling: Oh, for sure. That’s absolutely critical. You know, we’re a long way from understanding the dynamics—economic, social, and cultural—of OA book publishing. So we think it’s imperative that individual presses continue to prototype new and mutually beneficial and, hopefully, non-rivalrous publication models that essentially treat scholarship as a public good.

Bill Mickey: So you see an opportunity here to come in and do what? Kind of develop a framework for the whole market, basically, to sort of apply it to whatever initiatives they’re doing themselves?

Terry Ehling: Yes, that’s the goal—to come up with a model that’s ecumenical. And that’s what we told Arcadia that we would do—because the report itself and the model will be made openly accessible. We’re hoping that it can be adopted by other university presses and other not-for-profit scholarly publishers.

Bill Mickey: And then, real quick, before we get into the Arcadia grant and what that all entails and what you guys want to do with that, let’s talk a little bit about what MIT Press’s own history is with OA experimentation and OA monograph publishing.

Terry Ehling: Sure. So, you know, this all kind of got started in 2017 when we were approached by Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive and asked to pilot a project to make our out-of-print books and aging in-print books available through the IA’s Open Library program. And that project was supported by the Arcadia Fund. We had no direct contact with the Fund at that time, but we were in touch indirectly through this project. When we decided we were ready to address the OA monograph opportunity directly, it made good sense for us to approach Arcadia. And they have been a terrific funding partner for us.

Bill Mickey: So tell us a little bit about this latest grant and what it entails. How you plan to use the funds, specifically?

Terry Ehling: This is the first time that we’ve been a direct beneficiary of Acadia funding. The grant was awarded last summer and the project was funded for three-year years. We’re halfway through the first year of the three-year grant term. Some of the funding is being used to offset direct and indirect costs of making approximately 50 titles—mostly frontlist titles—available for immediate access on our platform. So showcasing these titles now makes it possible to promote our activities to alert the library community we are working assiduously to try to develop a model for us while Raym works essentially behind the scenes to come up with a suite of models that we can consider and then eventually adopt.

Bill Mickey: Is there anything unique about the 50 frontlist titles that are released immediately in terms of pricing model or availability, or is it just the fact that you’re releasing this batch of titles OA that is helping to promote longer term efforts with this project?

Terry Ehling: We’ve been pretty thoughtful and inclusive in our decision making around the selection of this initial set of 50 titles. It involves our acquisitions editors and certainly our authors who need to agree that the books should be OA. And then, of course, what Creative Commons license they would like to apply to the work. So this is approved by the Arcadia team here at the press, so we’ve given careful thought to the books that are chosen, across a wide variety of disciplines, that we’ll be making available during this first round.

Bill Mickey: Is there’s anything about that process of selecting those titles that would hint at the model that you end up coming up with, or that you learn from that might contribute to the model?

Terry Ehling: To answer the last question, not yet. We’ve chosen these titles again based on a number of criteria that are not directly model-dependent, since we’re still in the process of crafting and designing the model. But these seem to be titles that met our criteria for being “hardcore” scholarly monographs. They were approved by the acquisitions editors and also by the authors of those books. Again, it’s a way for us to showcase this project and these books will start appearing on our platform within the next couple of weeks, and then right on through the fall. By the time we roll into Q3, Q4 of this calendar year, we expect to be able to talk more specifically about the model, as Raym has more time to analyze the data and other components that we need as inputs to the model designing process.

Bill Mickey: That’s a great segue. We’re very curious about Raym’s activities, in particular. And, and as I understand it, Raym, you’re exploring the underlying economics of OA monograph publishing. What data are you looking at? What’s available out there for you?

Raym Crow: Specifically we’re looking at the press’s data. We’re doing an environmental scan to understand the market overall, but we also need to know specifically what’s happening at the press; but practically speaking, this exercise really resembles more of what you see with a new product because just the nature of monograph publishing, and just in general, that doesn’t have the same kind of specific market data that you get from subscriptions or other kinds of products and services. The use of wholesalers and online dissemination through channel partners means the available data is very spotty. So again, we’re forced to treat it as a new service and really evaluate the market based on what we expect institutions of various types and sizes to do in terms of by subject area, for example, research and teaching needs.

Bill Mickey: So it sounds like you’re making projections rather than basing things on some sort of historical information, I would think. Right?

Raym Crow: Exactly. And that increases the uncertainty of the uptake projections and we have to take that into account in the modeling.

Bill Mickey: Can you walk us through that a little bit? How are you able to do that, to make those protections? What is available to you that gives you confidence in what you’re putting together?

Raym Crow: Well, there’s the market data you would have for any service where you can go out and identify institutions by their researcher and teaching focus, and say, “okay, this type of institution has the ability to pay and this kind of institution has the willingness to pay or the demand for it” and wind those things up. There’s an uncertainty built in which means risk. In terms of the projections, what we’ll do is test those for sensitivity to variations in actual market uptake.

Bill Mickey: You just heard from Terry Ehling, Director of Strategic Initiatives at MIT Press, and Raym Crow, a Senior Consultant at SPARC who is working with MIT Press on its OA monograph publishing initiative. This four-part series is brought to you by MIT Press. Join us next week when we continue our conversation and talk about what design criteria MIT Press is looking at for its publishing model and the revenue component of the business plan as well as how the model will not only support STEM titles but also the rest of the disciplines including the humanities.

Raym Crow: Another criterion is that the content has to be available immediately. We’re not going to use embargoes. We want to use an open license. This is the press’s decision obviously, but there will probably be a variety of open licenses available, of course, without any DRM restrictions. And the model needs to be as inclusive as possible and equitable to authors. So, that effectively eliminates processing charge models. The model has to generate sufficient revenue to cover the first copy costs of the monograph program overall. And that revenue has to be stable over time and predictable over time.

Bill Mickey: If you like what you hear, rate us or give us a review on your podcast platform of choice. And if there’s a topic you’d like us to cover, drop me a line. I’m at bmickey@ala-choice.org. As always, sponsorship and advertising for the Authority File podcast are handled by CHOICE’s, Advertising Manager, Pam Marino, and all of our episodes are produced by choices, Digital Media Specialist, Mark Derks, and Digital Media Assistant, Sabrina Cofer. That’s all for this week. Thanks for joining us.