Peer into the Crystal Ball: Finding a Place for Open Access Monographs

Defining the framework: Finding a place for open access monographs

Terry Ehling and Raym Crow discuss the MIT Press’s project to develop and openly disseminate a durable financial framework and business plan for open access monograph publishing

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 third episode in the series—“Defining the Framework: 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 couple of 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 twenty 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 are Terry Ehling, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the MIT Press, and Raym Crow, a Senior Consultant at SPARC who is working with the MIT Press on its OA publishing model initiative. In this third episode of our four part series, Terry and Raym talk about what design criteria the MIT Press is looking at for its publishing model, the revenue component of the business plan, and how the model will not only support STEM titles, but also the rest of the disciplines, including the humanities.

Bill Mickey: Correct, you’re also looking at this point at the design criteria for your model? Can you talk about a little bit more about what you’ve got so far in that respect?

Raym Crow: Sure. We really started with identifying what the parameters were going to be for the model. Among other criteria, the Press wants the model to integrate with its current editorial processes to minimize or eliminate any perceived difference with the existing monograph model, in order to ensure that authors accepted and continue to find the Press an attractive publishing venue. So that’s the first thing—we’re not assuming any fundamental change in the cost structure for the monographs. That’s going to stay the same. And that’s going to eliminate some models I mentioned earlier. For models that are going to be the principal model, you have to have a very low-cost structure and those kinds of models will be counter-indicated, in the Press’s case. Now the criterion is that the content has to be available immediately. We’re not going to use embargoes. We want to use an open license and there will be a variety of open licenses available, and of course without any DRM restrictions. And the model needs to be as inclusive as possible and equitable to authors. So, that effectively eliminates models based on processing charges, and, on the other hand, the model has to generate sufficient revenue. Foremost to cover the cost—the first copy cost—of the monograph program overall. And that revenue has to be stable over time and predictable over time. And those are critical elements of the model as well. And as Terry said earlier, we want it to be replicable by other presses.

Bill Mickey: Okay. So, in the process of establishing these criteria and going through that and inherently sort of eliminating various models, because of those criteria, are you left with some choices? And I’m particularly curious in the revenue aspect, I think you might be leaning towards a subscription or serials-based model? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Raym Crow: Well, one of the things we need to do is to ensure that the revenue generated is stable over time. So that’s inherently going to be some kind of serial model, and with collective models, one of the issues is it has to be designed in such a way to ensure that stability. Otherwise what happens is there will be institutions that will join initially—institutions that have a philosophical predisposition towards open models for example—but over time there will be erosion in their levels of support. So we need to take whatever the model ends up being, and again, I suspect it’s going to include elements of several different kinds of models, such as private benefits exclusive to participating in institutions, and in a collective model, collective aspect of the model, at the same time.

Bill Mickey: Speaking of sort of the philosophical angle or even the ideological angle, what kind of navigation, if at all, are you finding that you’re needing to go through as you explore the various revenue models or revenue opportunities here? The sustainability aspects and so on, in lining that up with the philosophical and ideological expectations that OA brings along with it?

Raym Crow: You’re asking, how is the financial model going to align with the philosophical principles?

Bill Mickey: Yeah, it’s kind of a very 30,000-foot kind of question. There’s a lot of philosophical baggage, so to speak, you know, attached to open access, and different institutions have different ideas of what that looks like. I’m just curious to see how, as you’re working through the discovery phase of building this sustainability model, how that plays into it.

Terry Ehling: Where the sweet spot is?

Bill Mickey: Yeah.

Raym Crow: Well, there are a variety of commitment levels to OA and a variable ability to act on these commitments across institutions in North America and globally. So, one thing we find when we talk about these models, especially collective models, is if you embrace a model that delivers local value but also a local benefit that’s exclusive to the institution participating, it’s in their rational self-interest to participate. That’s more like a traditional market model in one sense. Where with the collective model coordinating and inducing participation initially, and over time, is the real challenge. And so what we know we’ll find and we find already with these kinds of collective models, is institutions that are, at least in North America and in parts of Western Europe, committed to open access and will leave behind the models. But they can’t, it’s not scalable for those institutions to support everything. And we want there to be a scalability. We want there to be equity. And so there’s often also a divergence between a philosophical position and the rhetoric of institutions and their actual participation in some of these models. And so that’s why you can’t rely on everybody who says, “yes, we’re behind open access” to a select few who opt to pay, because there are other factors as well. Public institutions operate under constraining procurement policies. And so, even if they want to participate, those policies are variously applied. And so we need a way to allow all institutions to participate at some level or as many institutions as possible. And that’s always the issue with collective support models: how do you maximize participation? You’re not ever going to get everyone and you’re seldom going to get no one. I mean, people will come in and say, “yes, we want to be involved” even on a fully altruistic basis. The problem is that kind of support erodes over time, again, because that’s not sustainable, and it’s unscalable and inequitable.

Bill Mickey: Okay. Terry, anything you wanted to add to that?

Terry Ehling: No, I think that’s exactly right. It’s still a very dynamic area right now. You know, libraries seem to be redoubling their commitment to open access, but I think in some ways they are also waiting to see what publishers and aggregators and other service providers are going to propose by way of models that they can respond to appropriately.

Bill Mickey: Okay. So the MIT Press in particular may likely have more STEM or STEAM titles available, but what you guys are doing in terms of developing a sustainable OA model under the Arcadia grant is not necessarily limited to those particular disciplines, right? This is something you’re looking at that any university press can adopt.

Terry Ehling: That’s right. The model will support all of our monographs. Although STEM titles will have their own target audiences clearly. But Raym and I do not anticipate that specific disciplines will have a practical effect on the structure of the model itself.

Bill Mickey: Okay. You just heard from Terry Ehling, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the MIT press and Raym Crow, a Senior Consultant at SPARC who is working with the MIT Press on their OA monograph publishing initiative. This four-part series is brought to you by the MIT Press. Join us next week for our final episode of this series where we dare to predict the future of OA monograph publishing and how open access monographs could change the dynamic between the press and its institution and the competitive landscape overall.

Raym Crow: It would be great to, say, look at the model. It’s going to be so compelling that all the attention is focused on the MIT Press, but that’s not the objective here, certainly. We’re assuming we’ll be using the same editorial standards and processes as applied to conventional monographs and using standard licenses and contracts. The Press will be able to maintain its competitive position vis-a-vis other presses. It’s not seeking this as primarily for competitive advantage. This is about access and equity. The goal is not to dominate the market. The goal is to come up with a durable OA model that makes it possible for the Press to continue its current operations, maintain its editorial standards, and continue to be self-sustaining.

Learn more about open access publishing at the MIT Press