Direct to Open post-launch: Refreshers, partnerships, and catching up with Choice Authority File

Part one of our deep dive into Direct to Open (D2O) 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. Since our launch last spring, 150 institutions have signed on to Direct to Open, enabling us to publish our spring 2022 catalog of monographs and edited collections open access.

Recently, Emily Farrell, former library partnerships and sales lead at the MIT Press, and Curtis Brundy, associate university librarian at Iowa State University, 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.

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

Bill Mickey: In the next four episodes, Emily and Curtis will update us on Direct to Open’s progress and what they’ve learned along the way. Emily, I was hoping you could briefly catch us up about MIT Press’s Direct to Open project. 

Emily Farrell: Absolutely. Direct to Open is MIT Press’s incentivized library collective action model, which allows the Press to move our frontlist monographs—that’s around 90 books a year—to open access upon publication. In essence, the model was built to solve the challenge that we faced in trying to more comprehensively open monographs programs in a financially sustainable way. 

We launched exactly a year ago in March 2021. We’ve made some incredible progress and hit some impressive milestones. If I do say so myself, the most important milestone was reaching 50% funding by the end of 2021. To get that far along, we were really pleased. We’re certainly still working towards getting to 100% funding for this year to open the full frontlist of monographs, but reaching the halfway mark has meant that we were able to commit to opening our spring monographs. So that’s 37 books already that we’ve committed to opening. We started publishing books open already, and it’s certainly more books than we’ve ever been able to open in the frontlist before. It’s all due to the support of libraries worldwide coming together to increase access to knowledge through our monographs program, so it’s really been quite a hard and long process.

Bill Mickey: Excellent. Curtis, what initially interests you in this model? Why is it important in general terms? 

Curtis Brundy: Iowa State is somewhat unique among US libraries in that we have made a pretty significant commitment toward shifting collection spending toward open access. We are a land grant university with a mission to not only create knowledge, but to share it with Iowa and the world. So for us a model like this is incredibly exciting; it’s the type of open investment that we’re looking for. 

Some other particular things that are exciting: it’s the type of model that’s really easy for a library to participate in. We were already a subscriber to the frontlist for MIT Press, but of course that investment was doing nothing to open up the content. And so from one year to the next, we had an opportunity to move that investment and to open up this content; from an equity perspective, it’s really exciting. I think this is a bold and exciting move at a time when other university presses are prone to being quite conservative. MIT Press is leading the way with this model, putting a marker in the ground and leaving breadcrumbs behind so other presses can follow. It’s exactly what we want to see. So this couldn’t be any more exciting for us. 

Bill Mickey: Was it easy in the sense that it’s a no brainer because you’re already invested in OA, or was it practically more easy in terms of signing onto the program itself? Or both?

Curtis Brundy: Both are an open investment that’s in alignment with our strategy. So that was an easy part. And just the way that the model works, it’s simple. It’s no more challenging for us or complicated for us to be invoiced and pay for this than it was to pay for the frontlist when it was behind the paywall. It’s really the same back-end workflow for us. So from that aspect, it’s very easy. We’re actually participating through a library consortium for this—so that is another layer of simplicity for us. 

Bill Mickey: Right. Curtis, you’re on an advisory board for this project and I’m wondering, what’s been the board’s perspective on the project life cycle so far? Is there anything interesting or surprising that developed along the way?

Curtis Brundy: To clarify, the board we’re talking about is the MIT Press’s library advisory board, which actually advises both on the monograph side and the journal side. I guess something that is surprising is that I’ve been on these types of advisory boards for some number of years, and it’s not very exciting being on one of these advisory boards when the publishers are just talking about how to increase traditional sales behind the paywall. I’ve had enough of those conversations and I’m not interested in advising in that capacity anymore. So to be on this board at this time with the really diverse, inclusive group of library folks that they have recruited for it, it’s been really stimulating. It’s been remarkably collaborative with Emily and her colleagues. If one thing defines this open access transition moment, it’s this partnership that has developed between libraries and publishers. That is not what we had in the past; in the past it was a very transactional relationship. I think this advisory board really captures that transition in a way that has been exciting and fun and productive and collaborative. It’s just been phenomenal to be involved with Emily and her colleagues on that board. 

Bill Mickey: That’s excellent. So Emily, what have you learned so far as institutions have signed on or not signed on? Can you characterize some of those discussions you’ve been having with libraries—what they’re liking, what they’re not liking? 

Emily Farrell: Connecting to what Curtis has just mentioned about the library advisory board, in terms of working more directly with libraries and taking a more of a partnership and relationship approach—MIT Press launched the direct eBooks platform at the beginning of 2019, which has in the process allowed us to have a home for this model without having that control. I suppose for our eBooks distribution it would’ve made it more challenging to consider this model and what we are doing. And with that came a lot more direct connection with libraries. We’ve been lucky in a lot of ways to have started that process to then be able to build on that as we move into this new model. 

When we started having conversations about Direct to Open, we had a lot of really positive interactions. One of the challenges is that we know more about what the supporting libraries have to say about the model than we know about those who have kept silent. So that’s something we need to think a little bit more about. 

But a few of the challenges that stand out boil down to time and money. A library’s budget might be too tied up in series budgets, or they don’t yet have an open access fund. Though, we have seen a number of libraries come on board that are saying to us, “this is the first project that we’ve supported for open access. We’ve been looking for something that will fit what we do or what our faculty need.” As supporting libraries, they get access to the back file of our monographs—that’s another incentive and does increase access as well, especially for libraries that otherwise have not been able to purchase the content. 

We hear other feedback, too, like, “we want to support the model, but we’d rather support something that covers more presses.” At libraries where initiatives are new and the money that’s allocated to open access is small, they want to have the most impact with that fund as possible. It can seem like the best way to do that would be to cover more presses in a sort of an aggregation type approach. I understand that, but at the same time, we have to start somewhere. We can build a model that is usable by other presses, and that’s what we hope is the case with Direct to Open. We’re starting with the MIT Press but we certainly hope that’s not the end of it. 

Those are some of the challenges we’ve heard—but on the other hand, there’s been overwhelmingly positive feedback in terms of the fee structure. We built a 16-tier structure, so for the smallest institutions the fee is in reach. We have had smaller institutions interested and support the model and have been really pleased to see that there is a structure that takes account of their smaller budget. 

There’s a real understanding and appreciation of the individual benefit with the backfile access and the discounting on our trade books, and also the more equitable approach for authors. We’ve even had libraries come back and say, “we’re gonna support the model, but what’s the benefit for our authors after we support this?” To be able to say to the libraries that once this model is up and running, anybody who has their manuscript accepted and publishes a monograph with us can have their book published open access and nothing else needs to be done in terms of finding funding, that’s really exciting. But as Curtis said earlier, we were hoping that it would be easy to understand and easy to implement. 

I think sometimes there have been these moments where libraries have said, “what do we pay for the back list?”, as if there’s a hidden charge because it does seem that it might be a bit too good to be true. The equity for authors, the hope that this is part of a larger shift towards open access for monographs—those are both challenges and positive things. 

Bill Mickey: In January, MIT Press announced the publication of a white paper on the Direct to Open model, which is available now to be downloaded from MIT Press Direct. It’s a really detailed description of how the model was built, its overall structure, and important projections for participation and ultimately longevity of the program. 

Emily, can you talk about the modeling you did—which is one of the points that the white paper covers—to determine the quantity and types of institutions that would sign on? Then can you report on how well the current cohort of participating institutions matches up with those projections? 

Emily Farrell: I’ll do my best to honor the work that Raym Crow’s done as the architect of the model. Ultimately what we wanted to do in this modeling was make sure that, beyond the core need to be financially sustainable so that we can continue to do what we do in producing our monographs, is not just rely on a pure FTE or Carnegie classification for tiering. We knew that finding the right tiering structure can be challenging, because there’s such a range of budget sizes within each Carnegie classification, for instance. 

So, we made a fee structure that was more granular and used size and type data to look at the ways we might set tiering. But we also gathered as much data as we could on collections budget sizes, we pulled in our own revenue data, we looked at things like world cap holdings to understand historical purchasing patterns… All of those pieces were taken into account to try to set the fee structure and to estimate what percentage of the overall number of that type of institution might participate. 

We’ve seen the highest amount of contribution above-estimated level at the top end with the PhD institutions that are larger than 20,000. We predicted that we would have 49 of those institutions come on board as supporters—and we have 64 already. That’s been really exciting to see because, of course, they are the institutions with the larger budgets that have the highest fee in the table. Those institutions each make the largest, outsized contribution to the success of the model in pure dollar terms. 

On the other hand, for a lot of the much smaller institutions—like associate’s colleges smaller than 5,000—we don’t have any institutions in that particular category. The smaller institutions have been harder to reach. We don’t have a lot of those institutions on board yet. That’s a piece of the puzzle that we’re working on. 

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