Publishers' surpluses should further scholarship, say academics

Only a fifth of humanities and social science academics regard it as acceptable for academic publishers to make a profit that is not reinvested in their disciplines.

This is among the findings of a survey of nearly 700 academics in the fields carried out as part of a research project into the feasibility of open-access monographs.

The OAPEN-UK project, which started in 2010, is gathering evidence from publishers, funders, authors and universities and running a pilot to determine how monographs, such as books and longer papers, could be made open access.

There was very little difference in respondents' attitude towards the acceptability of profit in open-access and traditional publishing. In both cases, just over 50 per cent thought profit-making was acceptable provided that it was reinvested in disciplines or spent on making more open-access content available.

About 20 per cent of respondents said it was only acceptable to make enough profit to cover costs, while a similar proportion said profits were permissible regardless of how they were spent.

However, the figures varied considerably across career stages. Just under 11 per cent of PhD students thought profit acceptable no matter how it was spent, compared with nearly 28 per cent of professors.

That most academics approved of profit in some form augured well for the author-pays open-access model that the Jisc and Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project is piloting, said Caren Milloy, head of projects at Jisc Collections.

The survey also demonstrates academics' continuing attachment to books - 75 per cent rated the production of a hard copy an important service performed by publishers. Saying that more work was needed to probe the reasons, Ms Milloy noted that an open-access framework could permit printing on demand.

The two most highly rated services provided by publishers were distribution and marketing. These were also the services that the scholars surveyed - especially senior academics - would be least willing to perform themselves in an open-access environment, the study found.

Ms Milloy said that she had expected academics to be comfortable doing the blogging and tweeting that would constitute marketing in an open-access environment and wondered whether they considered such activities to be marketing.

She also said that she was surprised at how highly academics rated the marketing done by traditional publishers given that the average print sales of each monograph stands at about 200 copies.

"The whole reason we are looking at open-access monographs is that sales figures for print have dropped dramatically over the past couple of decades. There might be a slight disparity between what academics think is happening and what the publishers are [actually] providing," she said.

Another potential barrier to fully open-access monographs is respondents' reluctance to permit the kinds of reuse that many advocates regard as core to the open-access ethos, with almost 80 per cent of respondents favouring the most restrictive type of Creative Commons licence.

"It is about maintaining the authoritative version of their work and not having people coming and 'messing' with it," Ms Milloy said.

The OAPEN-UK project runs until 2015. It was cited in the recent Finch report on open access as an example of the "experimentation in open-access publishing for scholarly monographs" that should continue.

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