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OAPEN – a new frontier?

I went to Goettingen in Germany at the start of this week, to kick off OAPEN, a project in open access publishing. It is quite cutting edge, as it is looking at open access in humanities monographs, where other open access projects look at journals in the sciences.

Ten years ago people were trumpeting that the publication of electronic versions of books online was the beginning of the end for the book. I remember feeling then, as I do now, that this was not the case at all. The digital publishing arena affords publishers an overwhelming range of new possibilities. Manchester University Press is a willing and enthusiastic participant in Google’s book search. We sell ebooks, albeit in fairly small numbers. We are deeply involved in exploring the cost saving advantages of digital printing. We have also provided online versions of our journals for nearly ten years.

With OAPEN, however, we are going one step further. Many people might see that step as heading towards the death of the book. We are exploring the possibilities of open access book publishing. We hope to publish books online, free of charge, with no access restrictions. I find that concept satisfyingly revolutionary. After all, you hardly ever come across a “real” book for free. Certainly you might be given catalogues, proofs or advance reading copies, but they are almost always promotional tools, aiming to sell a “proper” print run or a “proper” book.

Why on earth would a publisher be trying to do this? Surely it is hammering a nail into a publisher shaped coffin? There are strong reasons for investigating the open access route. Scientific journals have been trialling open access publishing for a few years now. The open access movement has many times called for important research to be made publicly available for the greater good.

The pressure which was initially placed on scientific journals publishers is now being directed towards the humanities and social sciences. We, as HSS publishers, need to ensure that we are ready for that pressure. We need to have considered the implications fully, and the only way to achieve that effectively is by joining together in a project such as OAPEN.

But I think that there is a better reason than simply responding to pressure. We are a University Press. As such we exist to further the aims of the University and the wider academic community. Specifically we exist to disseminate the results of academic research. We do this primarily by taking the results of such research, sending it for peer review, copy editing, proof reading, typesetting, indexing, printing and binding and so on. All of this costs money, so we charge for the resulting book.

Surely online, freely accessible monographs are better disseminated than costly, limited, printed ones? It is our duty therefore, as University Presses, to see whether we can give access.

Commercial presses would certainly not see the argument in the same way – although they may well end up in a form of Open Access publishing. There is a growing body of evidence that says that publication online of a freely accessible version of a book increases sales of the printed version. We certainly believe that to be the case and any book we publish in Open Access will have a printed version too. There may well be a shift in the funding models for research, which ends with grant giving bodies paying publishers for their publishing services. Authors themselves may pay, probably with departmental money. Quite how the finances will work is very uncertain. Finding a sustainable model for University Presses is one of the primary aims of OAPEN.

OAPEN will also embrace many new technologies along the way, and these could create an enhanced product – live linking of citations, better quality illustrations, perhaps even wiki style amendments and comments to online publications.

I don’t think we are about to see the end of the book – this is a project aimed at saving the monograph, and along the way we might just make it better.

I will keep you informed.

Ben Stebbing
Head of Sales and Marketing
Manchester University Press

See also OAPEN.com

And the Ithaka Report

Thursday, 4 September 2008
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