To the rescue: How academic libraries can support humanities monographs through open access

Suzanne Kemperman


When we think about open access (OA) publishing in academia, it’s very often about articles. That is, relatively short, data- and research-focused pieces in peer-reviewed journals. Trends in open science, public funding, cost containment, and library collection development have driven a lot of those conversations, and they’re important.

Today, though, I’d like to talk about the scholarly monograph. Book-length content published as a stand-alone work is not the norm for many of the hard sciences. But it is often the end result of important work done in the humanities, liberal arts, and social sciences—and often required for tenure and promotion in those disciplines.

The trends we’re seeing in OA for article-level materials are very promising. But they also often work against monograph publishing, which is not good for academic presses working in the humanities.

There is an opportunity here, however, for academic libraries to engage in OA publishing to promote and protect the work being done by their humanities scholars.

Why monographs are different

When looking at the decline of humanities monograph publishing, it’s important to keep in mind two important ways in which books are different from articles, and how they’re used.

First, for long-form reading, many researchers still prefer to have a print copy, especially if it’s a work they’ll be reading closely and repeatedly. When it comes to articles, the online version is often enough.

Second, while journal articles often share authorship across several researchers and sometimes several institutions, books are often published by one author at one institution.

These differences make the publishing process for monographs distinctly different. They impose greater responsibilities on the author and the press and don’t support some of the cooperative benefit of a large-scale operation that processes thousands of articles.

What I’d like you to consider, though, is that these differences also provide some amazing opportunities for libraries to be leaders and innovators in supporting the value of the humanities and OA monograph publishing.

The benefits for your scholars

Academic book publishers are often mission-driven to support the creation and dissemination of high-quality scholarly research. APCs (Article Processing Charges) support the publication of OA journal publishing, while books need to recover their costs through sales. Therefore, books may offer free online versions but are supported by paid print publications. OA further supports global visibility and thereby increased usage of scholarly monographs. Research by the Open Access Publishing in European Networks (OAPEN) back in 2013 offered some good news for your scholars and book authors: having an online, OA version of a book does not decrease print sales. As we see an increase in OA monographs, this will be subject to careful monitoring to finesse optimal publishing models.

In addition, online access to books provides marketing for the print version. OA also improves the reach and impact of your faculty’s/researchers’ work. The online work can itself attract increased citations, mentions, and recognition, etc. OCLC’s WorldCat Discovery and support this visibility and use of academic books, as do other discovery services and research tools.

We also find that while arguments made in a book are typically longer and more involved, OA publishing can promote “component” work. That is, a reader can search for and discover a portion of a scholar’s work that may not be readily apparent. So, by opening the content, authors can reveal more granular connections. This often results in new and valuable discussions with peers that might not have happened otherwise.

What can my library do?

Monograph publishing provides a great opportunity for small- and medium-sized academic libraries and consortia to have a “seat at the table” in terms of OA discussions. Many of the conversations around article publishing are, by necessity, dominated by the larger players in the publishing ecosystem. But there is no reason that your library can’t formulate an OA monograph publishing plan for your scholars, coordinate with others in a group or consortium or cooperative, and work in a way that most closely benefits your library and institution.

So, while traditional publishers may say that libraries can purchase more scholarly monographs, we know that their high costs have presented challenges. And we also know that libraries have been strong supporters of OA from the beginning. Libraries can support the OA “cultural shift” by informing their faculty about existing OA publications and options in their field. They can also provide funding or support joint funding via Knowledge Unlatched (KU) and other organizations to make scholarly monographs openly available.

When it comes to discovery, that’s where the library can add even more value. Since the larger platforms for article publishing own proprietary platforms, it will be up to the library to help get e-books and print monographs into the flow of online search and discovery. For e-books, that can happen through partnerships with organizations like the Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB), which is indexed in WorldCat alongside KU and hundreds of other OA collections. Or through cooperative cataloging in OCLC WorldCat, which is making OA materials more discoverable regardless of publisher.

Publishing is not a task to be undertaken lightly, of course. But supporting your scholars in book publishing—be it via your university press, faculty outreach, your own or third-party OA publishing initiatives—provides a unique way for your library to be deeply and substantially involved in the success of your institution’s scholarly output.