Open Access, Open Minds: Who should be the academic gatekeepers?

By Caroline Wintersgill

This article was originally published in The Author (Journal of the Society of Authors).

The debate on open access for academic research has reached boiling point – it is difficult to open a serious newspaper or have a conversation with anyone connected to a university without it coming up. Less discussed, outside the pioneering fringes of the open innovation agenda, are the likely effects on wider book markets, our cultural and intellectual life, and the very possibility of a writing career.

The argument that publicly funded research (or research conducted as part of a university contract) should be freely available to read by anyone who wants it around the globe is a compelling one, especially for academics who have spent years writing their major book, to find that it has sold only 200 copies at a stratospherically high price. Following the publication of the Finch Report in 2012, the government has announced its adoption of a ‘clear policy direction’towards open access for all publicly funded research, with preference given to a model from science publishing in which the publisher charges an Article Processing Charge (APC).

This raises two significant areas of concern. The first is the major difference between scientific research, in which it is the dissemination of the research findings that matters, and the creative and imaginative labour of the humanities researcher, in which value is created in the acts of thinking about and writing the book or article. The second is how a model developed for journals might be extended to books which, in the humanities and social sciences, are of equal, if not greater importance.

Moves by certain funding bodies (the Wellcome Trust, for example) to mandate full open access on the scientific model (so-called ‘gold’ open access) for all research they have funded, including that published in book form, rest on two dangerous assumptions. The first is that books written by academics are effectively extended journal articles – primarily vehicles to report on the findings of research projects. The second is that the traditional academic publisher is a ‘gatekeeper’: the Heracles of the academic world, restricting access to the Mount Olympus of public recognition. The furious backlash against some scientific journal publishers, accused in the open-access debates of taking publicly funded knowledge and selling it back to academia at vast cost without significant added value, seems to have coloured views of the industry more generally. It led to George Monbiot’s memorable denunciation of academic publishers as ‘knowledge monopoly racketeers’.

Both assumptions devalue the creative, imaginative and collaborative labour of authors and publishers. There is no room in this model for the ‘cross-over’ title – those books rooted in academic knowledge but structured and written to appeal to a much broader general audience. It’s debatable whether A Brief History of Time, The Origins of the Second World War or Morality would ever have been published had Stephen Hawking, A.J.P. Taylor or Bernard Williams been reliant on a university or a funding body stumping up an APC of £11,000 (the figure presently charged by a number of leading academic publishers). Even if they had, it is doubtful whether it would have been the same book. Nor is there room for the non-tenured specialist, writing serious scholarly books without the benefit of a university affiliation.

I have been an academic publisher for 25 years and have, over that time, shepherded hundreds of books to publication. I’ve published work that has achieved international recognition and work that is important and beautifully written yet has failed to break into the audience it deserves. I find it very hard to think of myself as a gatekeeper. I do not spend my time deciding between hundreds of fully-formed books, ready to be launched to a willing audience.

I think of myself more as an enabler – someone who knows the commercial book market, is able to see what’s interesting and potentially saleable about a book, and can help the author to develop it. Some of what I publish comes in the form of a speculative book proposal in which, almost invariably, some revision is required and often radical restructuring. Some comes as the result of collaboration – comments on a conference paper, or a chance conversation on campus. Some is more actively commissioned. OUP’s Very Short Introductions, Fontana Modern Masters and Continuum’s 33⅓ series were publisher-created series. All have had significant impact in academia and in the wider literary marketplace. They have helped to make knowledge public.

My concern about the article processing charge recommended by Finch and generally seen as a requirement of ‘gold’ open access, is that it puts creative control into the hands of funding bodies and university administrators, removing it from authors and publishers who are experts in making it appeal to the widest possible audience. My argument is with the implementation of open access, it is not a grouch about open access itself.

As an editor, one of the most depressing experiences you can have is seeing an important, original, brilliant book– enhanced by creative work from editorial, design, production and marketing people– launch and sell only a couple of hundred copies to academic libraries. As publishers, what we should be aiming to do is to make things public.The academic book industry was once pretty good at that, and has been less good in the last ten years.

So, along with a number of publishing colleagues, I welcomed and have watched closely the genesis of the open-access movement and the debates on Creative Commons (CC) licensing. And for the past four years I have experimented with a new ‘open’ model of publishing for Bloomsbury. More than 80 scholarly booksare now available for online accessvia the publisher’s website, under CC licences.The books appear in html format – we have taken trouble to ensure that they are readable and attractive, but they are not designed for printing or downloading to an ebook reader. Our aim is for readers to be able to browse, reference our authors’ work and cite it in their own – but we also hope that they will decide to buy a print edition or a fully functional version of the ebook. We also aim to enable students and scholars from the developing world and general readers with no access to a library collection to read and engage with the work online.There is no embargo period, and no APC is required – this is a publisher-funded and publisher-designed initiative to establish whether it is possible to ‘open’ a book to a wider public while simultaneously publishing on a traditional, commercial model.

In academic debates, the assumption is often made that the existence of a free online text will radically diminish print sales and destroy digital sales (thus the need to compensate publishers for lost revenues with an APC). This view has been challenged by open-access advocates – Cory Doctorow argues that as a novelist his problem is not piracy, it is obscurity. But my experience at Bloomsbury is that average commercial sales of ‘open’ titles are about 10% ahead of comparable ‘non-open’ titles. Titles with ‘cross-over’ potential to a wider audience seem to have prospered on the programme – those titles which have been very widely accessed online (10,000 hits or more) have generally also been our commercial bestsellers, and a handful of titles on the programme, notably those in which the author’s social media presence is strong, have sold radically better than expected.

I do not claim an unqualified success. Edited books, especially those covering particularly topical debates, seem to have suffered.  And I make no claim that ours is a definitive solution to the challenges of open access. But it harnesses the exciting possibilities of digital dissemination and CC licensing to enhance what is good about the publishing industry and enable authors to find new markets.

There are plenty of other models being trialled: the Open Access Directory lists experiments in collaborative underwriting, cross subsidising, crowd-funding and temporary open access, among others. My plea is for creative thinkers in the book industry – publishers, authors, booksellers, agents, librarians – to be clear about what we can gain from open access. There are myriad possibilities not touched on here: the resurrection of long out-of-print books, exposure to a wider range of writers from the global south, experimental projects in new genres by established authors, and so on.

And just as importantly we need to be clear about what we stand to lose if access to book markets becomes part of a political agenda and public exposure a matter of who can afford to pay. Writers and scholars (and, yes, sometimes publishers too) havebeen the drivers of our extraordinary literary and intellectual culture. We must not allow control of this vital heritage to pass unchallenged into the hands of bureaucrats.

Caroline Wintersgill is Senior Commissioning Editor at Bloomsbury. She was one of a small team who launched Bloomsbury’s Open Content programme in 2009. She has an MSc in Politics from Birkbeck College London and an MA in Contemporary Literature from the University of Winchester. This article is written in a personal capacity. 

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