Open Access E-books Part One, from Eric Hellman

No Shelf Required: E-books in LibrariesI’ve been working on on a book chapter for a book edited by No Shelf Required‘s Sue Polanka. My chapter covers “Open Access E-Books”. Over the next week or two, I’ll be posting drafts for the chapter on the blog. Many readers know things that I don’t about this area, and I would be grateful for their feedback and corrections. Today, I’ll post the introduction, subsequent posts will include sections on Types of Open Access E-Books, Business Models for Open Access E-Books, and Open Access E-Books in Libraries. Note that while the blog always uses “ebook” as one word, the book will use the hyphenated form, “e-book”.

Open Access E-Books

As e-books emerge into the public consciousness, “Open Access”, a concept already familiar to scholarly publishers and academic libraries, will play an increasing role for all sorts of publishers and libraries. This chapter discusses what Open Access means in the context of e-books, how Open Access e-books can be supported, and the roles that Open Access e-books will play in libraries and in our society.

The Open Access “Movement”

Authors write and publish because they want to be read. Many authors also want to earn a living from their writing, but for some, income from publishing is not an important consideration. Some authors, particularly academics, publish because of the status, prestige, and professional advancement that accrue to authors of influential or groundbreaking works of scholarship. Academic publishers have historically taken advantage of these motivations to create journals and monographs consisting largely of works for which they pay minimal royalties, or more commonly, no royalties at all. In return, authors’ works receive professional review, editing, and formatting. Works that are accepted get placement in widely circulated journals and monograph catalogs.

In the late 1970’s and 1980’s academic libraries became acutely aware that an expansion of research activity had resulted in the growth of both the numbers of journals and the numbers of articles published in the journals. The combination of increased subscription prices and the number of journals needed to support research resulted in a so-called “serials crisis”. Libraries were forced to cancel subscriptions. The reduction in circulation forced publishers to raise subscription prices further to make ends meet, and the resulting cycle of cancellations and price increases led to a fear that the whole system would collapse. If few libraries could afford subscriptions, fewer scholars would be able to read the articles, diminishing the attractiveness of publishing.

The advent of web-based publications in the 90’s led many to believe that the solution to the serials crisis would be a shift of the scholarly publishing industry to so-called “Open Access” business models. Open Access publications are those that can be read at no cost to the reader or the reader’s institution. The traditional model of publishing supparted by subscription fees was thus styled as “Toll-Access” publishing. It was hoped that the combined cost reductions from digital distribution and automation would stop the cycle of rising expenditures.

Perhaps the most successful implementation of Open Access has been ArXiv, a database of digital preprints and reprints (“e-prints”) originally focusing on the particle physics community. Originally started by Paul Ginsparg, a physicist at Los Alamos National Labs, ArXiv is now located at Cornell University and hosts more than 670,000 scientific articles in e-print form. Authors deposit articles they’ve written into the repository, and other scholars are free to search, browse and download articles without needing any sort of subscription.
One reason for the success of Open Access archives has been that they have grown up in a parallel coexistence with the traditional academic journals, which have mostly shifted onto the web. In the so-called “Green” model for Open Access, many journals allow versions of accepted articles to be made available via repositories. Authors can thus submit their articles to high-prestige subscription-supported journals without worrying about colleagues’ access, because scholars that need to read their works can always access versions from free sources.

Meanwhile, the shift of traditional journals onto the web has allowed the rise of secondary distribution channels. Most academic libraries today enjoy access to a much broader range of journals compared to 20 years ago because of the availability of article databases that aggregate content from large numbers of journals.

The past decade has also seen the rise of “Gold” Open Access journals. These journals leverage low cost Internet distribution to allow articles to be read universally with no subscription charges. Led by Biomed Central and PLoS, these journals cover expenses by charging publication fees to the submitting author. They build prestige  and avoid becoming “vanity” presses by establishing rigorous review processes.

The success of Open Access journals and articles has for the most part not yet been duplicated in the word of books. There are a number of possible reasons for this. The first is the matter of cost. Publication fees for Open Access journal articles are in the range of $600-$3000; editing and production expenses for a book published by a university press are estimated to range from $10,000 for a book that’s mostly text to much more for a book with figures, photos, equations and cover art. Author-funded publication fees this large are unlikely to be practical, even with significant institutional subsidies.

Another factor holding back Open Access books may be a preference for print books over e-books. Books are much longer than journal articles, and many readers are uncomfortable reading a book on a computer screen. It’s only in the past two years that dedicated reader devices such as the Kindle and tablet computers such as the iPad have improved the e-book experience enough to gain wide consumer acceptance.

The business environment for book publishers is another possible factor. The university publisher loses money on much of its catalog, but compensates for this by having one or two titles that cross over to be successful outside the academic environment. has bolstered this pattern, by providing wide distribution for small print-run titles that would never have been available in bookstores before. In contrast, journal articles almost never cross over into non-professional markets.

Nonetheless, there have been a few notable attempts to publish Open Access e-books. I’ll cover these later in a section on business models for Open Access e-books, but it wouldn’t be right to omit mention of Project Gutenberg at this point. Project Gutenberg (PG) produced not only the first Open Access e-books, it produced the first e-books, period. Started by Michael Hart in 1971, PG aimed to take the text of public domain works and make them available via the Internet. To date, PG has put over 34,000 works into its collection, entirely through the efforts of volunteers.

Distribution of Open Access e-books can be thought of as an enterprise separate from their production, since the costs involved are of a different nature. The scaling laws of Internet distribution favor centralization, and as a result, organizations such as the Internet Archive are able to distribute appropriately licensed e-books on a vast scale; businesses such as Google are able to search and organize them; libraries, blogs, and portal sites are able to select and “curate” them. To some extent, this type of distribution depends on the self-contained nature of the book; it shouldn’t require the context of a specific website to retain and accumulate value.

Open Access for e-books provides many benefits in addition to allowing people to read for free. Access to the full text of books makes for more complete indexing. The utility of Google Books, and the effort Google has put into digitizing books from libraries, even when they are unable to make the books available because of copyright, is testament to the value of indexing the full text. Long-term preservation of our cultural heritage is another public benefit of Open Access to e-books.

Please offer your feedback and comments to Eric Hellman at Go To Hellman.

One thought on “Open Access E-books Part One, from Eric Hellman”

  1. In your paragraph about Project Gutenberg, you might want to mention the Distributed Proofreaders websites, like the one in Canada that I operate. They produce about 80% of the ebooks that appear free on Gutenberg, and are the biggest and most robust examples of cooperative (Distributed) workflows in the world. Over 100,000 volunteers from all over the world, coordinated by volunteers, producing e-books of a quality an order of magnitude higher than what the world thinks of as e-books. Most e-books today are merely scansets from TIA or Google, with all the errors of the original plus scanning artifacts and glitches. Our books are better than the originals–in many ways the last vestiges of true craftsmanship in the publishing world.


    Simple Simon

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