By Victoria Parrin and David Williams
Starting the New Year off with a talk on open access publishing was sure to be lively, and our speaker did not disappoint. The event was well attended by publishers and students alike, all keen to understand emerging trends.
Rupert Gatti began by introducing himself and his background as an economics academic at Trinity College, Cambridge. Frustrated at the slow speed and content ‘paywall’ of traditional academic publishing, Rupert and a few fellow academics established Open Book Publishers (OBP). This small but dynamic Cambridge publishing house produces academic monographs in the humanities and social sciences, in both (free) digital and (paid-for) print formats. Peer review is central to acceptance for publication. All OBP content is open access, freely available (under Creative Commons licensing) to read and re-use. Properly credited, content can be shared and re-curated to spark new ideas and research directions. And open access goes two ways: feedback, from increased readership and over greatly reduced timespans, helps make learning part of writing.
Rupert argued that 2013 so far has been an open access ‘academic spring’, moving academic publishing away from an existing practice that is no longer economically viable or academically justifiable. Higher education funding agencies – with an agenda of transparency, accountability and value for public money – are increasingly and reasonably insisting on open access to publicly funded research. Rupert bravely dipped our metaphorical toes in the waters of the politics of Higher Education Funding Council for England and the UK Research Councils; even to a non-specialist it was clear there is significant political investment in open access, and it is gathering momentum too.
With a battery of lively and well-researched PowerPoint sides, Rupert referred us to studies showing that most academics (including ‘Nerdy Professor’ et al.) write and publish to promote debate on their subjects – financial reward is low down their list of concerns. Rupert gave the example of fellow OBP director Alessandra Tosi, whose book on nineteenth-century Russian writers took well over a year in editorial and production. Its selling price (£70) put it out of the reach of academics and libraries in Russia, and only 200 copies were sold anyway. Who benefits? Certainly not the author or her subject.
Rupert illustrated his point by mentioning a campaign for an author boycott of Elsevier journals. His slides showed rising profit margins on drastically reduced unit sales at substantially higher-than-inflation prices, plus highest-in-class per-page ‘author processing charges’ (fees charged to authors in lieu of income from subscriptions). Their relation with academia seemed, frankly, unfair, and devalues by association the work of other major existing publishers.
We heard about some OBP case studies, including a crowd-funded ‘Unglue.it’ digital edition of Ruth Finnegan’s previously published Oral Literature in Africa. Rupert – inviting intelligent and searching questions throughout – took us through some of the web metrics to show dwell times on page views as well as hits and country of viewing. We saw some impressive and credible stats, including heavy representation across the continent of Africa. It was clear from Rupert’s body language and facial expressions reacting to these figures that he is passionate about publishing the same way that good publishers – regardless of medium – always have been.
Finally, in a gesture admirably consistent with his principles, Rupert shared the OBP trading figures with us. With a business model where income derives almost entirely from add-on sales of printed editions rather than author subventions, the big publishers of Cambridge and elsewhere are not likely to feel directly challenged – yet. But Rupert’s point is that academia is concerned with the truth of ideas, and those ideas can indeed, with current technologies, become a material and powerful force. For those of us in the room in the publishing business, our speaker offered us a most lively account of new ways of doing old things. Food for rich thought.