Open Access – Books & Journals

[This post is a reply to a reader’s question, “What about books?”]

Discussions related to Open Access often focus on journals, but as one thesis reader has asked me, what about books? Open Access is about removing the price barriers to peer reviewed academic research, whether it be book, journal article, or whatever else. The peer review system for book publishing is different than that of a journal, but anthro books are still considered “quality research” that should be disseminated. Charging $20-100 for a book is still a significant barrier for many libraries. As one teacher commented, a really good anthropology book will sell about 1000 copies.

So if the books were cheaper, would they be disseminated and read more? Would more copies end up being distributed? Maybe! Should academics be concerned about the dissemination of their work? Is it okay for people to try and make money off your research at the expense of researchers having easy access to it? So to be clear, the same OA arguments apply to books and journals.

But there are some interesting particularities to look at. For example Google Books makes it simple to read and scan through millions of expensive published academic books. It lets you read a portion of the text, which is plenty for scholars to decide if they would benefit from purchasing or borrowing the book. In this way Google Books improves the visibility of academic work published in book form, while still demanding that people and libraries pay to read it. To answer a readers question, since people still need to pay to get full access, Google Books is not a form of Open Access publishing.

And while e-books and e-book readers are taking off, many people still hate to read large documents on the computer. It’s just nicer and easier to read away from the computer. The confusion creeping in here is that Open Access is associated with online dissemination journals, rather than with removing price barriers to research where-ever they may be.

So yes, as Lorenz Khazaleh recently posts, OA is also about books! He writes,

More and more journals have gone open access, now it’s time for open access books!

OAPEN – Open Access Publishing in European Networks is an initiative in Open Access publishing for humanities and social sciences monographs. Several European university presses have joined the initiative that aims to improve the accessibility and dissemination of academic books.”

Further, books can be Open Access, in that they are free to access online, and they cost money in print, at the very same time. A book can be published OA, and at the same time printed and sold. Take a look at what Max has done with his edited volume of student authored essays, titled “The New Imperialism”. He describes the process involved,

“Having seen, from early on, that I would be receiving a batch of excellent papers, I asked the seminar participants if they would not want to put their output on the record, to publish their work. One option was to have all the papers online, on the seminar website. The other was to publish it like my Department also publishes an annual volume of student research, Stories from Montreal. They opted for the latter and I got busy creating something I had never planned to establish: a publishing entity, Alert Press (amazingly, the name was not taken). That was just the start–then came getting an ISBN, arranging for the National Library of Canada to do Cataloguing-in-Publication, getting a copyright certificate, and formally registering the Press. The printing would be done on demand, which is where the services of Lulu come in. Then there was the index–no proper book can go without one. That is, as some know, a particularly large expense which had to be out of pocket. Each of the papers had to be revised, edited, proof read, and re-corrected, references checked, formatting done for the book, providing images that are free under a Creative Commons License (up to the front and back covers of the book), and then indexed. Only the very best papers were included, which in this case means that only 14 of the initial 25 papers made the final cut. One or two opted out of the publication idea from the start–it is entirely voluntary, and not a course requirement. But it will be an annual feature.”

Now published, the book is available in a number of forms. The paperback costs about $10. A hardcover sells for $19. And an e-book version can be downloaded anytime for free. This shows how Open Access can work alongside other publishing models.

Christopher Kelty, a blogger at Savage Minds, published his book “Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software” on the books website, and through Duke University Press. The entire book can be read and commented on online, exploring ways readers can help contribute content to the book after it has been published. Kelty also talks about “modulating” his work, as part of an experiment that looks at how Open Access to research, and new more flexible licensing models,  allow people to use the work in new ways.

The Prickly Paradigm Press, and the earlier Prickly Pear Press,  also provide a number of OA books licensed under the Creative Commons. An interview with Marshal Sahlins discusses the history of the publishing organization, and why free access to research, and the creative commons license is important. Sahlins writes,

“I just want to say that I truly support the idea of the free dissemination of intellectual information, and that I truly lament the various forms of copyrights and patents that are being put on so-called intellectual property. I also lament the collusion of universities in licensing the results of scientific research, and thus violating the project of the free dissemination of knowledge that is their reason for existence. So I consider it an important act to release these books under a Creative Commons type of license. I’m happy, and also a little proud, to do so.”

This is all to say that OA book publishing is working alongside other dissemination strategies, and that yes, you can provide both.

Update: check out 40,000 free e-books that have been made available through Project Gutenberg.

Related posts:

Kelty on the Culture of Publishing

Doing a little digging: Golub and Sahlins Interview.

2 responses to this post.

  1. This is a really interesting and useful post; however as I wondered in one of my own recent posts, I am surprised that very little e-book publishing is going on other than ‘giving the pdf away for free’; I really enjoyed the example from Montreal about mixing different publication approaches, but I’m still puzzled why there is so little academic publishing going that charges, modestly, for intellectual property; Why don’t universities start putting up online bookstores and sell dissertations rather than giving them away for free?!


  2. Thanks for the great feedback and site. I appreciate your position very much as I am now broke & unemployed. I think if we take the idea away that social science is meant to improve society, and instead we take it to be a hobby of sorts, then there is less reason to assume “scholarship is meant to be shared” (As Willinsky 2005 argues).

    But then again, why not disseminate research as widely as possible? I don’t understand why social science research shouldn’t be made accessible to anyone interested.

    Other issues: if its not free to access, people in other disciplines probably won’t use/read it. This is a problem for anthropologists whose work is inherently interdisciplinary.

    Thanks for the feedback, interest, and for the link to your site. I’ll be following it in the future.



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