Open-Access Monographs: New Tools, More Access

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Beyond the multiple options for creating and disseminating open-access books in new forms, OA monograph publishing projects are driven by the value of releasing scholarship in forms that are free and available to anyone.

Surreal painting. Opened door in open book with story
Credit: Bruce Rolff / © 2019

We are in an era of significant change in the United States and Canada for publishing open-access (OA) scholarly monographs. Since most monographs are published by university presses, and most copies are purchased by research libraries, this article focuses on that community. The bulk of OA titles are older or out-of-print works, many funded by the Mellon/NEH Humanities Open Book (HOB) program, which enabled free access to backlist scholarly works. Under that program, about 2,500 books from 28 publishers are now OA. Meanwhile, new OA-only book publishers are, together with traditional scholarly presses and libraries, exploring innovative business models and technologies.

Precise numbers of new OA books are hard to calculate. In a 2017 survey, the Association of American University Presses found that 18 of 61 reporting members (out of 140 total member presses) had published new OA books.1 A few examples include MIT Press, which published its first OA book in 1995 and continues today with MIT Press Open. The University of Michigan Press and Library launched Digital Culture Books in 2006 and now publish new OA books on their library-supported platform, Fulcrum. Athabasca University Press was the first (2007) OA publisher in Canada, with a current list of more than 140 titles. In 2015 the University of California Press began the Luminos OA book program, which now includes more than 60 titles. Other recent examples include Concordia University Press (2016) and the University of Cincinnati Press (2017). Lever Press (founded in 2014) is unusual as it is governed and funded by a membership group of some 50 liberal arts colleges.2 In addition, many other publishers have released an occasional OA title, often by posting a free downloadable PDF on their websites.

Costs and Funding Models

A scholarly monograph is required for tenure and promotion in the humanities and qualitative social sciences. Monographs are also the foundation of most university press lists. Yet OA book publishing has trailed OA journals, for reasons that include the slow emergence of e-books, the high proportion of relatively small nonprofit publishers in the scholarly book business (with little to no capital to invest in new ventures), and, perhaps most fundamentally, the different business models for books.

Though it may seem obvious, it's worth stating that whereas journals benefit from the advance payment of either licensing revenue or, for many OA journals, article processing charges, each monograph is an individual investment by its publisher. In the traditional model, each title should sell enough copies to cover the costs of acquiring, editing, producing, marketing, and distributing it. Thus, OA monograph publishing has required an estimate of costs upfront.

A number of approaches to establishing costs have been tried. Among the first was Knowledge Unlatched (KU), established in 2012 by publisher Francis Pinter. Publishers proposed new humanities and social sciences books to be made OA if enough libraries crowdfunded them. Presses each established per-title costs to be covered, averaging from $10,000 to $15,000.3 In its first two rounds (2014–2015) [], KU "unlatched" over 100 new titles from more than 75 scholarly publishers, with 380 libraries and consortia around the world paying about $50 per title. The books were offered via HathiTrust Digital Library and OAPEN (Open Access Publishing in European Networks). The KU model demonstrated a willingness among libraries internationally to support the costs of OA monograph publishing and among traditional publishers to offer part of their lists free to readers, provided basic expenses could be met. KU changed hands in 2016 and is now a for-profit OA service provider,4 so it is unclear how the project will continue.

Another new funding model for OA monographs is TOME (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem), launched in 2017 through a collaboration among the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), and the Association of University Presses (AUPresses). One goal was to address a free-rider problem: faculty at virtually all research universities and colleges must publish scholarly books for tenure and promotion, but there are only about 125 university presses in the United States. In addition, the monograph market is shrinking, as library budgets are increasingly devoted to journals. Under TOME, participating institutions provide $15,000 grants to support monographs written by their faculty. Publishers may apply these grants to eligible books, approved through the usual editorial and peer-review processes, and release OA editions. As of July 2018, 14 institutions and 61 presses are participating, with approximately 30 titles accepted. TOME must grow if the free-rider issue is to be solved.

Luminos, mentioned above, also charges $15,000 per title, to be raised by the publisher, the author or the author's institution, and libraries. Lever Press production costs have averaged about $17,000 per book.5 Yet strong evidence suggests that these amounts are insufficient to sustain OA monograph publishing at scale. A 2015 study from Indiana University Press and the University of Michigan Press estimated per-monograph costs to be approximately $27,000. In 2016, Ithaka S+R examined first-copy costs (including acquisitions, manuscript editing, production, design, and marketing but not printing, binding, and shipping) to produce 382 titles from 20 presses. They calculated an average per title of $28,747 for basic costs (staff time and direct costs) and $39,892 for full costs (including press-level overheads).6

A new study is testing whether those costs could be lowered. The University of North Carolina Press is undertaking a Sustainable History Monograph Pilot. It will test a web-based workflow to produce digital-native books to be distributed on OA platforms. Based on usage analytics, publishers may decide whether to invest further in design and production to offer a book in a traditional cost-recovery model. Collaborating partners will test this model with 100–150 history titles over three years.

OA Platforms

The large OA aggregations include titles scanned from print and original ebooks, whose origins are both publishers and libraries, including participants in the HOB program and KU. These providers (e.g.., HathiTrust, OAPEN, JSTOR, and Project Muse) have different emphases, with some focusing on preservation and others on format innovation. Creators of OA monographs may rely on one or more of these platforms to disseminate their work.

In addition, several publishers, in collaboration with scholars, libraries, and technologists, have developed distinctive platforms for their own OA offerings, utilizing open-source software that others may also use.

  • The Knowledge Futures Group, a collaboration between MIT Press and MIT's Media Lab (which includes the PubPub project), is an open authoring and publishing web platform that supports embedded rich media, collaborative annotation, analytics, and iterative creation.
  • Fulcrum, from the University of Michigan Library and Press, is aimed particularly at disciplines (e.g., archaeology, performing arts, and media studies) whose publications rely on large bodies ofsource materials including audio, video, images, GIS data, and 3D models. Fulcrum relies on library-developed technology that supports digital preservation and access, creating an option for durable publishing of multimedia works.
  • Manifold is a collaboration of the University of Minnesota Press, CUNY Graduate Center Digital Scholarship Lab, and Cast Iron Coding. It is an open-source, post-PDF publishing tool designed for media-rich projects that may continue to evolve after initial publication. Manifold ingestsstandard outputs (e.g., EPUB, PDF, Word) and publishes them online. It offers features for annotation and threaded commentary.

These tools are available now, and development continues. Each has distinct features and advantages, enabling potential users to select the option that best serves their purposes. Such development, much of it funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, creates crucial new infrastructure for nonprofit and small publishers.

The Value of OA publishing

Beyond the multiple options for creating and disseminating OA books in new forms, OA monograph publishing is driven by the value of releasing scholarship in forms that are free and available to anyone.

Robin Truth Goodman, professor and associate chair of English at Florida State University and author of Promissory Notes, the first title to be released by OA publisher Lever Press in 2018, points out a potential tension in publishing specialized scholarship:

The author's interest is to circulate her ideas as widely as possible, whereas academic presses want to keep their heads above water. So the academic presses tend to price books more highly than scholars and students would want to pay . . . or delay publication of a paperback to encourage university libraries to buy the hardcovers. For a scholar, this means that books are unavailable for classroom use, or that scholars whose main interests are not in the field would be unlikely to pick the book up. . . . Lever was getting around such concerns by offering immediate access, both in electronic and paperback form.7

Charles Watkinson, associate university librarian for publishing and director of the University of Michigan Press, notes that OA scholarship not only supports that global reach but also generates creativity and interdisciplinary work. Frank Smith, director of books at JSTOR, reports usage data indicating truly global access: JSTOR's 5,000 titles have received millions of uses (chapter downloads and views), evenly distributed across geographic locations and institutions worldwide. Brett Bobley, CIO and director of the Office of Digital Humanities at the NEH, cites the example of Cornell University Press, which learned that within about two years, its 77 OA books had received 100,000 chapter downloads and 200,000 views on JSTOR and MUSE from people in 152 different countries and had been downloaded 29,000 times on Amazon.8

In an era when the average scholarly monograph sells only a few hundred copies, this usage—in both numbers and geography—suggests that the audience for these works is far larger than the market for them. The cost studies and technical innovations underway are particularly significant, emerging as they do from the nonprofit publishing sector. If colleges and universities truly wish to make a global impact, investing in open-access monograph publishing is one promising way forward.


  1. Association of American University Presses, "Digital Book Publishing in the AAUP Community: Survey Report 2017," accessed April 3, 2019.
  2. As Lever Press was being developed, the Oberlin Group libraries commissioned a report on the state of OA monograph publishing: "A Review of Open Access Book Publishing on Behalf of the Oberlin Group," December 3, 2103.
  3. Nancy L. Maron, Christine Mulhern, Daniel Rossman, and Kimberly Schmelzinger, "The Costs of Publishing Monographs: Toward a Transparent Methodology," Ithaka S+R Research Report, February 5, 2016.
  4. Marcel Knöchelmann, "Knowledge Unlatched, Failed Transparency, and the Commercialisation of Open Access Book Publishing," LSE Impact Blog, October 3, 2018.
  5. Bridget Dahill, "Lever Press: An Overdue Update on Our Progress," Lever Press News Release, May 7, 2019.
  6. Maron, Mulhern, Rossman, and Schmelzinger, "The Costs of Publishing Monographs."
  7. Email to the author, February 14, 2019.
  8. Personal communications with the author, February 19, February 15, and March 12, 2019.

Monica McCormick is Associate University Librarian for Publishing, Preservation, Research and Digital Access at the University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press.

© 2019 Monica McCormick. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

EDUCAUSE Review 54, no. 2 (Spring 2019)