Tokens and Taboos: Making Books Open Access

Posted on November 21st, 2011 by

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been acting cynical and complaining about our cult of excess information when what we need is access to information in a way that’s sustainable and not quite as likely as the current state of affairs to make my head explode.

A big piece of the problem is that publications are used as tokens of productivity. We write them to validate our worth as scholars (and get jobs and tenure and grants and respect); publishers operate as a kind of banking system for these tokens of productivity. Libraries acquire publications so that scholars can collect tokens that they can cite in their work. I’m not sure where actually reading these publications comes into play, if at all. And I’m not convinced this system of token-exchange advances knowledge; it’s far too much geared to advancing careers.

(I suspect we are doing much the same kind of token swapping when we put readings on a syllabus as a means of depositing information in our students. But I’ll leave that issue to Paolo Frieire to sort out.)

Instead of whinging about this sad state of affairs, this time I’ll suggest a possible course of action. Some of us college librarians have been kicking around the idea of starting a liberal arts press. We’re just at the beginning stages, and what follows is only my fringe-element take on it. (You can read another co-conspirator’s thoughts on this elsewhere, though a subscription, ironically enough, is required.) What we end up doing may be something completely different than what I describe below. But my personal interest in this project is, in part, to demonstrate to the world that it’s possible for a bunch of upstart libraries to put our money where our mouth is by reallocating resources to develop a collaborative means of making high-quality scholarship available to all.

I want to see us publish open access books because, though there has been enough attention paid to open access journals (and many excellent examples of how to do it well), there are fewer sustainable models for academic presses to follow in making books open access.

Why books? There’s a long answer for that, but to keep it short: I believe books, in which ideas are put in context and treated in depth, have unique and enduring value. In the beginning was the word, and I’m not ready to write The End after it.

I want to see us examine and extract from traditional university press operations the value that current/traditional practices confer in the development of high quality books and to assess honestly the actual cost of those practices (setting aside the additional costs incurred with marketing, publicity, and distribution through traditional channel). In other words, I would like for us to learn from practitioners without adopting their market-based assumptions or habits that may constrain innovation. I don’t want a business model; I want a sustainability model. They are not the same thing.

I want to develop a project that serves readers, not writers, and to avoid investing time and labor in projects that have little impact other than as tokens of productivity. If a book is written for an audience of 100 potential readers, that audience is small enough and smart enough to do its own peer review and editorial work, even if it means reading charitably and tolerantly. Extensive and expensive editorial work should go to work that has a wider impact.

I want to develop, document, and promote sustainable book publishing. To my mind, that means creating a process that is as inexpensive as possible without sacrificing quality by making use of every technological advance possible and constantly evaluating costs and benefits. This is not about bringing prestige to our institutions or to authors, but about bringing knowledge (and a model of an affordable means of producing knowledge) to the world. What we do should be sustainable and replicable by institutions with limited funds.

I want to leverage the collective prestige of our institutions to attract the work of scholars who are trapped in an unsustainable and unjust system and who are willing to be part of the solution.

Why “unjust”? Because when we invest so much of our time and resources in creating knowledge that so few can afford, we’re participating in social injustice. We should expect better of scholars.

Call me crazy, but I want to publish and set free books any university press would be proud to publish, and do so nimbly, inexpensively, and with style. And I would like to be able to explain to others how they could do it, too.

Full disclosure: I have been called crazy. I’ve been told that scholars won’t be interested in participating because they want to make money on their books. I’ve been told that university presses already publish well and there’s no reason for libraries to do anything other than buy more books. But we can’t and we don’t, and when a well-published book sells only 200 copies … it may be a terrific book, but it’s not well-published. (I know, I have this strange bee in my bonnet about texts actually being read and even having an impact.)

I also have a bias toward publishing books that don’t require an advanced degree to disentangle, books that could be assigned as texts in an upper-division undergraduate course. I would like to make this press (if it ever happens) be part of an argument for the importance of liberal learning that is not hyper-specialized, not just instrumental in further dividing a pea into smaller and smaller parts, consumed by fewer and fewer fellow scholars.

There is room for digital experimentation and 2.0 interaction and extending or reinventing what a book might be, but to me that’s not the point: the point is to rescue what is valuable about the scholarly long-form text from the death spiral it’s in, with presses forced to act like trade publishing, which is doing its best to self-destruct, or to reinvent themselves as some horrible love child of STM publishing and the textbook business, which is hideous to contemplate.

I am not against developing projects that are not traditional books (in the sense of incorporating novel means of acquisition and review or inclusion of non-textual material) unless that would come in conflict with any of the previous goals. Lavishing resources on a really cool one-off digital project isn’t scalable. Whatever we do, it should contribute toward a more sustainable means of publishing and should show the way – or at least a way – for others.
I envision a press that would excite the most bright, ambitious, and innovative of young faculty as well as seasoned scholars who are interested in sharing knowledge, not just in publishing it.

Crazy? Well, maybe – but then again, the situation we’re in is driving me nuts.

Published originally on May 17, 2011 in Inside Higher Ed.

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