Now that Open Access (OA) journals are entrenched as the ‘new normal’ of journal publishing, a new frontier of debate is opening up asking whether open access could revitalise the market for scholarly monographs. The monograph has long been considered a declining format, as scholarly libraries, who buy the majority of this content, come under increased budgetary pressure. Numbers putting the scale of monograph market decline into context are difficult to come across, but one article on the MLA website that was originally published in 2002 stated: –

“The net result was that, in 1986, libraries spent 44% of their budgets on books compared with 56% on journals; twelve years later, the ratio had skewed to 28% and 72% (see Assn. of Research Libs.).

Not surprisingly, this situation has had the single most significant impact on the financial woes of scholarly publishers. One press director, writing in 1993, had this to say about his own field of Latin American studies: “Back in the early 1970s [. . .] one could still count on selling between 1,000 and 1,500 copies of most new monographs in the field. [. . .] By the end of [the 1980s] it was moving closer to 500” (Thatcher, par. 4). Writing in the Nation in 1997, Phil Pochoda estimated that library orders for scholarly books were “now averaging 300 copies per title and falling fast.” The director of Rutgers University Press stated in the same year that she could rely on “about 200 libraries” to purchase a given scholarly monograph (Wasserman, par. 2). Such dramatic changes in sales figures, Pochoda comments, have “converted every book into a breathtaking publishing adventure” (2).”

Given this kind of market context, it’s no surprise that many researchers now see open access as the answer to the problem of how to get long-form scholarly content published and into libraries. We’ve covered the beginnings of the open access monograph market before on this blog. For example, Palgrave Macmillan’s Palgrave Open project has been publishing OA monographs for more than two years. To get some sense of what both publishers and librarians through of the OA monograph opportunity, our sister company PCG has conducted some research into the area.The full research report is available to download on the PCG website, but here we’re focusing on some of the survey’s key findings.

The good news is that librarians seem to be engaging with OA monograph content, and are putting systems in place to ensure that this content benefits their institutions. 57% of respondents said their insitution already listed OA monographs in their library catalogs. They also stated that as much as 8% of their monograph collections was now OA, which seems like a surprisingly high quantity for a content type that was virtually unknown just a couple of years ago.

Fig 1 – Open Access Monographs – Inclusion Criteria

OA monograph inclusion criteria

Librarians also confirmed their institutions had clear criteria to determine which OA monographs they should add to their collections, and what research publication their institutions would support through the payment of publication fees. 82% of respondents said they used selection criteria. The primary drivers behind acquiring an OA monograph were (in descending order) ‘Relevant to curriculum’ (68.4%), followed by ‘Faculty request’ (66.7%) and some way behind the others ‘Faculty member of researcher from institution has authored the book (50.9%). This suggests that while OA content is paid for in an as yet unfamiliar way, this has not led to a radical change in the way that librarians collect it, even though OA monographs are available to libraries without charge.

Yet as it emerged with the research into OA journal publishing that PCG published last year, it appears that some scholarly libraries are now devoting monies that would historically been used to develop their collections on publishing research authored by members of their institution. 14.5% of respondents said that library funds had been used to publish OA monographs. This number, while relatively low, does suggest a degree of uncertainty as to how library budgets might be allocated in a future where OA content forms a greater part of scholarly collections. In the following question 52.9% of respondents said that these publication charges were taken from existing library materials budgets. Aside from library budgets it was more common, said survey respondents for researchers to secure outside grants to fund publication (25.6%), while 23.1% said authors funded themselves. Just over a fifth (21.4%) said that OA monograph funding came from individual departments.

Even though librarians expressed a high degree of enthusiasm for OA monographs in terms of adding them to their collections and approaching their collection and funding seriously, there was a surprisingly low level of support among respondents for open access book funding initiatives such as Knowledge Unlatched. Only 20% of respondents said that their library used these schemes to acquire content, while 24% said they didn’t know whether it was something their institutions had considered.

PCG’s research does indicate that the first signs of OA monograph publishing are encouraging for librarians at least. They certainly offer librarians an opportunity to start building their monograph collections after a period in which budget constraint had led to them cutting back on collecting long-form scholarly content. What is less clear, however, is whether libraries will be increasingly expected to fund the publication of monographs and how this might impact on their collection development in the longer term.

Edit: an earlier version of this article did not include the publication date for the cited MLA article, which has now been included.