The Academic Book of the Future Report launch event, 20 June 2017

The end of project reports from The Academic Book of the Future project have now been made available, and were formally launched in London on 20 June 2017. These are my notes from the event, with apologies for any errors or significant omissions (my handwriting is not always fast enough!). The Twitter hashtag was #AcBookReports.

The project reports are available online: https://academicbookfuture.org/end-of-project-reports-2/

Welcome and introduction:

Caroline Brazier, Chief Librarian, British Library – The project started three years ago, to address what the ongoing rapid changes in the publishing industry would mean for the Arts and Humanities. Marilyn Deegan’s report provides a synthesis of the project and what it has achieved so far. Michael Jubb’s report gives details of the state of affairs in the academic publishing ecosystem.

Andrew Thompson, CEO of the Arts and Humanities Research Council – Having just signed a book contract with OUP, quite pleased to read the report’s finding that the book has a future! The report is conceived not as the end of a project, but the beginning of a discussion. How can our high quality research be more widely shared?

Samantha Rayner, UCL, Principal Investigator, Academic Book of the Future – So, here we are, finished after three years of work. This evening we start to collect the responses. Thank you to Melissa Terras who coordinated the team from behind the scenes. The team gelled quickly because they found they had common ground, and felt a responsibility to respect lots of different views. Fellowship has been essential part of the project. A journalist who read the report thought it painted a bleak picture. Sam rejects this entirely. There are lots of challenges, but this is NOT a bleak picture, and there are talented, practical, and visionary people out there who want to be involved. The project has shone a light on the things that need discussing. Research is becoming ever more politicised, so it is good that policymakers were involved in the discussions. The team managed to speak with a huge range of people. One of the best things proved to be having a pool of money unallocated at the start, which could be made available for mini projects which suggested themselves as the project progressed. This provided useful agility. In putting together the two reports, Marilyn and Michael are both heroes of the history of the academic book.

Academic Book of the Future Reports:

Marilyn Deegan, KCL, Co-investigator, Academic Book of the Future –

Thought this day would never come! The project has been a community building project, with a small project team, but a very large coalition of contributors. Want to mention advisory panel chair Kathryn Sutherland who never let us forget that good scholarship is central. Sam Rayner deserves credit for the decision to cast the net very wide, with events, etc. She was the one who came up with the idea of Academic Book Week, which has been an astonishing success. There was also the first ever UK university press conference, and many other conferences, seminars, workshops, focus groups, talks, interviews.

The BOOC is going live on Thursday 22nd June.

See http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/academic-book-of-the-future.

Conclusions:

  • The academic book/monograph is still greatly valued in the academy and beyond
  • Print is not dead, and many scholars at all stages show a preference for print for sustained reading
  • The future is likely to be a mixed economy of print, e-versions of print and network enhanced monographs of greater or lesser complexity
  • There are many new exciting forms and formats of academic book…
  • …and new publishers and publishing partnerships emerging
  • Publisher brand still matters
  • Most scholars would be happier producing one or two ground breaking books in their careers rather than five or six which are produced quickly and have less impact
  • There is still confusion and anxiety over the Open Access agenda

Not bleak at all! But there are challenges, including increasing teaching loads and assessment.

A quote to end with:

“The substantial work of serious scholarship with a wider reach than that of the immediate academic sub-field is a precious thing, at the core of our cultural life and intellectual discourse” – Jonathan Bate

Michael Jubb, Lead Researcher, Academic Book of the Future –

Books are important, and they are part of the infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities. But, books now have more than just print formats. The academic book is part of an ecology with complex interactions. The number of titles is increasing, but overall sales are not increasing and sales per title are going down. Are too many books being published? Or is not enough effort being put in to get people to buy and read the books? There are tensions over rights. There is a need for innovation from publishers (which involves tech costs). The supply chain is almost comically complicated. There is a huge range of intermediaries. There has been no wholesale shift from print to e and the reader preference is still for print (across all age ranges). We will see digital alongside print for the foreseeable future. The publishers’ economic model is still based on print, but this is unsustainable. There has been lots of experimentation with OA, but we still haven’t got to grips with a sustainable economic model. Challenges include: costs and funding, author behaviour, rights regimes, international ecology, scalability. Can we get some quick wins? There is obvious potential with OA books for wider dissemination.

“Discoverability is the process by which a book appears in front of you at a point where you were not looking for that specific title” – Thad McIlroy

Discoverability is a disaster area. Metadata quality is poor. Onix, used by publishers, is completely different to MARC, used by librarians. We need discovery services better suited to academic books and behaviours of potential readers.

Conclusions:

  • Quality must be sustained (not every book an academic wants to publish should be published)
  • Need to address issues of supply and demand
  • Need to maximise reach
  • Need to improve systems and processes and stimulate innovation
  • There should be more bespoke publishing services (not every book needs every publishing process, and there is room for cheaper, more pared down publishing for some books)
  • Need to address the economic implications of print plus e
  • Support development of OA

Above all:

  • Build communities and relationships
  • Develop a new structure to support dialogue amongst all the stakeholders
  • Need new policies to stimulate change, built on a deep understanding of the ecology

A motto to live by, to quote Ben Goldacre “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”

Panel responses to the project conclusions and recommendations:

Geoffrey Crossick, Distinguished Professor of Humanities, School of Advanced Study, University of London –

Very pleased to have been invited to comment. Learned a great deal, especially from Michael Jubb’s report. When Crossick wrote his own report on OA, he now realises that he structured it like a book, and it was a long form argument developed through the different sections (he wanted to shout to people “don’t just dip in and out!”) needing to be read in the order it was written.

The value of the monograph lies in the process of writing and reading it, not in the physical object. We know people value the physical book, and e-books currently can’t get near the experience of a print book. It’s different for articles. The availability of digital books became possible at the same time as OA, and this perhaps muddied the water.

Why write books at all? The answer is that long, structured argument is fundamental to humanities research. A monograph is not the same as a group of articles. Crossick is not sure that there is a crisis of oversupply, because the terms of “crisis” are not defined. He voices caution about technical determinism. Just because certain things are possible technically, does not mean they are valuable. What readers want should drive change. The reports make clear the many challenges of OA. Restraints lie in author ownership issues. There is a serious problem of third party rights (images etc). But the biggest problem with OA is finding the right business model. The book processing charge will not prevail.

Frances Pinter, Founder of Knowledge Unlatched –

Books sit inside the knowledge structure of each discipline, and there is a different ecology for every discipline. These reports look at the academic book from an Arts and Humanities point of view. KU’s research has shown that there is enough money in the academic system to support OA. It is not in one place, but it is there. Pinter agrees that not every monograph needs the full publishing treatment, and this is significant because it means there is scope for reducing publishing costs significantly before the stage of having a finished digital file. KU has looked at publishing costs around Europe, and many publishers offer a pick and mix menu of publishing services, which goes a long way to explaining the differing costs of OA in different places in Europe.

The writing of a monograph is part of the research process itself, so Frances is not convinced by the argument that there are too many books published. You need the whole of the milk before the cream can rise to the top, and there are no publishers who can reliably spot the cream. “Find me a publisher who’s always been right … there isn’t one”.

The Jubb report has an excellent chapter on intermediaries and their services. Amongst other things, it provides the startling fact that vendors typically take 50% of the amount the library pays for the book.

KU have been looking at geo-stats for the monographs they have unlatched. Monograph usage is 7x higher than what is going through the libraries in the same area. This suggests that there is a larger audience than we thought. HEFCE is looking to mandate OA, but is trying to get funding together in a very unstable environment. It would be easy for them to shelve their plans, but Pinter thinks this would be a mistake.

Chris Banks, Director of Library Service, Imperial College –

For a librarian, collecting, discovery and OA are important topics. It is worth thinking about the different types of academic output. At the moment we still have an academe that is very cautious. Reward mechanisms are based around publishing a book, and scholars need to write a good book and publish with a good publisher.

Collecting – Increasing amounts are being published, and there are more students. Despite things being available online, there is an increased usage of libraries, and so libraries have a space problem. In the old days, with print books, you never knew when a book might go OP and become unavailable, so libraries used to purchase “just in case”. There are more choices now, and libraries can purchase “just in time”, as the need arises, and in whichever format is the most appropriate. Libraries still buy print books, but there is more sharing amongst institutions. We are moving away from the number of books on shelves being a measure of value for the institution towards looking at the number of books a library can make available.

Cataloguing adds value for the library, and Chris thinks libraries would be willing to pay publishers to add good metadata to make sure books are discoverable. Libraries have trained, skilled people who could help with this! This would be valuable for both libraries and publishers. Libraries are looking for new and smart ways to use their budgets to make more books open, and Chris supports initiatives such as Knowledge Unlatched.

Discussion and audience Q&A:

Anthony Watkinson – In the US they have the Mellon Foundation who supply significant levels of funding. Where is our Mellon? Where will the money come from?

Answer from Michael Jubb: struck by how conservative the US publishing landscape remains, despite 20 years of Mellon initiatives.

Answer from Marilyn Deegan: Mellon seems to support two kinds of projects, either boutique projects for a single book, or large infrastructure projects, many of which are in partnership with libraries. We in the UK need to focus on what we actually need.

David Sweeney, Research England – Thanks particularly to Michael for an excellent piece of research. However, the challenges highlighted in the report are very scholar-centric. This sits uncomfortably with the AHRC focus on scholars developing a wider influence in the UK as a whole. The breadth of the contribution of our research to our national culture needs to be as important for humanities scholars as it is for science.

Answer from Michael Jubb: lots of sympathy with that view, which is why the report emphasises the importance of quality of research output, and that the book should be a partnership between the author and the machinery of publishing (ie dissemination).

Conclusion:

Shearer West, Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Sheffield –

This is a huge subject, so to finish, and inspired by Jenny Holzer and her “Truisms”, which are short statements encapsulating sometimes uncomfortable truths, here are 10 statements:

  • Libraries have adapted more radically to changes in the digital environment than either publishers or academic authors.
  • The reports are relatively silent on readers, apart from noting that both students and academics prefer hard copy academic books to digital ones, but with little indication as to why.
  • The desire to get published by well-known university presses appears to be as much a concern about academic reputation than a concern about rigorous peer review. The brand becomes a proxy for quality.
  • The continuation of the print book is increasing supply led rather than demand led.
  • Supply chain complexities mean that publishing is a discrete set of processes and services rather than a single event.
  • The sluggish pace of open access developments in monograph publishing suggests that the right audience for an academic book is more important to authors than a large audience.
  • True Innovation in the format of academic books is not scalable.
  • There is increasing strain in the relationship among stakeholders in the academic book supply chain.
  • It is more difficult to preserve digital books than physical ones.
  • The hard copy book serves as a monument to the author.