MIT Press, one of the largest university presses in the world, plans to publish a complete list of Spring 2022 monographs and edited collections on an open access basis. The move is a key development of the larger open access movement and a model that scholars and librarians say could be revolutionary for cash-strapped libraries, university presses and a diminishing number of humanities scholars.
The plan is based on commitments from more than 160 libraries and unions whose pledges have allowed MIT Press to reach 50 percent of the participation threshold it set against its three-year goal. The press has extended the deadline for more commitments from additional institutions to June 30, 2022. MIT press leaders say enthusiasm for its Direct to Open (D2O) effort, launched in April, has been so strong that they plan to share the white paper before the end The generic that describes how the model works so that other university presses can replicate it.
Amy Brand, director of MIT Press, describes D2O as a much-needed alternative to traditional market-based business models. Monograph sales today typically range in the 300 to 500 units, down from 1,500 to 1,700 units per title in the 1990s, meaning that publishing now requires in-house support from foundations or charities. Brand said much of this downward buying trend has been driven by the increase in scientific journals and the high proportion of acquisition budgets they now represent. Librarians’ desire to purchase digital copies of studies further eroded sales figures.
By getting organizations to commit early on to support their catalog, MIT Press is able to meet their revenue needs and then allow everyone else to access their business for free. Some observers worried about how the model would survive if a small group of benefactors stopped guaranteeing free access to anyone else. But Brand said the model isn’t “purely altruistic,” as paying customers will be given access to hundreds of books on the backlist that aren’t publicly available.
She said she was excited to try out the model because MIT Press “wanted to be the first mover” and “inspire other presses about what might be possible in fixing what has been a very broken model for so long.” Brand said she is considering inviting other publishers to join the D2O program.
“You can imagine a platform where a number of university presses implemented this model and approach libraries as a kind of collaboration,” she said.
Brand said the new model includes a provision in which MIT Press will return funds to individual institutions if enough partners turn up to create a surplus.
“This is a dream, isn’t it?” Brand said. “It creates more stability for having more partners.”
She said many libraries had already agreed to three-year commitments. MIT Press plans to document the impact by sharing usage, number of downloads, and other metrics that show how the open access model has benefited the community at large.
A range of institutions, including colleges within major public university systems and smaller private liberal arts colleges, were among the early 160 participants. These institutions include the Bryn Mawr College Libraries, Caltech Library, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, Emory Libraries, George Mason University, Johns Hopkins University Libraries, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Iowa Libraries, and University of Maryland Libraries. The press has also entered into collective work agreements with the Big Ten Academic Alliance, the Center for Research Libraries, the Alliance of Great Western Libraries, and Northeastern Research Libraries, among others.
Greg Eo, president of the Center for Research Libraries and a former librarian at MIT and a member of the MIT Press board of directors, said he believes the initial results show that the three major players in the publishing cycle — authors, printers and libraries — can work together and overcome cost pressures.
Eow said the D2O model is even more vital at a time when humanities professors, university presses and libraries face severe financial challenges from declining enrollment, the broader open access movement online and a university-wide budget crisis.
“If you look at the three-legged stool of the scientific production — the author, the press, the library — every bit of that stool is unhealthy,” said Io. “The MIT Open Press brings the three legs of a stool together to create a sustainable path ahead so everyone can get out of this hole together. That is the promise.”
Roger Schoenefeld, program director at Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit organization that helps the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scientific record, praised the brand as a visionary. But he wonders how the model can sustain itself, given the inherent free-rider problem in which a subset of organizations will support a larger non-paying population.
“Now that they have 160 participants, and they’ve announced that they’ve met that limit, will any other library raise their hands and say we want to invest money in open digital access as well?” Schoenefeld asked. “What is the incentive for them to do this?” He described considerations related to “almost game theory”.
Rick Anderson, chief librarian at Brigham Young University, said that many important questions were not addressed in the D2O “narrative,” including whether supporting D2O is the best way for a given library to use its budget to provide access to knowledge. He said that it would be important for individual libraries to ask whether D2O was consistent with their own institutional priorities. Anderson said that the more institutional funding the library plans to use to participate in D2O, the more important these questions will be.
Anderson said his biggest concerns about the model are its scalability and catalytic structure. He wondered if the D2O model could be sustainable if it became the dominant model among science book publishers. Anderson said he likes the idea of a highly diverse academic communication system that makes room for many different models of deployment, but D2O won’t really be revolutionary until the model proves scalable.
Ultimately, D2O addresses the difficult reality that scientific studies are no longer in great demand, he said.
“From a somewhat blunt perspective, this is simply another way of saying, ‘Not many people want to buy and read scientific studies,'” Anderson said by email. The reader’s demand component of the publishing equation – and his subscription to free will offers from libraries solve some problems but will inevitably create new ones. For example, it leaves one wondering whether it might lead to the production of more and more books on more and more marginal and obscure topics.”
Alison Bilan, director of strategic innovation at Duke University Press, said she will be watching closely to see if the MIT Press experience proves to be sustainable. If that happens, Bilan said, it could be a new path to fund open access to science books that aren’t entirely STEM-centric. So far, Bilan said, open funding and access models have evolved greatly in STEM disciplines, where more money is generally available. Bilan said that “a very innovative and fascinating brand experience” could be particularly important for the humanities, as it would provide an important new mechanism to ensure that more scholarships are unlocked.
But Bilan said she was concerned about what she called a “tragedy of the commons”.
She said shrinking library budgets could jeopardize the initiative over time. She said that some of the wealthier libraries have focused on supporting open access for research, but that may change over time, particularly as costs rise without commensurate growth in budgets.
No matter how much the model is mimicked in the long run, Bilan has cheered the fact that it will bring more eyeballs to scientific studies, which she calls highly specialized scholarship that usually only reaches a small audience. She said it was exciting to think about how the model could apply to a variety of other forms of scholarship. But she wondered if there would be a point where the same group of well-funded libraries could no longer pay for anyone else.
“If this is simulated, how many different subscriptions to open [and] Can Open pledge initiatives be supported by the same group of value-compatible, well-funded libraries? She asked.