Scholarly monographs, long the gold standard for scholars in the humanities and social sciences, have been in a downward spiral for some time. But might a promising London-based open access initiative called Knowledge Unlatched, under the direction of Manchester University Press CEO Frances Pinter, finally offer hope for a turnaround?

In August, after a preliminary report was released, the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) World Library and Information Congress in August awarded Knowledge Unlatched (KU) the IFLA/Brill Open Access Award as “the most outstanding and game-changing initiative in the field.” And while a final report on the Knowledge Unlatched pilot project is due to be released in the next few weeks (a preliminary draft of which was provided to PW), those that participated in the program have already expressed their optimism.

For most of publishing history, academic monographs were published in expensive, short print runs and purchased mainly by libraries. But while academics still need to publish monographs for tenure and advancement, the monograph publishing market has faltered in the digital age, as libraries have been forced to shift resources toward costly online journal packages and platforms, kicking off what has been called a monograph crisis. Trouble in the monograph market spurred a number of pilots and initiatives to look for a financially viable alternative. And with e-books and open access publishing now established, and gaining wider acceptance, could a viable open access solution for monograph publishing finally be on the horizon?

“I’m not saying monographs will be the preferred format forever,” says Pinter, who hatched the project in 2012. “But I’d prefer the academic community were given a choice of form of expression, rather than find that the long-form publication dies just because we couldn’t think of a business model that made it work, especially in an open access environment.”

Game Change

Indeed, the Knowledge Unlatched model is straightforward: publishers make high-quality frontlist titles available under an open access license in exchange for a single fixed-title fee. Users can access the titles freely online. To cover publications costs, libraries around the world pool their money, allowing the publishers to recoup their investment up front. And since the fee is fixed, the cost per library decreases as the number of participating libraries increases. In a nod to the library’s key role in the monograph market, KU features a nine-member library steering committee, and a librarian-collections committee is also being formed.

“When Knowledge Unlatched approached libraries with a model for supporting open access to long-form scholarship, we were very interested,” says Elizabeth E. Kirk, the associate librarian for Information resources at Dartmouth College and a member of the steering committee. “A structure to support open access monographic publishing that works with multiple presses and can grow sustainably is a critical need.”

Charles Watkinson, the director of the University of Michigan Press and the associate university librarian for publishing at the University of Michigan Library, agrees. “The KU project is attractive in that it keeps publishers and libraries relevant and sustainable in the developing world of open access books,” he told PW.

James L. Mullins, the dean of libraries at Purdue University and a member of the project’s new steering committee, says he too jumped at the chance to get involved. “The attraction was a new financial model that would allow important scholarly publications to see the light of day and reach a much larger population than would have been possible in the traditional publishing/distribution model,” he said.

“In some ways it is similar to SCOAP3,” Mullins says, referring to the successful initiative in which libraries agreed to purchase journals in high-energy physics in return for open access. By agreeing to buy what Knowledge Unlatched distributes, Mullins says, libraries will “ensure that publishers receive a fair return, while providing scholarship to the world without limits on the ability of an individual or library to pay.”


So, looking at the numbers, can KU work? The evidence is now coming in.

In the initial pilot, 13 scholarly publishers, both commercial and not for profit, offered titles in a single 28-book collection chosen by librarians. In early 2014, Knowledge Unlatched set the goal of recruiting 200 libraries around the world, which would each pay $1,680 for the collection, resulting in a title fee of $12,000 for each book. Ultimately, 297 libraries from 24 countries joined, which reduced the per-library cost to $1,195, or $42.67 per book, compared to an average hardcover price of $95. The publishers still received the full-title fee of $12,000.

The first KU titles became available in March, and the last in September. Print is available, and PDFs are downloadable on a Creative Commons license via the OAPEN Digital Library and through the HathiTrust, two of the most prominent partners backing this effort. The initial metrics released in October (excluding the title from September) show 12,763 downloads. The average number of downloads per title was 473, and the downloads came from 138 countries.

A draft version of the final report calls these figures “impressive,” particularly given that small print runs of a few hundred copies that have become standard for most monographs. But perhaps more important than the numbers, says Kirk, is that the pilot has helped build trust between libraries and publishers, showing that publishers in both the commercial and university-press sectors were interested in trying new business models.

“The idea that the publishing community as a whole is resistant to change has been demonstrated to be a fallacy,” Kirk says. “That’s very exciting.”

Concerns do exist, of course. Raym Crow, of the Chain Bridge Group, who wrote the white paper “A Rational System for Funding Scholarly Monographs”agreed that the pilot demonstrated considerable interest in KU’s approach. But the jury is still out, he cautioned, noting that a certain degree of “institutional altruism” may have been at work, given the small size and limited risk of the pilot.

“To operate at scale, KU needs to ensure that it delivers exclusive benefits to participating libraries that are sufficient to overcome free riding,” he said.

Indeed, for some, the free-rider issue is a major concern: in other words, all universities depend on the university-press system, but many do not support a press of their own; thus they benefit without having any skin in the game.

Pinter, however, said that she did not think free riding would be a problem, as long as people did not expect all books to be published this way. “The library community is full of initiatives that have been successful despite free riders,” she said. “We’ve shown that the financial benefit to participants is significant, so they are willing to accept that not everyone who should or could participate will do so.” Even so, Pinter acknowledges, the model will need tweaking.

Watkinson agrees that the number of downloads were encouraging when compared with print sales, but he also had questions. “We don’t really know the relationship between downloads and impact,” he points out. “What are the individuals who download titles doing with them? Are they placing the same value on a free-to-download digital file as they would on a resource they’ve paid for?”

Next Steps

The interest in open access and monographs is only likely to grow, and Pinter says 100 libraries and 30 publishers already pre-registered for the next round.

“A lot of people want us to get on with future rounds of unlatching books, but I’d rather take this slowly and get it right than falter just because we didn’t pay enough attention to infrastructure issues,” she said. “And we do need to understand how KU fits into a world where some countries are mandating open access, even for long-form publications, when others are not.”

Without question, the pilot’s limited scope has left some unresolved issues that will need to be addressed as the project scales up, including how to recognize additional format purchases, and also the lack of uniform metadata. But all seem to agree that the project presents an opportunity to sustain and enhance long-form publications for scholars in the humanities and social sciences. “Everyone wins,” Kirk says, libraries, publishers, and scholars. “And that is critical for ongoing success.”

PW Picks

Going to the ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting? Interested in scholarly communication and open access initiatives?

Check out the Scholarly Communication Discussion Group, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, 3–4 p.m., at McCormick Place West, room W176a, for an informal, in-depth discussion on hot topics in open access initiatives, as well as the many related opportunities to advance the dissemination of scholarship without economical, legislative, and technical barriers.”

Michael Kelley is a contributing editor at PW, where he writes the monthly "Check It Out" column. He is a former editor-in-chief of Library Journal.