UMP “Launches” Open Access Book Program

by Charles Watkinson on October 21, 2017

[This post is written by Charles Watkinson, Director, University of Michigan Press and Mary Francis, Editorial Director, University of Michigan Press]

University of Michigan Press has published details of our Open Access books program. You can see a link to it on the front page of our website and also a link that shows all the OA books that we are publishing and have published listed (over 1,100 books and counting).

As the quote marks in the title suggest, there is an element of clickbait to the title of this post since University of Michigan Press has been making our books open access for over a decade. In 2006 we launched Digital Culture Books ( as an experimental imprint offering free electronic access to books with an orientation toward what is commonly known as “digital humanities;” In 2009 we made over 750 backlist books available free-to-read on HathiTrust; and in 2013 we were one of the first publishers to put books into Knowledge Unlatched. What is new now, however, is that our open access books are no longer just the result of a series of “projects” but are part of a documented “program” with its own policies and priorities.

Announcing a “program” may imply crisp edges. We could say that “we will publish this many books a year, with this level of Book Programming Charge (BPC), with only this type of open license.” Some other publishing colleagues who we admire have clearly defined such limits, most notably University of California Press’s Luminos program, and to do that is both pragmatic and convenient. As the open access landscape is changing rapidly we don’t feel able to be quite as precise with our program and some may find this frustrating, especially in our lack of a clear BPC number or our unwillingness to insist on a certain kind of CC license. Our pledge instead is to be collegial and transparent (with authors, with librarians, with funders) about why we decide which books will work well as open access, how we set prices, and how we decide what license to apply to the work.

What does this pledge to transparency mean in practice? With respect to selection, we know that not every book needs to be open access and foresee OA being a minority of our list for a while. (In 2017 16% of our frontlist was open access, and that percentage will change very gradually.) As we think about setting BPCs, we know that we invest an average of $27,000 in each monograph we publish because we have conducted two separate studies (one from Ithaka S&R, another from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University). We need to recoup that investment through a combination of sources of support for each OA project.  For each title we will work toward an equitable level of financial support from third-party funders, institutional subventions, and other sources.  On licensing, we know from the most comprehensive research that the majority of authors do not want to use CC-BY licenses so our default is to the most restrictive Creative Commons license, though we always offer authors the opportunity to discuss their choice of license with their editor. There are debates about whether a CC-BY-NC-ND license is even true “open access” but we would rather meet authors where they are (with the biggest concern we here being derivative reuse of their work out of context) that discourage free access to their work by being overly dogmatic.

One distinctive feature of our OA book publishing program is that we have decided not to single out OA books under a separate imprint or put them on a different platform from the rest of our title. For us, a Michigan  book is a Michigan book is a Michigan book. Every book we publish goes through the same intensive process of selection (acquisitions editor chooses, peer reviewers recommend, editorial board decides). We have always made choices after a book is accepted about how best to “package” the author’s work so that it most effectively reaches readers, including choices about whether to make a book OA. Our approach to the production and marketing of an OA book is similarly strategic and pragmatic.

Publishers are always interested in maximizing impact and engagement for their authors’ work. There is truly a world of promise in open access book publishing. There is also much to be worked out. Under the auspices of our colleague Rebecca Welzenbach and with the extensive involvement of her colleagues Meredith Kahn, Jon McGlone, Melissa Baker-Young, and Jeremy Morse, we’re proud to lead or be involved in a number of collaborative initiatives, many of which have been generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, that are working to resolve some challenges facing OA book publishers.

Here are some challenges we see:

How can institutions best support their faculty members in facilitating the publication of open access books when that makes sense? We have taken a leadership role in studying the implications of an institution-pays model and Michigan is engaging as both a press and a funding institution with the pilot program coordinated by AAU/ARL/AAUP (the Association of American Universities, Associate of Research Libraries, and Association of American University Presses). We hope to learn a lot through this experimental program.

How can we be more transparent with authors and funders about new roles and responsibilities when they may bear at least some of the cost? To help clarify these issues for all parties involved in OA publications, we are using a version of the “Model Contract for Digital Scholarship” for our OA book author agreements.

How can we avoid disenfranchizing authors from open access publishing if they are unable to pay — because they are adjunct faculty, independent scholars, or at institutions who can’t afford to pay publishing costs? We actively employ our own funds to help authors who can’t pay but whose work would benefit from OA dissemination. To engage with authors at smaller colleges and universities are proud to be working with libraries connected to the Oberlin Group of selective liberal arts colleges to support the Lever Press “platinum open access” model.

How do readers find, acquire, and use open access books when the traditional information supply chain is based around books having a retail price? We have recently completed a study on “Mapping the Free eBook Supply Chain” which is raising awareness of many of the impediments, and suggesting ways to address these issues. There is much to be done in libraries to aid discovery of open access book content.

What are the most meaningful indicators of engagement that we need to be gathering to evaluate whether the OA books we publish are achieving their intellectual goals? And how do we best aggregate, analyze, and meaningfully communicate this information — currently spread across disparate sources? We were the first university press to apply Altmetrics for Books across all our titles. We have recently been working closely with KU Research to study usage patterns for our titles on JSTOR. A major question underlying this work is how to make sure that whatever indicators are used are aligned with the values that humanities scholars care about.


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