(This is the unedited version of a piece published yesterday over at Guardian Higher Ed.)
A decade ago, in my first year as lecturer in a Humanities department, an eminent Professor helped me secure a book contract with a top university press for my recently completed doctoral thesis. Another senior colleague stopped me in the corridor: “This is very rare,” she said. “And this is what gets you ahead in this game.” The book itself is a lovely object, of which I’m still very proud (it took me four years of doctoral research, plus another two years of preparation). It only sold a few hundred copies: enough to make the press happy, and to give me annual royalties of a fiver. There is an ebook, comparable in price to the physical version, but no Open Access version. Despite little proof that it is well read, it has been cited just enough to give me another elusive point on the dreaded H-index. We don't write Humanities monographs for riches, we may do for an attempt at academic fame, but the career kickback for me was rapid promotion. In the Humanities, the monograph’s the thing.
Today, the Humanities publishing landscape is, of course, changing alongside every other. We must work through the potentials and issues that digital technologies bring. With digital publishing comes the uncoupling of content from print: why should those six years of work (or more) result in only a physical book that sits on a few shelves? Why can’t the content be made available freely online via Open Access? Isn’t this the great ethical stance: making knowledge available to all? Won’t opening up access to the detailed, considered arguments held within Humanities monographs do wonders for the reputation and impact of subject areas whose contribution to society is often under-rated?
Research councils are prescribing Open Access requirements for outputs which will be submittable in the next REF, and there are now nods towards monographs being included in those requirements at some elusive point in the future. The Humanities’ dependency on the monograph for the shaping and sharing of scholarship means that
scholars, and publishers, should be paying attention. How will small-print runs of expensive books fare in this new “content should be available for free” marketplace? How will production costs be recouped? Predatory models are already emerging, with established presses offering Open Access monographs alongside the print version for an all inclusive £10,000 charge to offset a presumed (but not proven) fall in revenue: out of the reach for most individual academics, or many institutions. I certainly couldn't have afforded those costs, a junior academic fresh out of the doctoral pod, with student debt hanging around my neck.
The latest JISC survey on the attitudes of academics in the Humanities and Social Sciences to Open Access monograph publishing makes an interesting contribution to this debate, showing how central single author monographs still are to the Humanities, and how important the physical – rather than digital – copies are. People still like to read, and in many cases buy, them. The survey suggests monographs are fairly easy to access even in physical form (inter-library loan, anyone?). Open Access is welcomed, and is seen to increase readership, but the physical object is still central to the consideration of the monograph: something which should allay fears of publishers wondering how any change in the REF requirement will affect their bottom line. The most difficult problem seems to be securing a book contract in the first place, whether that has an Open Access option or not: the survey clearly shows that ECRs need help and guidance to do so.
Will I publish another monograph without an associated Open Access version? No, but getting published in the first place is the important thing. What advice do I have for early career researchers looking to publish their doctoral thesis, especially if they had the chance to do so with a strong, established academic publisher? The monograph is still the thing: anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a scholar in the Humanities should work towards having one. Open Access requirements are on the horizon, so broach them with the publisher. Don't accept £10,000 costs. Brandish this survey, say People Still Buy Books. Ask for help from those further along the academic path to help you navigate the pre-contract stage. Even with the changing publishing environment, some things stay the same: the importance of the physical single author monograph, and the importance of academic patronage.