By John Sherer

Last July at MIT Press, a press release went out that should have caught the eye of any reader of this blog. MIT Press announced the creation of a new leadership position called Director of Journals and Open Access and the appointment of Nick Lindsay to the role. To my knowledge, Nick is the only person in the North American university press world who has OA in his title. Last month, I sent him a few questions about this unique initiative.


JS: What was the backstory on the creation of this position?

NL: The MIT Press has a long-standing commitment to open access across both our books and journals programs and has taken a leading position in OA publishing within the university press community. Over the last decade in particular, the Press has grown its OA output considerably and we now publish seven OA journals using a few different financial models, along with over seventy books that have an OA edition available, with more on the way. This open spirit towards OA has led to some very successful projects such as Peter Suber’s Essential Knowledge series book, Open Access, and flipping our journal Computational Linguistics from subscription based to OA. Along with this growth has come a new set of challenges some of which are associated with the increased size of our program and others with the changing landscape of OA. In previous years the Press was able to publish OA books, primarily monographs, without significant concern that there would be a major decline in print sales for that title. In fact, there was some evidence that the presence of an OA version of a book actually enhanced print sales, which was the case with our book City of Bits in 1995

But today it’s clear that the pressures on OA publishing are heavier and that acceptance of digital reading is much greater, which can imperil print sales revenues.  The calculations the Press needs to make when considering OA options have therefore become much more complex and we have moved to a situation where subventions, embargoes, and royalties all need to be considered when publishing an open access book.  Couple this with the development of new OA publishing platforms such as PubPub from the MIT Media Lab and the increased possibilities for experimentation with new dissemination models, it’s become apparent there is a great deal of new work to be done. Press Director Amy Brand saw the need to bring stronger direction and more structure to our OA efforts so as to ensure that we don’t miss out on these new opportunities and that we address future challenges effectively. That’s what triggered the creation of the role.


JS: Are there models at other publishers you’re looking at to duplicate or build from?

NL: I think just about all university presses are trying to figure out where they sit in relation to OA. At MIT Press it’s perhaps slightly more urgent given the amount of scientific publishing we do but I know from talking about it with journals directors, press directors, and others at university presses that it’s an issue that’s top of mind for everyone. We’ve looked at the models that have been created at other Presses and there is much to be learned from them, but the Press is determined to chart its own course when it comes to OA. We’ve had extensive internal discussions across multiple departments at The MIT Press and have heard from many voices: acquisitions, financial, marketing and sales, and others, and we are constructing a flexible open access model that considers each book on its own merits and continues to uphold the quality standards readers have come to expect from The MIT Press. Up to now we have treated all of our OA books with the same level of consideration that we do for any title from The MIT Press: high quality design and production services, extensive marketing support and the same level of rigorous peer review and editing that we bring to all of our books and journals. We plan to ensure that this remains the case regardless of the business model used to support a title. One long term goal we have is to develop an open access fund that will allow us to not be constrained by available funding sources that authors may have for OA books. If we can build a sufficiently large fund we should be able to broaden our OA publishing opportunities.


JS: How are you managing the differences between OA models in journals and books?

NL: On the journals side we’ve become comfortable with different financial models for supporting open access and this has allowed us to go down a few pathways when it comes to how we structure our OA agreements. Societies and individual scholars with a journal idea have gravitated towards the MIT Press as a home for their journal since we started publishing serials in 1972. The combination of quality services and relatively low pricing has been appealing and with the acceleration of interest in open access we’ve seen an uptick in proposals with an OA component. Currently, we have a couple of titles where the sponsoring society is willing to cover all costs for publication including paying for a portion of the Press’ overhead. It’s a low-risk, low-reward approach but it works for us. We’ve also started three new journals in the brain sciences in 2017, Computational Psychiatry, Network Neuroscience, and Open Mind: Discoveries in Cognitive Science. All three are based on an APC-model and we’re happy with the results so far. Adapting internal processes to account for new workflows such as APC payments presents some challenges, but these are smoothing out over time.

With books, author preferences strongly shape the decision to publish books openly, and these vary from field to field. In computer science, for example, the benefits of open models, particularly for software development, are well known and appreciated. In other fields, the decision might be made with the recognition that an open version may increase the dissemination of important scholarship and the global audience for books which might otherwise be limited to readers (mostly in developed countries) with access to adequately funded academic libraries.

Authors often select The MIT Press as a place to publish their work in part because of our reasonable pricing and we’re pleased to be able to offer OA alternatives as well.


JS: What has been the reaction to the announcement?

NL: Very positive! From colleagues and MIT Press and MIT to others in the university press community it’s been great and I suspect I’m going to have plenty of company when it comes to OA positions at other university presses in the near future.


JS: Is MIT uniquely positioned to do this or is this something that you think other university presses can also do?

NL: For journals in particular we undeniably have one big advantage in that we publish in STM. The financial models and customs are already in place and the idea of an OA neuroscience journal like Network Neuroscience coming from MIT Press is easy for the academy to accept. We know where the money is going to come from and we’re already well-known by this audience and are in frequent contact with them at conferences and via social media and other outlets. Like many others we are waiting for a breakthrough in humanities OA journal publishing. This may come but as long as publishing grants are non-existent in the humanities and the publishing operations require market-based revenues to offset costs it’s going to a difficult proposition. But I don’t see the need to develop a full-blown science-publishing program to at least begin a pilot in OA publishing. The investment to make this happen, if you already have a journals program and a platform, is quite reasonable given that with the APC model much of the publication cost is covered up front.

On the books side, we’re open to open access discussions for books from all fields in which we publish and there are plenty of non-STM OA books on our list including John Palfrey’s recent Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces. We’re also keen to develop OA books out of non-traditional sources such as pre-print servers. For example, the Press will be publishing a physics book that first appeared as a long article on the arXiv, “Holographic Quantum Matter” by Sean A. Hartnoll, Andrew Lucas, Subir Sachdev.

In both cases, books and journals, the Press does have advantages that come from being one of the first movers in OA, as they provide a strong base of knowledge and expertise on which to continue to expand our OA program. It’s encouraging to see others in the UP community embrace OA and I look forward to seeing OA become a more regular part of UP activities moving forward.



Comments (1)

  1. The answer to this blog’s question has to be a qualified yes. The fact is that a few university presses got involved with OA long before the Budapest Open Access Initiative gave it a name in 2002. The National Academies Press began posting its books OA in the early 1990s, and at the same time the CIC (now called the Big Ten Academic Alliance) developed an OA proposal for OA monograph publishing in three areas of the himanities that was submitted to the Mellon Foundation in 1996, but was not funded. (I cover the history of the latter in my article in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing, which is accessible OA here: Out of that experience grew the Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing started in 2005 at Penn State where I was director. Peter Potter was the co-director of the ODSP along with Michael Furlough from the Library, which soon thereafter assumed administrative oversight of the Press. Other presses at California, Michigan, and Purdue were beginning experiments in OA monograph publishing also. Overseas Frances Pinter, inspired by an artkcle I had written in 1996 about the concept of OA, started OA monograph publishing at Bloomsbury Academic and of course later developed the Knowledge Unlatched initiative. Generally speaking, OA developed faster and farther in Australia, Canada, and Europe than it did in the US. When I drafted the AAUP Statement on Open Access during my presidency in 2007/8, OA publishing among American university presses was still in its infancy. MIT, with its City of Bits, was among the pioneers, so it is encouraging to see MIT carrying forward its OA program further under Nick’s direction. We now have more entrants in the field, with the Mellon-backed first book initiative, Cal’s Luminos series, the establishment of Amherst College Press as an OA-only press, etc. And overseas we have the Open Library of the Humanities program and a new one just being started at UCL in the UK. Commercial publishers have been way ahead of university press, especially in OA STEM journals publishing, but they have also launched OA book programs too (at SAGE, Palgrave Macmillan, etc.). American university press have an important role to play, especially in experimenting with different funding models that I am glad to see MIT is exploring, but while out of the gate first in some respects, American university presses have fallen behind commercial publishers and foreign academic presses in more recent years.

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