By Charles Watkinson

This post is co-written by Michael Elliott (Interim Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, Emory University), Christopher Long (Dean, College of Arts and Letters, Michigan State University), Mark Saunders (Director, University of Virginia Press), and Charles Watkinson (Director, University of Michigan Press).

As part of an initiative to explore the potential benefits of open access modes for disseminating academic monographs, we have found ourselves returning to basic questions about how we want to measure and understand what it is we do when we send a monograph out into the world. Every book is created from our basic scholarly impulse to enrich some aspect of the complex world we share. Yet when we seek to tell the story of its impact, we too often rely on narrow, dull, and/or inadequate measures — citation counts; print runs; downloads.

One way to shift this tendency to narrow and flatten the scope of scholarly impact is to give it more texture by identifying a wider range of possible audiences capable of creating transformative public communities. To that end, we have proposed a taxonomy of reading publics for the academic monograph who would particularly benefit from an open access approach. We believe that indicators of engagement with these seven types of readers could be used to tell a much richer story about a book’s influence that could be persuasive to authors and funders. And we think the data sources to tell this story already exist.

Group 1: Public policymakers (local, national, international), and those that inform them (e.g., think-tank researchers, journalists). This would also include public and private funders.

Group 2: International users from areas with limited resources, especially in the Global South, including scholars working in universities and NGOs and potential overseas students.

Group 3: Independent and loosely-affiliated scholars in North America (e.g., faculty affiliated with less well-funded institutions, contract academic employees).

Group 4: Teachers and students interested in using a book for pedagogical purposes who might not be able to afford to do so (e.g., students, K-12 educators).

Group 5: Technology-supported scholars who benefit from greater ease of reuse/interaction, including scholars using machine interfaces to “read” a work.

Group 6: Traditional scholarly users who benefit from barrier-free access and may introduce these works into the undergraduate / graduate classroom more readily.

Group 7: Practitioners and other specialist publics of interest to the university. Especially those of strategic interest to a university (e.g., citizens of the state in which a public university is housed)

A variety of sources of information are now available to publishers wishing to track their success in reaching these audiences, even if the work of aggregating and communicating such information is still in progress. Altmetric providers (such as for Books) are able to provide information about mentions of books in policy documents, specialist blogs, open syllabi, social media, and conventional news sources. Web logs and Google Analytics can reveal the geographical spread of usage down to the city level as well as the source of referrals. Use by institutions of different types is tracked by aggregators that share data with publishers such as JSTOR’s Open Access eBooks program. Finally, tools are becoming available to create user surveys that can be imbedded in ebooks, through initiatives such as the “Mapping the Free Ebook Supply Chain” project being conducted by University of Michigan Press, Open Book Publishers, and the Free Ebook Foundation with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

In our enthusiasm to tell the story of open access impact, we must always remember it is important to encourage the ethical and transparent use of indicators in order to protect the rights of the reader and to acknowledge the many aspects of humanistic scholarship that cannot be measured quantitatively. We must be clear that we are not interested in tracking the identity of users beyond an aggregate level that does not reveal private information such as gender, race, or religion. Luckily, library privacy policies provide good guidance as to ways to protecting the rights of the user while still learning how to improve and sustain our open access publishing projects.

Our taxonomy is a work in progress. As we think through the issues around measuring the impact of open access scholarship, we’re interested in your comments. Do the seven groups resonate? What potential audiences have we missed? What other indicators of engagement might deepen our attempts to tell a richer story about impact?


Comments (1)

  1. This is a useful taxonomy, but it omits one obvious group of readers, the so-called general reader, that we know exists for some books published by university presses but have difficulty measuring, beyond sales figures from regular retail bookstores. One experiment I conducted at Penn State when i was director there involved commissioning reviews of books published by university presses that they themselves described in their catalogues as “of general interest.” I did this for the Centre Daily Times for which I served as voluntary book review editor for three years during which time some sixty books got reviewed. Both the Penn State bookstore and the local public library cooperated in this experiment, with the library agfreeing to have each book reviuewed available for checkout and promoted in the library with a copy of the review posted so that library users could find out about it if they had not already seen the review in the newspaper. Although this was not an “open access” experiment, it is a way that use by members of the general public could be measured by how often each title reviewed was checked out. I gave a fuller account of this experiment in my AAUP presidential address in June 2008, which may be available at AAUP’s web site. One other point I would make is that both for regular books and those published “open access,” prizes bestowed by both scholarly associations and general organizations (like the Pulitzers and National Book Awards) can be a good measure of impact, though of course the number of books that win such prizes is but a very small proportion of overall output.

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