Open Access (Books) vs. Double Dipping: An Ongoing Struggle

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Business Models / Open Access

The dispute amongst scholars and policy makers about which road to take to Open Access (gold or green) revolves to a great extend around the problem (or danger) of double dipping. It is widely acknowledged that publishers ought not to be allowed to charge twice for scientific publications, that is scholars and their public funders on the one hand and publicly funded libraries and readers on the other hand. On first glance this claim seems to be quite obvious as well as its solution appears to be trivial: when published open access a text has to be put online free of charge. Yet, that’s only part of the story.

Looking at Open Access in respect to book publishing leads to a more complex picture. First of all it becomes clear that the issue of double charging is not specific to Open Access publishing. At least in the German context it is common that publishers demand a printing cost subsidy from authors while still selling the books online and in print. This is widely considered as suboptimal, but authors and funders accept this since publishing the majority of academic monographs wouldn’t be economically feasible otherwise. Yet, with Open Access entering the stage of book publishing this practice becomes problematic. If authors are charged for publishing books anyway, how much more is it going to cost to turn books Open Access? This question remains largely unanswered up until now.

However, there is another difficult issue to be addressed. Making books available online for free and enabling libraries to include them into their catalogues is just not enough. To be clear I am a strong believer in openly accessible books in digital formats, but I equally believe in the virtues of the printed book. While abandoning print might work for academic journals, we should not readily assume the same to be true for books. Especially in the humanities books are usually not considered as mere collections of information, but as texts that are to be read and worked with. Reading texts – even long ones – on screen became more bearable in recent years. Yet, handling digital books and working with them in everyday research is a different story. That’s why I personally still buy printed books. And I know many fellow researchers do so as well, even those who might be considered digital scholars. But that’s not the argument I want make here. So let’s just assume that the printed book is not superfluous in the digital age. And let’s furthermore suppose that research libraries should keep on adding printed books to their collections as well.

This inevitably leads to the problem of double dipping as outlined above. Charging scholars and their public funders more in order to make books Open Access while libraries keep buying scholarly books at catalogue price definitely fits the definition. Sure, libraries could refrain from purchasing printed books. This wouldn’t be desirable, however. So how to escape this dilemma? One solution that comes to mind is that publishers could commit to provide a certain number of books to research libraries for free. This could be factored in the author processing fees, which are in many cases paid by research institutions or public funders anyway. If a publisher charges for example a fee of 10.000 Euro to publish an Open Access monograph, ten percent could be set aside to provide prints (at production price) to libraries. Another solution could be that academic publishers drastically reduce the prices of printed books and furthermore sell these books to research institutions at production price.

These are just rough ideas that might not even be feasible in the long run. But at least they take into account that the economical shift caused by Open Access cannot be just thought of as a transition from a customer pays model to an author (or institution) pays model. The realities of academic (book) publishing are more difficult and that’s why the economic question of Open Access is not just about at what end publications are paid for. Open Access rather leads to a redistribution of funds and cash flows that affect our academic landscape as a whole. Negotiating this shift is going to be a great challenge for the next decade(s).

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