Gold Open Access is an accepted, yet isolated model in academic book publishing. Publishing houses only dare to scale open access in small steps. While books, especially monographs, are still the preferred medium to communicate scholarship in many disciplines, foremost in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, the overall market of academic books is in recession. Less sold books means less access. Large scale Open Access publishing may be a solution. But publishing houses seem to be in a prisoner’s dilemma: to adapt Open Access on a large enough scale required a systematic approach in which all publishing houses would have to act. My recently published study (June 2017, UCL Press) provides a theoretical explanation for this.
Academic Books: A Market in Recession
The egoism of one person can be trouble for all. That’s one core assumption of the prisoner’s dilemma, the famous thought experiment of game theory. With it, economists and social scientists try to showcase why two or more subjects don’t cooperate but rather act only to their own best interest. As both act egoistically, both are worse off.
In game theory, such models are being applied to all possible scenarios, often with the aim to explain or predict how subjects behave under certain circumstances. Most importantly, game theory regularly showcases the irrationality of decision making. For instance, the prisoner’s dilemma gives a simple explanation why nations don’t adhere to promised climate targets, or why cartels fail. But game theory can also be applied on a much smaller scale. In my study, I wanted to see whether the prisoner’s dilemma can explain the slow progress of Open Access in academic book publishing. Especially in the arts, humanities, and social sciences where books are still the main means to communicate scholarship, open access is only scaling slowly.
Open Access and the Current Economic Situation
Traditionally, the person who wants to access information pays for the access (or the library pays for the person, acting as an agent). This model has been commonly agreed upon for centuries. The Open Access movement wants to change that, but with opening access, they’re opening problems as well: someone must pay for the value creation of publishing houses. In most cases of Open Access publishing, the model is simply switched, meaning that instead of the reader, the person who wants to publish pays for the publication (or the library or funder pays for the person, acting as an agent).
Now, this is an oversimplification of the process, but the explanation already shows one key difficulty: the library is suddenly acting as an agent for both the reader and the author. In times when library budgets are tight, this can’t work all to well. Yet, publishing houses need to cover costs. In addition, a simple economic assumption regarding inflation and profit-making adds another layer: for for-profit publishers, Open Access needs to provide more value than paid access. In other words, either Open Access adds another source of income (through book publishing charges) for publishers, or they stick to the old model. That’s where the prisoner’s dilemma sets in.
Open Access Cannot be Treated as Isolated Cases
In my study, I create the theoretical scenario that publishing houses are faced with the decision between publishing Gold Open Access or paid access. In reality, a publishing house would make such a decision looking at various variables. The simplifying prisoner’s dilemma cannot incorporate all these variables; hence it must be handled with caution. But it can show some basic assumptions on which publishers base their decisions and why their decisions fail to fundamentally change the market:
- Gold Open Access as an isolated case (as mostly seen today) doesn’t work in the long run. Open Access requires a systematic shift, otherwise budgets and funding decisions will always be made as either-or.
- Funders of Open Access (libraries and institutional funders) are the key drivers of change towards large scale of Open Access. Researchers’ and publishers’ decisions are always subject to funding.
- If the publishing industry—as it is today—wanted to shift completely towards Gold Open Access publishing, the market would need to grow economically. Most publishers aspire to grow. Unless they can subsidise their publishing agenda with additional services, Open Access publishing would need to yield higher returns than potential sales (a tricky statement as the market is in recession).
- Intermediaries like Knowledge Unlatched or the Open Library of the Humanities may alleviate the pressure of funding and smaller returns, mainly because they spread risks on many stakeholders. As these intermediaries are young and there is only little competition among them, their sustainability will have to be proved in the years to come. For now, they act as agents for publishers and libraries, providing shelter against harsh cannibalisation effects.
As the market shifts, some of these statements may not hold true (and surely, they only look at the economics of Open Access). Though, they do apply for the current publishing landscape.