A New Approach to Open Access Monograph Publishing

2018 University Press Forum

[Editor’s Note: This essay also appears as part of the annual University Press Forum in the May issue of Choice and on ChoiceReviews.org.]

Lara Speicher, Publishing Manager,
UCL Press.

When UCL Press launched in June 2015, it was the first fully open access UK university press. For readers who are not familiar, UCL (University College London) is a leading research- intensive university based in London. In 2017 it was ranked seventh in the QS World University Rankings. In the 1990s it had had a university press based at the institution, run on a traditional model, but the imprint was sold to a commercial publisher. Some years later it became clear that the imprint was generating little activity. Feeling this was a missed opportunity, UCL decided to get the imprint back and set up UCL Press again at the institution, but this time as an open access university press. This activity was spearheaded by Dr. Paul Ayris, pro-vice provost for UCL Library Services and an open access champion, who leads on OA initiatives both at the institution and throughout Europe.

UCL had already taken a strong stance on OA as an institution. Among the reasons for setting up an open access press were to further increase UCL’s OA provision and activities and to boost funding for faculty publishing in the arts and humanities—especially since the level of funding available for AHSS is far lower than in the sciences. Another key reason was to address the high retail prices and ever-diminishing sales figures in traditional scholarly monograph publishing.

An important decision by Paul Ayris was to ensure that the staff managing the Press came from a publishing background. When I joined UCL as publishing manager, following roles at British Library Publishing and BBC Books Publishing, I was very aware of the significance of UCL’s venture and also the challenges that lay ahead. How would we convince researchers to publish with us, a nascent, open access press? Would authors want to publish with their home institution, or would they be put off by vanity press associations? If so, how could we counter those concerns?

The Press started in a very fortunate position since it already had the financial and moral support of senior management (unlike many small new presses which have to convince management of the potential benefits of the strategy). While setting Press operations (infrastructure, policies, workflows, distribution arrangements, and staffing), I set out to meet as many people as possible at the institution to find out about their publishing needs and to generate interest in the Press. We had a basic website, and sent out a call for proposals to staff via the all-desks newsletter. However, there is no substitute, in my opinion, for getting to know people. Indeed, it has always been an immense privilege to work with a wide range of authors who are subject experts in fascinating topics, and to help them publish their books. I discovered in those meetings that many academics were dissatisfied with the editorial and marketing services they experienced with other publishers. This confirmed my view that strong governance and highquality peer review, editorial, and marketing services would help establish UCL Press as a reputable operation.

Proposals started to come in fast for a variety of books. Nevertheless, the Press did not deviate from its original focus on scholarly monographs, textbooks, and edited collections. Keeping this focus has allowed us to uphold quality and streamlined workflows, which are important to a relatively small team.

Receiving a proposal from the eminent Renaissance historian Lisa Jardine, who sadly passed away in 2016, for our launch program was a great boost. For someone of her stature to demonstrate her belief in a new open access university press gave other authors confidence.

At first, we did not focus on any particular subject areas, and we didn’t set any targets for the number of books we planned to publish. However, we needed new and clear measures of success to assess our achievements, since sales income was no longer a benchmark. These included the number and quality of proposals received, download figures, review coverage, and author feedback.

Since launch, UCL Press has published more than sixty books and eight journals, and now comprises a team of six. At the time of writing, published titles were downloaded around the world more than 750,000 times. The most popular book, How the World Changed Social Media, by UCL Professor of Anthropology Daniel Miller et al., has been downloaded more than 170,000 times, which is an exceptional number for a scholarly monograph.

UCL Press books are hosted on a number of platforms, including UCL’s own repository, OAPEN, Worldreader, and JSTOR. Our books have been reviewed positively in the national and international press and in specialist journals, and a number of our authors are now publishing second and even third books with us. A recent author said that there was more marketing support for her book published with us than all her previous books combined.

These positive reactions have helped the Press avoid the potential perception of being a vanity press, and have also helped more reluctant authors see the benefits of open access. All authors go through the same evaluation and peer review process overseen by an academic editorial board. UCL Press charges a book processing fee to non-UCL authors of monographs, but it also accepts a certain number of books by non-UCL authors every year, and it accepts chapters by non-UCL authors in books where the general editor is a UCL staff member. These policies have helped to expand the pool of non-UCL authors in order to deliver a more diverse list.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that UCL authors want to publish with us to support their home institution and open access, so perhaps the vanity press stigma is simply losing traction in scholarly publishing as other imperatives, such as impact and public engagement, increase in importance in research evaluation exercises. Many authors we work with also see the benefits of the coordinated publishing, research support, and publicity activities that the Press and the institution can provide.

UCL supports its academics to publish open access and funds the majority of the Press’s costs. As a percentage of the institution’s overall research budget, UCL Press represents a relatively small amount in exchange for the benefits the Press brings to the institution. Even though the Press receives revenue from print sales, retail prices are kept as low as possible to cover print and distribution costs only, so sales revenues do not cover all publishing costs. However, in terms of quantity, UCL Press’s print sales figures compare well with those reported by traditional scholarly presses.

How the publishing costs for open access monographs can be covered throughout the sector is something that is under considerable discussion by individuals and presses. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has indicated in an upcoming REF (Research Excellence Framework) that around 2025 there will be some form of mandate for monographs to be open access in order to be eligible for the REF. The precise nature and extent of the mandate has yet to be determined. The policy is in development with a working group under the UUK (Universities UK) Open Access Coordination Group.

Now that UCL Press is comfortably publishing thirty-five to forty scholarly monographs a year, which are being downloaded as well, the Press is starting to extend its range of activities. It is developing an open access textbook publishing program, a megajournal, and publishing and consulting services for other institutions. This range of activities has been developed in response to demand from other universities around the world seeking help to start their own OA university press, to meet strategic objectives for the institution, and to further challenge prevailing publishing models.

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About the author:

Lara Speicher is Publishing Manager, UCL Press.