Open Minded about Open Access

University Press Forum 2018

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

‘Free’ is still a rare practice in academic book publishing, and the MIT Press … is a leader in thinking about and experimenting with the commercial feasibility of various approaches to open access.”—Eric von Hippel (T. Wilson Professor of Technological Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, 1953) in his 2016 book Free Innovation.

Amy Brand, PhD, Director,
The MIT Press.

Officially founded in 1962, the MIT Press is relatively young by university press standards. We’re young at heart as well, and have long been open-minded about open access. As a mission-driven publisher, our focus at the MIT Press is on striking the right balance among accessibility, quality, and sustainability—in other words, providing the widest possible access to the works we publish while producing meticulously curated, edited, and crafted works for scholars, students, and the educated reading public. We have been a leader in open access (OA) book publishing for over two decades, beginning with the publication of William Mitchell’s City of Bits, which appeared simultaneously in print and in a dynamic, open web edition in 1995.

Today, the Press actively supports a variety of OA models for monographs, trade books, and textbooks, with an emphasis on being author-responsive. Whether or not a book is published OA in digital form has no bearing on how it is curated, peer reviewed, edited, designed, or marketed by the Press. The same standards of excellence apply. The preferences and priorities of the author are of the utmost importance in determining the right publishing model for a given book, and there are many factors for authors and publishers to consider. For trade and textbook authors, protecting and monetizing their creations may be paramount, in which case immediate, free distribution will most likely not be the author’s top priority. In such cases, however, we still strive to minimize barriers to accessing these works by forgoing DRM where feasible and keeping our prices as low as possible—a very different approach from that of most commercial textbook publishers, and one consistent with our objective to optimize for access, impact, and sustainability rather than for profit.

For the MIT Press, then, OA is neither a new format nor a new philosophy. What it has become, though, is a new business model for scholarly monographs. Rather than recouping the costs associated with publishing a book exclusively via the sales of the work—whether in print or digital form, or both—OA books today are typically funded up front, at least partially. Publishing charges for an OA title might be paid by an author, an institution, a funder, the publisher’s own endowment, or a third-party initiative such as Knowledge Unlatched. Although we haven’t been an early adopter of the pre-funded model, it is clearly the preferred approach going forward. While most of the OA books the MIT Press has published to date have been supported exclusively by sales of the print edition and not otherwise subsidized, like many academic publishers today coping with the contracting market for scholarly monographs, we are increasingly looking to the funded OA model as a less risky way to publish academic works for specialized audiences.

The paid OA model is strongly preferred for academic monographs because of its potential to maximize the readership and impact of a scholar’s work within a more sustainable business model for a missiondriven publisher. The books we publish OA out of the gate—close to 100 thus far—are issued under a variety of Creative Commons attribution licenses. The choice of license is a decision typically left to the author. Some authors select CC-BY (available for any re-use with attribution). Most select CC-NC-ND (not for commercial or derivative uses)—the choice of NC prevents for-profit publishers from republishing, reselling, or otherwise commercializing the CC-licensed works in full. At the same time, we’re actively partnering with the Internet Archive to digitize hundreds of our older backlist titles for open lending or free access through

MIT Press books published in the Knowledge Unlatched program thus far, which are CC-licensed for open PDF download, include What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa? by Clapperton Mavhunga; Democratic Experiments Problematizing Nanotechnology and Democracy in Europe and the United States, by Brice Laurent; and Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds, edited by Ed Finn, David Guston, and Jason Scott. This last work also appears in an interactive edition on an MIT homegrown, open publishing and collaboration platform called PubPub. Entitled Frankenbook, it is a collective reading and annotation experience of the original 1818 text of Frankenstein.

Frankenbook gives readers the opportunity to trace the scientific, technological, political, and ethical dimensions of Shelley’s text, and to learn more about its historical context and enduring legacy through annotations categorized into eight themes. These themes can be activated or deactivated based on an individual reader’s interests. Readers are able to share passages from the book or write replies to annotations and submit new annotations or discussion points. Classrooms and reading groups are encouraged to create their own version of the digital edition in order to host private discussions and more easily assign readings. Community contributed annotations live on the site alongside multimedia elements and a series of essays on the novel at its 200th anniversary.

Collaboration in the context of our open access works is also encouraged by use of the annotation tool. One example is our recent publication of John Palfrey’s Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education (see We also used this work to pilot functionality under development to post an automatically generated visual “data narrative” about the book based on semantic textual analysis.

In a new and important partnership with the MIT Libraries, we will soon launch an open access trade book series on networked technologies, called “Strong Ideas.” The Libraries are providing funding to enable open access editions of books in the series. For authors who are interested in an open pre-publication review process, an early version of the manuscript can be posted on PubPub for both community and targeted peer review in the open, as a basis for the author’s revisions to the work prior to final submission and publication. We also sometimes publish as print monographs works that have been previously posted to open access subject repositories. For example, the Press will be publishing a physics book that first appeared as a long article on the physics arXiv titled “Holographic Quantum Matter” by Sean A. Hartnoll, Andrew Lucas, and Subir Sachdev.

Of all the experiments in open access monograph publishing that we’ve undertaken, the only one we’ve deemed a clear failure, in financial terms, is the publication of a free Kindle edition alongside a paid print book. Our experiences show that the availability of a zero-dollar Kindle edition severely cannibalizes sales of the print edition of the work. Eric von Hippel’s Free Innovation is a case in point; sales of the print edition of this book have been significantly below projections, and this is clearly because book buyers on Amazon opted overwhelmingly for the free Kindle edition. We nonetheless consider it to have been a worthwhile learning experience, and our open-minded, experimental approach to open access continues unabated.

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About the author:

Amy Brand is Director, The MIT Press.