Why publish books open access?

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 23, 2020

This week is the 2020 Open Access week. I’m using the occasion to share my experiences with publishing a book open access, now almost 3 years ago. I’ve had multiple emails since publishing that book, mainly from established scholars who had earlier published with world-leading academic publishers, and who were wondering whether or not they should opt for a genuine non-profit open access publisher for their next book project.

My book, Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice: The Capability Approach Re-examined was published with Open Book Publisher (OBP), a non-commercial academic publisher founded and currently run by scholars from Cambridge University. OBP’s motto is ‘Knowledge is for sharing’, and hence all books can be read on their websites or downloaded as a PDF for free; the prize for printed copies are also very reasonable (often under 20 UK Pounds).

I took the decision to send a bookproposal to OBP after I went to the University of the Western Cape in 2011 to teach a course on the capability approach to PhD students as well as lecturers/professors who would also use it in their teaching. I asked my host, Ina Conradie, what would be best for her students: to have a book published by an academic publisher that had offices in many parts of the world, or to have a book available on the internet by a relatively unknown publisher. She responded “Definitely the latter!” So that’s what I did.

The academics who wrote to me all wanted to know what my experience was. Well, it was excellent, and resonates much with the praise that can be found on OBP’s website in the section with comments from authors. The friendliness of the editors; the refereeing process that is at least as high-quality and helpful as with the traditional university presses; the almost maximal control you keep as author over the title as well as cover (which for me personally was very nice, since I used as the front cover a fabric my son wove, which I’m still very happy about); the excellent editing; and above all, the incredibly fast publishing itself – about one month after handing in the final manuscript, the book is published. And that is truly amazing, and in sharp contrast with the 6-12 months that this might take with traditional publishers.

And then there is the #1 argument for me: open access is open access is open acces, so anyone having access to the internet can access the book, no matter where they are living and how rich or poor they are. It’s the most democratic way to make knowledge accessible (together with blogging-without-paywalls-or-memberships). And the Metrics report page of my book clearly confirm that people do read it; less than 500 copies have been sold, but the book was accessed online more than 14.000 times, and downloaded from the official pages more than 8.000 time (and I don’t doubt it will also have been sent simply as an attachment or downloaded from other sites, since all of that is allowed). So, whatever the ‘true’ numbers, that makes for a lot of readers. Moreover, the readers are based in many countries, as the map at the bottom of the Metrics Report page shows, which to me is most pleasing. The global knowledge gap at the level of tertiary education is very large, and huge inequalities in access to resources is an important cause; Open access can help to reduce these inequalities, with one click.

Are there then no disadvantages to publishing with OBP (or another non-commercial open access book publisher)? There are three, as far as I can see.

One is that one doesn’t receive any royalties. Yet anyone who published an academic book with an academic publisher knows that, after taxation, it amounts to almost nothing. (Trade books might be different, but then we’re talking about a different game). Hence, I don’t think this disadvantage counts for much.

The second disadvantage is marketing: OBP doesn’t send out glossy-looking bi-annual catalogues, that are lingering around in departmental common rooms (if such rooms have survived budget cuts, that is). Marketing is to some extent in the author’s hands, which not everyone may feel comfortable with (or have a clue how to go about it). I’m not sure to what extent this is a significant disadvantage, though.

The third disadvantage is status and prestige: it is prestigious to published with Princeton University Press, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Harvard University Press (and so on, and so forth), and arguably OBP and similar publishers don’t have that prestige. For scholars on the job market or without tenure, or those still seeking promotion, as well as for some research assessment exercises, the prestige of the publisher does matter. And I suppose there are additional indirect (or derived) benefits from publishing with a major academic publisher, such as being part of a catalogue in which many people browse on a regular basis, and discover new books they didn’t know, and then buy them.

Is there “the best of both worlds” possible? Yes, there is, if you have a lot of money. Because the (European) traditional academic publishers by now know that there is a very strong push in the EU for open access, and grants from the European Research Council (ERC), and possible some national research councils too, can be used to make books open access. So if you’re able to put a sizeable amount of money on the table (ballpark figure: 10-12.000 UK pounds), then you might be able to publish with a prestigious publisher and publish open access.

Another solution would be difficult to realise and might pose a collective action problem, but is also much cheaper – and that would be if we would increase the prestige of publishing with publishers such as OBP. How can that be done? I recall that Harry here once mentioned that only if established scholars published with OBP, others will do so too, and their prestige will go up. So, I am hereby calling upon professors in the Ivy League universities, the British Russell group, and anything similar in other countries, to consider what role you could play in giving publishers run by academic for academics (and the readers!), the prestige they deserve. Perhaps the question I’d like us to consider is: if we have tenure, why don’t we publish open access?



notGoodenough 10.23.20 at 11:02 pm

Ingrid Robeyns @ OP

Firstly, a big thank you for putting your book up as open access! It allows your work to reach a broader audience (e.g. me) who otherwise would miss it, and I genuinely appreciate it.

While I am not an academic (I currently work for a non-profit research centre), I was for a time was a post-doc at a Russel Group University. I don’t claim any expertise with the matter, but if you have no objection I’d like to offer my perspective (I won’t claim it is correct, it is merely my personal experience so take it with a pinch of salt).

Open access (to me) seems to be one of those perennial topics (much like making data open access, or journal subscriptions) which crops up again and again. Regarding the disadvantages you list, I agree (1) can be mostly ignored – the amount of money for the authors from a book is generally negligible (and from research papers is typically 0), and I think (give the work involved) most are publishing to promulgate their work (or increase prestige, depending on your degree of cynicism) anyway. I would also tend to think (2) is not particularly common – generally, at least in my field, publishing a book (or paper) is targeted at one’s peers rather than a general audience (I realise this may be different in other fields, of course) so the people who need to know about it probably already do (or, if they don’t, soon hear via word of mouth).

That leaves (3). Prestige is always a tricky topic, especially as careers can often be affected by h-index and the impact factors of your selected journals (in terms not only of advancement, but also grant applications, etc.). OTOH, there are lower impact factor journals which are (in my opinion) far better than many of their more prestigious peers (I have a rant on the issue of IF, if you have a soapbox and a few hours to spare!). More to the point, there are some pretty high impact open access journals already – I believe Science (the journal!) is delayed open access [1], for example, and is equivalently prestigious as Nature (the choice between publishing in one or the other falling in to the “I wish I had that problem” category). And while it is true that this is far less common around the “mid-tier” journals, I think that that is likely a result of one of the other topics which always gets raised: the cost of journals.

[I don’t want to derail the thread, so with try to refrain from giving my long rant about why are journals so expensive and why can’t they be more be like Science (possibly because AAAS are a non-profit, while the publishers of Nature are not)]

Hopefully this isn’t too off-topic, as you briefly raise this in respect to the grants for publishing open access. My experience was that there was money at the beginning of the year (and they covered the cost of one of my articles, which was much appreciated), but it soon ran out. Indeed, as you note, the cost is often quite high.

But then again, this is also true for many open-access journals, which simply shift the cost from the reader to the author (and is, after all, how scam journals often make their money!). And I feel this is also an important consideration – after all, if the cost of publishing in Prestigious Open Journal is quite high to the authors, that risks gatekeeping research (as opposed to the ability to read the research). I realise this may not be the case with some specific journals (in which case, more power to anyone wishing to raise their profiles!), but I think it is something worth keeping in mind.

Indeed (and again, my apologies for risking opening this can of worms), I have a long-held suspicion that many issues (including the open access issue) could be resolved simply by making academic publishers non-profit (or requiring the Elseviers of the world to publically announce their profit margins, which might also impact their proclivity towards enabling deceptive advertising!). On the other, other hand, while I think this would be a solution which would be far more impactful, I suspect it is also far more of a pipe dream – so perhaps your 2nd remedy is indeed the way forward.

This is, perhaps, rather a lot of words to make a grumpy point regarding a personal bête noire before agreeing with you, so you have my apologies – I’m afraid it is one of those things I feel quite passionate about.

[1] https://www.sciencemag.org/authors/open-access-aaas


Ingrid Robeyns 10.24.20 at 8:04 am

@ NotGoodenough – I restricted myself (deliberately) to open access books, rather than journals, since I don’t think the analysis, and what needs to be done, is exactly the same. I agree there are some publishers, Elsevier probably being the worst, who are committing rent-extraction. But some other publishers, including the university-ones I mention in my post, are of a different category; I have no information that they are paying their leadership the same super wages, nor do I have information that they are having excessive profit margins (I know of one of those publishers that for years they were running a loss). In the case of journals, the editors of journals should really think carefully about the publisher they would like to work with. And I, for one, have told the editors of a good political theory journal that I’d love to send them my work, but that I’ll wait till they have moved to another publisher. As individuals, we don’t have much power, but all small bits add up…


notGoodenough 10.24.20 at 10:09 am

Ingrid Robeyns @ 2

Thank you for a thoughtful response – I very much appreciate it. My apologies if I gave the impression of substantial difference of opinion – as I said, my post was a lot of words to mostly end up agreeing with you :-)

I also hope I did not sound dismissive of your efforts (if I did, I am very sorry – I realise tone is difficult to communicate via internet, but please do accept my assurance that no such slight was intended). I agree about collective action – my go-to terrible metaphor (for all my metaphors are terrible) is that if everyone picks up a stone, collectively we can move mountains. In other words, I completely agree with what you said, and think you are engaging in shifting to a more principled model – work which is both admirable and necessary.

I certainly agree that lifting up ethical publishers is important – and I suspect non-profit or University linked publishers can be open access due to not including rent extraction in their business model. I believe OBP is much like Science – a non-profit which is seeking to promote the spread of knowledge (AFAICT from their website). This is, of course, vital – and I support any action along these lines. Indeed, I believe that such models are the long-term future of academic publishing, given the existence of pdfs, and that when engaging in disseminating our work in an ethical and viable way is important.

[OFF-TOPIC: While this may not be the best place for it, I would be most interested in your thoughts on the differences between book and journal publishing, and what you believe is the best way forward to push an ethical framework on all fronts. Perhaps it is better suited to a post on its own, but I would like to register my interest for your consideration should it be in keeping with your future posting.]

Anyway, congratulations on your work reaching such a wide-ranging and diverse audience, and thank you for a thoughtful post and response – I very much appreciate your perspective, and the time you have taken for both. And, of course, thank you for your efforts in pushing regarding ethical promulgation of knowledge.


Peter Erwin 10.24.20 at 10:23 am

@ notGoodenough

Articles published in Science are indeed open access a year after they are published; this is more open-access than Nature. However, articles published prior to 1997 are not open-access.

In practice, both Science and Nature permit “self-publication” in the form of posting versions of the paper to preprint archives (e.g., arXiv.org, biorXiv.org, etc.). My memory is that for a time in the 2000s, Science was actively opposed to this, in contrast to Nature. (For example, Nature published <url=”https://www.nature.com/articles/434257b”>an editorial in 2005 explicitly allowing this: “As first stated in an editorial in 1997, and since then in our Guide to Authors, if scientists wish to display drafts of their research papers on an established preprint server before or during submission to Nature or any Nature journal, that’s fine by us.”)

Even now, Science‘s official policy is a bit less clear (“The Science Journals will not consider any original research paper or component of a research paper that has been published or is under consideration for publication elsewhere. Distribution on the Internet may be considered prior publication and may compromise the originality of the paper…”); versus Nature‘s policy: “Posting of preprints is not considered prior publication and will not jeopardize consideration at Nature Research journals.”

One of the issues here is that some scientific societies regard their official journals as important sources of revenue for the society itself, so that in practice they may align with commercial journals in terms of being skeptical about open-source access (or even lowering subscription fees).


Matt 10.24.20 at 11:22 am

At my current job, our teaching load each year depends on the number of “research points” we have accrued over the last three years. These points are in turn based on publishing in different venues, which are set out on a list given to us, assigning different points to different venues. To my mind, the rankings are, frankly, nuts, making very little sense. But, beyond that, there is extremely little value for us in publishing anywhere outside of these venues. (I still do it, if I think I have enough points that my teaching load won’t go up. This is a bit risky, if I hit a dry spell in future years, but I’m more worried about publishing in places that I think will be the best for my work, and the opportunities I have.) But, alas, an open access book like this would likely count for zero or at best nominal points, even if it was widely read and heavily cited later. And, if the time spent doing it lead to getting few enough points that one’s teaching load was increased, this would make it all the harder to improve. Finally – this doesn’t end. It’s not a pre-tenure but a perpetual system. (This is at an Australian university. I think that many Australian universities are a bit better, but at least many of them have somewhat similar systems. It’s not good.) But, because of this, if I even could get the time to write a book, I couldn’t even consider this option, even if I wanted to.


Ingrid Robeyns 10.24.20 at 12:17 pm

@NotGoodenough @3 – no worries!! I also read your comments as indicating that we agree about a lot, probably most or all (and not dismissive at all). The only comment I’d have is that the question “what are the barriers to publish open access?” will be answered differently for journals vs. for books.
As for journals vs. books: unfortunately, there are in different disciplines different incentives (cfr. Matt @5 clearly laying out some of them in his comment). Luckily, I’m based in an Ethics institute, and philosophers love books :) So I can do whatever I want. My own impression is that if you want your work to be read, then it’s more important to publish open access than whether it’s a book or a journal article; and if you want your work to be read beyond academia, you need to write a trade book, hence a book specifically written for a broader audience.
Thanks for your kind words :)


Ingrid Robeyns 10.24.20 at 12:24 pm

Matt @5: The policies at your university makes the ‘reputation’ point I was making even stronger, since it sort of makes the reputation differences “official”, and there is a very strong disincentive to not publish in publishers such as OBP. I think it’s therefore important that people who are on the Authors’ comments page testify that the referee process was at least as stringent as with academic publishers. But if it makes the second strategy I suggested almost prohibitively “costly”…


notGoodenough 10.24.20 at 3:32 pm

Peter Erwin @ 4

Thank you for your correction regarding Science, and for the additional clarity and prespective you provide. I did not mean to imply AAAS is the pinnacle of ethical publishing (or even necessarily particularly more ethical than Nature Publishing). Indeed, I more intended this to make the point that even at the high IF level there are other models than purely for-profit – and given that for many journals the majority of the labour costs involved are shouldered by academics rather than publisher (another overgeneralisation), that pdfs may be distributed far cheaper than printed versions (and many other things too), it is difficult to see much justification here for the sometimes extraordinary charges.

The story is, of course, far more complex than my overgeneralising comment implied (certainly when one considers APC charges, memberships fees, subscriptions, copyright, reprints, preprints, sister journals, etc.). As I previously noted, it would be most interesting to see just how profitable research publication is (and the various breakdowns, of course), but I suspect that will be highly unlikely to ever happen.

I think you do raise an interesting point here:

“One of the issues here is that some scientific societies regard their official journals as important sources of revenue for the society itself, so that in practice they may align with commercial journals in terms of being skeptical about open-source access (or even lowering subscription fees).”

This may be true. However, perhaps it is also worth remembering that societies typically offer alternative methods of access to their journals. For example, AAAS and RSC both offer individual memberships which are very cheap (relative to institutional subscriptions). And, being societies with members, it is not impossible to influence the direction the society takes (at least, one imagines, a little easier than a publishing company equivalent with shareholders). On the other hand, as someone who would like to see all journals offering open access, there is still considerable room for improvement!

I feel it is, sometimes, a little perverse that I cannot read my articles in Angewandte Chemie, and would not be able to read those in EES without my RSC membership, but that if I published in Science it would at least be possible (at some point).

Of course, many people may resort to other methods in the meantime – IIRC, rather amusingly, Elbakyan was one of Nature’s 2016 “people who matter” to science, which given the for-profit* nature of Nature offers a level of irony I much appreciate (and perhaps provides an insight into the feelings of the members of the community, regardless of what societies, institutions, or companies may believe). I wonder if this work has significantly impacted the bottom lines of the societies, publishers, etc., and if so to what extent. Perhaps I will never know.

But this is getting a bit off topic.

To summarise a little, and as I previously noted, it may be true that low-cost knowledge dissemination (I would wish for free, but settle for “affordable”) is a pipe dream – it seems to be one of those topics that seems to crop up regularly, and if it were easy to resolve one suspects that would have happened already. But I do think it would be an impactful ethical change – though whether it ever happens or not is, of course, a different story.

If there is much of a chance, I suspect it will lie with coordinated and cooperative action – something which I think Ingrid Robeyns has emphasised rather nicely, and I agree with strongly.


Matt 10.24.20 at 9:15 pm

Thanks, Ingrid. Yes, it’s an unfortunate system, supposedly put in place to promote “objectivity” and (annoyingly) supposedly to “protect” us from predatory publishers. The real result is an attack on academic freedom, as I am now much more limited in my ability to decide what places are best for my publishing. While publishers such as yours – which I think are great! – really suffer, they are not alone. If, for example, I decided I wanted to try to publish a book in the very nice series where Chris’s recent book was published, I’d have to think very hard about it, because I’d be given, at most, 1/3 as many “points” as I would if I published with OUP, and at most half as many as if I published with Routledge. This despite the fact that it might be a perfectly reasonable decision – one I’d be much better placed to make than bureaucrats at the university – to publish in that series, given many relevant considerations. (The fact that the series is full of top authors would not count as an argument at all, alas.) These worries would only be compounded for an open access press. Of course, I think this is completely unreasonable, and should be opposed, but it’s what some of us have to deal with. I’m very glad that you, and others of your stature, are taking the lead on this, and hope it will help improve things.


notGoodenough 10.24.20 at 9:52 pm

Ingrid Robeyns @ 6

Thank you for the comments (and reasuring me that I didn’t mess up too badly – I know I am not great at communication!), and for giving some insight into your situation. I think you are right that books are a good way to reach a broader audience, and it is important to maintain that outreach as well (my institute does a little, which is always fun to be involved in).

Some of the best communicators have done sterling work in this area (indeed, I am currently awaiting my copy of Economics in two easy lessons from a certain John Quiggin!). I’ve also found communities like Crooked Timber or certain podcasts quite valuable resources (particularly for broader audiences), and from a science perspective I used to be a regular listener to BBC’s Material World amongst others. While I wish I had that talent for good communication, sadly I seem to lack it – though I can sometimes contribute by supporting my colleagues and friends in their efforts!

Different fields do indeed have different requirements, and sometimes the balance can shift a bit from place to place (some UK universities seem to prioritise teaching over research, others vice versa), so I imagine it is tricky to say too much without tripping over the diversity of experiences.

I think you and Matt @ 5 highlight the important issue of how these things affect careers – and you are quite right that this is why those more secure should be working on this as well (as per your suggestion regarding boosting open access impact factors). It also ties in a little with my long ramblings about how I believe academia can (sometimes) be a bit of an abusive work environment (similar to many creative arts positions, sometimes the enthusiasm and dedication of people who want to work in the field can be exploited), but that is another topic for another thread – and I’ve already been quite bad at derailing this one!

I do wonder how, as the future unfolds, burgeoning efforts on less traditional forms of communication will be valued. Would a superstar science vblogger (or whatever it the young people call it these days) be marked down if they don’t publish as much, though they are contributing in a different way? IIRC, some universities offer positions which are still Science (for example) but have more of a focus on teaching and outreach – it’ll be interesting to see what happens (particularly with the lingering effects of the current pandemic).

But again, I am engaging in long and mostly irrelevant ramblings. So I shall call a halt here, and just say that I very much appreciate the thoughtful posting, and am looking forward to reading the comments as they come out (as well as any future posts)!


Chris Armstrong 10.25.20 at 2:22 pm

Matt, I think publishing in that Polity series might not be totally irrational, insofar as the books are short and accessible, so (perhaps) quicker to write. I wrote a book that was in the end a bit too long for that series, but was still, I would say, a lot less work than some articles I’ve published. And perhaps those Polity books will be widely cited (because they’re short, and cheap), although I don’t know if that gets you merit points in Australia. I’m increasingly thinking that it’s the traditional academic monograph that’s irrational – it’s SO much work, but in lots of institutional settings (e.g. the UK) it’s not really rewarded any more than one paper in a strong journal. And it will get cited less than a trade or crossover book.


Chris Bertram 10.27.20 at 8:57 am

@Matt, there’s also the thought that writing something that’s widely known and read might enable you to get a job somewhere that doesn’t have such a ridiculous points system ….


Matt 10.27.20 at 11:33 am

That’s a consideration, Chris, although of course there are counter-veiling ones, too. Thankfully, I’ve been pretty lucky at having my work read and cited (despite some examples in that series that were less than great with citations when they would have been appropriate!)


Ingrid Robeyns 10.27.20 at 6:57 pm

Incidentally, today the open access version of a pamflet I wrote (with to co-authors) in Dutch was released. Here is the PDF,
and the book page.

It’s a slim book – 15.000 words, 96 pages – with 40 claims related to the state of Dutch Universities. We’re still trying to improve things on that front… and hoping that the March 2021 Dutch elections might give us a chance. Though so far there are no rightwing parties that seem to be interested in what we say, and since The Netherlands always ends up with a coalition in which rightwing parties lead, I probably shouldn’t be too optimistic. Anyway, that’s a discussion for another post, someday.

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