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Open Access and Our 150-Year Mission

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Simultaneously utopian and eminently sensible, the concept of Open Access is transforming the landscape of scholarly publishing. Coming out of scientific journal publishing, OA promises nothing less than the realization of the original vision of the World Wide Web: bringing cutting-edge knowledge to every part of the globe freely and without any of the “friction” that otherwise slows down or prevents the dissemination of reliable information.

For scientists, physicians, engineers, and policymakers, the importance of OA to making broadly available the most up-to-date knowledge is obvious. The moral imperative of disseminating what could be life-saving data otherwise hidden behind high and, for many, impenetrable paywalls is equally clear. And when juxtaposed against the aggressively monetized business model of for-profit science journal publishers, the case for OA is open and shut. In response, the scientific academic publishing community has devised a number of innovative platforms for making OA possible, not least of all Cornell’s own arXiv.org.

OA promises nothing less than the realization of the original vision of the World Wide Web: bringing cutting-edge knowledge to every part of the globe freely and without any of the “friction” that otherwise slows down or prevents the dissemination of reliable information.

For a predominantly humanities and social science monograph publisher like Cornell University Press, however, Open Access presents a different set of challenges, many of which can be grouped under the heading of “sustainability.” With the “all-in cost” of publishing a monograph ranging anywhere from $15K to $30K, Open Access presents a publisher like us with potentially significant consequences to our long-term financial well-being. We simply do not yet have enough data to know whether the wide availability of a free ebook edition has a negative impact on the sales of the print edition, as some OA advocates claim. But these concerns have not dissuaded us from embracing Open Access as one aspect of our publishing program; they have merely encouraged us to proceed responsibly. Indeed, the philosophy behind Open Access – to make the best knowledge available to the most people possible – is one of the founding ideas of Cornell University Press.

Indeed, the philosophy behind Open Access – to make the best knowledge available to the most people possible – is one of the founding ideas of Cornell University Press.

Cornell University Press was founded 150 years ago, in 1869, as part of President A. D. White’s vision of the ideal university, an extension of Ezra White’s motto, “any person … any study,” a way for students to support themselves and learn a trade, and as a means of printing course materials to be made available to Cornell students. After the Press closed in 1884 and until it reopened in 1930, Cornell faculty and students continually lobbied the university administration to reopen it, arguing that a robust university press was the best way to deliver “the fruits of research to the world.” And once reestablished (thanks to the largesse of the Comstocks), the Press looked for ways to make knowledge available as widely as possible, partnering with the Lab of Ornithology in the 1940s to distribute audio recordings of birds, insects, and frogs on new-fangled phonographic records and, in the 1950s, being the first university press to publish scholarship in affordable paperback editions under its Great Seal Books imprint. (That some of these Great Seal Books are still in print speaks to the Press’s high academic standards, another tradition we have maintained over the century we have been publishing books.)

After the Press closed in 1884 and until it reopened in 1930, Cornell faculty and students continually lobbied the university administration to reopen it, arguing that a robust university press was the best way to deliver “the fruits of research to the world.”

The Press sees Open Access as yet another aspect of this founding mission, one that promises to deliver our books far more widely than we could have ever imagined even a decade ago. Thanks to Open Access, our books are read across the globe and are available to students, scholars, and enthusiasts in places where we could never hope to sell physical books, either because of cost or distance. We currently have 220 Open Access books on our list comprising a diverse range of titles and topics. And to achieve this level of OA engagement, we have partnered across campus and around the world with numerous scholars, foundations, institutions, and organizations. These partnerships—whether with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the European Union, Knowledge Unlatched, major universities such as Virginia Tech and UCLA, or, here on campus, with Cornell University Library and the Cornell Department of Natural Resources—we have found ways to fund a variety of OA projects.

The Press sees Open Access as yet another aspect of this founding mission, one that promises to deliver our books far more widely than we could have ever imagined even a decade ago.

Such partnerships are vital for our continued participation in the OA ecosystem, in order to obtain the financial support we need to recover the costs that go into publishing a monograph—from acquiring and shaping the manuscript; sending it out for peer review; copyediting, composing, and printing the book; to marketing it. Indeed, one consequence of Open Access publishing about which I worry is the perception that because books are free, they must cost nothing to publish them or, more insidiously, that publishers add nothing of value to scholarship.

Wisely, in establishing the innovate TOME program (TOME stands for Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem), the Association of Research Libraries set the fee for opening up a monograph at $15K, which means that participating institutions, including Cornell, understand both the cost and, more importantly, the value of scholarship.

Indeed, one consequence of Open Access publishing about which I worry is the perception that because books are free, they must cost nothing to publish them or, more insidiously, that publishers add nothing of value to scholarship.

And while we at Cornell Press are grateful for this support, having received funding to publish 10 TOME Open Access titles over the past two years (as well as funding from the NEH to publish OA editions of our best deep backlist titles and from other institutions to publish the work of their faculty) I do find myself returning to the theme of this year’s International Open Access Week: “Open for Whom?”

Scholars at major research institutions like Cornell that support OA publication of monographs will see their work widely disseminated and freely available to scholars and students everywhere. And even at these institutions, OA funding for monographs is limited to one, two, or at most three books per year. Scholars at smaller or more impoverished institutions, meanwhile, regardless of the quality or relevance of their scholarship, will have their books sequestered behind paywalls. Even the most optimistic projections for programs like TOME and at organizations such as Knowledge Unlatched envision only a tiny percentage of peer-reviewed monographs being available Open Access. But if Open Access is to truly transform the creation and dissemination of monograph, we will need to find and fund a sustainable model for doing so. Until then, the OA experiment will continue to be exciting and uneven in equal measure.

(I want to thank my colleague, Karen Laun, for providing the historical component of my talk.)


Mahinder Kingra is the Editor in Chief at Cornell University Press.


Also of interest:

Check out our Cornell Open site, here, and follow #OpenAccessWeek for more news on Open Access Week 2019.

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