Last week the University of Ottawa Press (UOP) announced a new open access (OA) book initiative. This, it says, will provide "free and unrestricted access to scholarly research". But what does it mean in practice? And what issues arise?
UOP's new initiative is part of a wider open access strategy first unveiled last December. Initially it will consist of making 36 French-language and English-language in-print titles in the arts, humanities and social sciences freely available online via the University of Ottawa's institutional repository (IR), uO Research.
The UOP news is of interest for a couple of reasons.
First, until relatively recently open access was seen as an issue of relevance only to scholarly journals, not books, and for the sciences rather than the humanities.
It is only in the last few years, for instance, that new OA publishers like Bloomsbury Academic, Open Humanities Press (OHP), and re.press have appeared on the scene; and only recently that traditional publishers and university presses have started to introduce OA book initiatives — e.g. The University of Michigan Press' digitalculturebooks project and Penn State University Press' Romance Studies.
Second, unlike Bloomsbury Academic, OHP, re.press, and the University of Michigan, UOP has not released its OA books under creative commons licences, but simply placed the text in a PDF file with the original "all rights reserved" notice still attached to it. (E.g. in this 24 MB file).
UOP's move suggests that traditional presses can no longer afford to ignore the rising OA tide — despite the fact that there is still no tried and trusted business model for OA books. It also demonstrates that there is as yet no consensus on how best to go about it, or what to do about copyright.
The latter issue could prove a source of some confusion for readers of UOP's books.
For instance, anyone who read UOP's announcement that it is providing its books on a "free and unrestricted access" basis who then downloaded one of the books would surely scratch their head when they saw the all rights reserved notice attached to it.
While they could be confident that they were free to read the book, they might wonder whether they were permitted to forward it to a colleague. They might also wonder whether they were free to print it, whether they could cut and paste text from it, or whether they were permitted to create derivative versions.
Free and unrestricted access would seem to imply they could do all those things. All rights reserved suggests quite the opposite — indeed, a copyright lawyer might argue that even downloading a book infringes an all-rights licence.
It does not help that there appears to be no terms and conditions notice on the UOP web site clarifying what readers can and cannot do with the books — as there is, for instance, on PSU's Romance Studies site.
In fact, UOP is only granting permission for people to read, download and print the books.
But it need not be that confusing. OA comes in different flavours, and what UOP is offering is what OA advocates call Gratis OA (that is, it has removed the price barriers); it is not offering Libre OA (which would require removing permission barriers too — i.e. relaxing the copyright restrictions).
Gratis OA is a perfectly legitimate way of providing OA, so long as you make it clear that that is what you are offering. Some, however, might argue that there is a contradiction between what UOP says it is offering and the true state of affairs — that the publisher is claiming to offer something that it is not.
"While there's nothing deceptive in using the term 'OA' for work that is Gratis OA, there is something deceptive in using language suggesting Libre OA for work that is Gratis OA," the de facto leader of the OA movement Peter Suber commented when I asked for his views. Stressing that he has not yet looked at the details of the UOP initiative, Suber added: "The phrase 'unrestricted access' suggests Libre OA."
There is no reason to doubt UOP's motives: It believes that using the term free and unrestricted is accurate given that the OA books do not come with DRM, and "any user with a computer can access the books, download them and read them freely".
Nevertheless, it does seem to be sending out a confusing message. And when putting content online publishers should really aim to be as precise as possible in the terms they use, and the claims they make — particularly in light of the many copyright controversies that have arisen in connection with digital content. UOP has surely failed to do this.
Suber would perhaps agree. "I realise that most people aren't familiar with the Gratis/Libre distinction", he emailed me. "But at the same time, people who do understand the distinction should use it, and could help everyone by describing the Ottawa position accurately. If it's Gratis and not Libre (which I haven't had time to check), then it should be described as Gratis."
We might however add that some OA advocates believe Gratis OA to be an inadequate way of making research available online. And it is noteworthy here that in his definition of OA, Suber assumes Libre OA to be the default. Open access literature, he states, is "digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions."
Some would doubtless claim that worrying about such matters is a non-issue. After all, they might say, aside from reading it, what more could you possible want to do with a book? So why does it matter whether you make it available online as Gratis OA or Libre OA?
But a few years ago exactly this issue led to some heated debates in connection with making scholarly papers OA, with many insisting that worrying about such matters was a complete irrelevancy — until Peter Murray-Rust pointed out that in a Web 2.0 environment there are very good reasons for providing re-use rights to scholarly work.
Indeed, it was as a result of that long-running debate that the movement eventually hammered out the Gratis/Libre distinction.
It is, of course early days for book publishers, who are still in experimental mode vis-à-vis OA. But they would surely benefit from reviewing some of the debates that have taken place in connection with providing OA to refereed papers.
In order to get UOP's views on these matters I contacted the publisher's eBook Coordinator Rebecca Ross, who kindly agreed to an email interview. Below are her answers.
The good news is that UOP does hope to adopt creative commons licences in the future!
Rebecca Ross, UOP eBook Coordinator
RP: I understand that UOP has made 36 of its books available on an OA basis and these can be accessed via the University's institutional repository. Is there a list of these books you can point me to?
RR: You can browse the books by title here.
RP: Where can people obtain more information about UOP, and its activities?
RR: Unfortunately the UOP website is in a state of transition with a new website launching very soon. To give you a bit of background about UOP, we are Canada's oldest French-language university press and the only fully bilingual (English-French) university press in North America.
RP: How many books does UOP publish each year, and what kinds of books does it publish?
RR: UOP was founded in 1936 and has published over 800 titles. We currently publish 25-30 books annually in four main subject areas: social and cultural studies, translation and interpretation, literature and the arts, and political and international affairs.
RP: How did you choose which books to make OA?
RR: The books were chosen based on input from Michael O'Hearn (UOP Director) Eric Nelson (Acquisitions Editor), Marie Clausén (Managing Editor), Jessica Clark (Marketing Manager) and myself as a collaborative process to determine a collection of books that are diverse in terms of language, date published, and subject matter.
This will help UOP best determine the books that work effectively as open access. For example, we want to test questions like: does an 800 page collected work about social policy work better as OA than a monograph about Canadian literature?
We also wanted to test if an electronic open access version gives a second life to the print edition or generates interest in a second edition. In this sense, open access is also a marketing tool for us to reach a wider audience than traditional marketing.
In our decision process we also made sure to include books whose authors would be amiable to licensing their work open access (we have several authors who are very excited by having their work as open access!), and to include topics that are relevant, timely and even timeless (for example a reappraisal of Stephen Leacock's work).
Free and unrestricted access
RP: The UOP press release says that the books are being made available on a "free and unrestricted access" basis. What does that mean?
RR: All of the books included in the open access collection are protected by copyright. UOP does not support DRM or restrictive access to our eBooks, whether they are part of the open access collection or for sale.
RP: The books are not being made available under Creative Commons licences are they?
RR: The books are not under Creative Commons. The authors granted a non-exclusive distribution license to the Press for providing access via uO Research.
RP: Many OA advocates might argue that OA implies using creative commons licensing. You don't agree?
RR: Where possible, UOP is very interested in moving forward with creative commons licensing. We're learning from our colleagues at Athabasca University Press, who publish, where possible, using a Creative Commons license: (Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Canada).
The decision to use the current licensing model was made to best align UOP with the University of Ottawa Library and the University’s institutional repository uO Research.
RP: I do not think it says anywhere on your site exactly what users can do with the books. Anyone downloading the files will see a traditional "all rights reserved" notice attached. The UOP announcement, however, says that the works are available on a free and unrestricted access basis. Readers might therefore wonder what exactly they are permitted to do with the text — whether, for instance, they can print them out, whether they can freely copy and distribute them, whether they can cut and paste text from them, and whether they can they create derivative versions. What exactly can they do?
RR: So far as the open access collection is concerned users can read them, download them and print them.
Without DRM we are unable to control what exactly users do with the books, but as I said, they are protected by copyright.
In the end, we are pleased that users are accessing our content and our authors are pleased that their research is reaching a wider audience.
RP: Would you agree that you are offering the books Gratis OA rather than Libre OA? That is, you have removed the price barriers, but not the permission barriers?
RR: Describing UOP's open access collection (as it is now) as Gratis OA rather than Libre OA is both fair and accurate. We've removed the price barrier as a first step; the next step will be working with our authors and editors to remove the permission barriers.
RP: Do you not think that saying the books are being offered on a free and unrestricted access basis might be a slight overstatement. Does not "unrestricted access" imply the removal of both price and permission barriers?
RR: When compared to print books offered at sometimes very high and restrictive prices and made available only in certain parts of the world, I don't think the description of "free and unrestricted access" is an overstatement.
UOP's open access books are free, and their access is unrestricted, any user with a computer can access the books, download them and read them freely. At this stage UOP open access books are protected by copyright: this is partly for us and partly for our authors.
Once UOP's open access program has been fully defined and the level of support we will receive from our host institution is determined, we will be in a better position to remove permission barriers.
In conceptualising UOP's open access program the first objective was to provide a wider reach for our authors and books. Most of our authors write, not to make a living, but to further scholarship and research in their fields; allowing their work to be distributed for free is an excellent way to do so.
As I said, the next step for UOP's open access program will be working in collaboration with our authors and the University of Ottawa Library to remove the remaining permission barriers. We are looking into Creative Commons and defining what it means to offer UOP books as open access.
Right now we are very excited to be involved with open access and looking forward to the next steps of the project.
RP: Would you say you were offering the books as Green OA or Gold OA, or do such distinctions only make sense in the context of journals?
RR: As it stands right now, these distinctions seem appropriate only in the context of journals.
If I had to make the distinction I would say we fall into Green OA because of our participation in uO Research the University of Ottawa's institutional repository.
When preparing and researching for the open access program we found that much of the literature is about open access for journals and many university presses, both in Canada and the United States, are just starting to think about how open access can work for books.
Still at an early stage
RP: Does UOP believe that OA is an inevitable development for scholarly monographs?
RR: The University of Ottawa announced its open access program in late 2009. This includes support to UOP in publishing a collection of OA books. Although there is much research surrounding open access in academic journals, open access book publishing is still at an early stage.
UOP launched this open access collection to determine the effects of open access on our publishing program, to eventually determine what kind of support we require to become an open access press.
It would be difficult to say with certainty that OA in now an inevitable way for scholarly monographs to be published in the future but it does appear that way and UOP is interested in testing and researching this notion.
At this stage, it is UOP's assumption that open access will only suit certain books, for example we are not including any textbooks in the open access collection. However, this assumption is based on previously published books and going forward open access will be an important aspect of UOP's acquisition procedure and publishing program.
RP: When I interviewed Northwestern University Dean Sarah Pritchard about Northwestern University Press earlier this year I suggested that the model many advocate see for OA books is that of making the text freely available online but selling the print version. Pritchard replied that she saw that as a very logical model, and one that she envisages NUP adopting before it moves to a totally OA environment. Is that your view too?
RR: Absolutely. We are in the business of publishing books both in print and electronically. At the moment we are borrowing models and ideas from many of our colleagues within Canada and the US, including Athabasca University Press and the International Development Research Centre.
Sarah Pritchard brings forward many important issues that are relevant to us at UOP. I do believe that electronic versions of print books will drive print sales — that assumption is the backbone of our open access program.
The wider the distribution an author or a publisher has, the better the chance for course adoptions, sales and even translation rights. The model UOP has adopted is a hybrid model: we are doing a bit of everything right now, and we will continue experimenting to see what fits best.
RP: Does UOP pay its way today, or is it subsidised by the University? Can you see OA affecting the current state of affairs?
RR: UOP is subsidised by the University. Our publications are too specialised to make the best-seller list; alas, we will never become a cash cow for our home institution! This is a bit of an experiment.
We don't know if OA will have a negative effect on the sales of the print version or if it will encourage people to buy the print version, especially in the case of single-authored volumes containing long and complex arguments — books like these are likely easier to read in the traditional paper format than on a computer screen.
In either case the level of support the University provides its Press will change accordingly.