There is no doubt that, eventually, all books will be available to download over the internet. You could still scour tiny bookshops to find rare copies of The Harvard Classics by Charles W. Eliot, but wait, they are actually available online at the touch of our fingertips.
But, the question is, at what cost?
It is my hope, for 2017, that all academic books will be available Open Access – free for everybody, regardless of status, country or income. Books are the lifeline for people to connect, they help develop academic research, give people topics to talk about, and expand learning. Why should people be restricted?
I know there are many who would disagree with this statement; writers, publishers, booksellers, librarians and readers who still love the printed book. I count myself in this group too. I don’t have a Kindle nor a desire for one. I still buy a newspaper and do all my reading from print books.
However, I know, all too well, the challenges students face to keep up with their academic reading. They race to the library to borrow the best available copy and hold on to it for as long as possible until it has to be returned, often accruing a fine.
With all the will in the world, it simply isn’t possible to guarantee a personal copy of every printed book for that student’s course. Besides, reading broadly on a topic is part of what shapes us and makes our education rewarding and worthwhile. Yet, we must still address the evolving need for access to the academic book.
Queue the electronic book (e-book).
The idea is simple and quite wonderful; create a single book that can be used and re-used synchronously. To be accessible anywhere and linked all over the internet. That won’t biodegrade, won’t get eaten by the dog or lost down the back of the sofa.
But e-books cannot replace almost 500 years of the European printing press and, in 2014 alone, the sale of academic print books in the UK still made £607m, proving they are still in demand. Publishers make back the money invested in e-book production and, of course, ensure profitability and shareholder returns, by licensing e-books to academic libraries in many varied and complicated ways. These licences often result in restricted access. Although the e-book has many positives, their licensing for academic use just doesn’t work for students.
So where does that leave us?
What comes next in the future of academic books? Open Access is the way forward. It means academics and students can access research from all over the world. Academic research is largely funded from the public purse via government research grants or academic salaries to conduct the research and review publication. Open Access means that the public have a fair right to read that academic content. Straight at the source and not over-simplified or “sexed-up” by the media.
Researchers often don’t publish research for financial gain but to make a positive impact on society. Won’t that positive effect come about much more coherently if more people could access the material? As one of our own academics Franc Jegede, Lecturer in International Relations, said in a video about his book, the extension of knowledge and the advancement of education comes when we share. An idea that is written down is much more long-lasting.
New publishing models are already making it possible to have freely available e-book content, with print-on-demand options available, which is a step in the right direction. It has taken a huge step change in the way research is funded to make that happen. Before, there was no real incentive for publishers to make the change.
Now, the European Commission, the Research Councils UK, HEFCE and many major charities, have all mandated that the research they fund should be Open Access. We should see new models of Open Access publishing happen much more quickly now. So long as all those involved in academic publishing keep the basic principle of free-to-read and, where possible, free-to-use and re-use in mind, we’ll be on our way to an enlightened society. In my opinion the sooner, the better. Library shelves won’t be empty of books, but there will be less of them and more innovative use of library spaces for studying and accessing free online literature.
Academic Book Week
This week marks Academic Book Week – a celebration of the diversity, innovation and influence of academic books. In 2017, when technology is evolving, our information-seeking behaviour is adapting, research is moving away from traditional publishing models and the cost of books is increasing, isn’t now the time when access to books should be free?