The Rise, Fall and Who Knows What’s Next of the Monograph


Old monographs
Monographs have a long and honorable history in Western scholarship, but increasingly they have fallen out of favor in many disciplines and present thorny issues when it comes to open access. (Photo Tom Woodward/Flickr)
Books are different.

That, presented simply, is the current conventional wisdom about open access publishing and monographs. Open access usually, of course, refers to journal papers and not to long-form efforts, and so monographs haven’t traditionally been part of the conversation about OA.

In a wider sense, monographs—specialized and lengthy works on a narrow topic by a single author–have been a declining part of the conversation on academic publishing in general.

At a conference last July on open access and monographs, opening speaker Martin Hall, an historical archaeologist (that’s a bad sign already for monographs!) at the University of Salford, noted that the form has been in crisis for decades. References in English to the word “monograph” peaked in 1977 and have been falling ever since, according to chart generated by Google Books’ Ngram viewer, although Hall charted the decline around the time universities started to withdraw their financial backing for the works.

“[We] received clear advice that the monograph publishing world is not yet ready to support an open-access requirement”

But they’re not dead yet, argues David Sweeney, the director for research, innovation and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, or HEFCE. ‘Monographs, edited collections and other long-form publications are a very important part of the academic publishing world, and they hold particular importance for scholars in the humanities and social sciences,” he was quoted in a release. “But many people tell us that monograph publishing is facing difficulties: sales are falling, costs are increasing, and scholars are finding it harder to locate outlets for their work.”

A slightly dated examination of scholarly monographs posted by the Open Access Scholarly Information Sourcebook described this as a “vicious circle”:

“… [I}ncreasing prices driving down sales has resulted in a situation where specialist titles are expected to sell only a few copies – as low as 250-300 copies in many cases according to a report from the British Academy in 2005 – publishers price these titles at a high level to recoup their costs from such small sales volumes, and researchers are struggling to find an outlet for their work. And they still need that outlet: a survey of researchers in the major US Ivy league universities showed that publishing monographs is still essential for career progression of humanities scholars yet the number of publishing outlets in the form of university presses is declining.”

Nonetheless, especially in the humanities, “the monograph remains the gold standard,” OASIS said.

In an effort to square this (vicious) circle, HEFCE, along with Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, are investigating the nexus of monographs and open access. The project is headed by Geoffrey Crossick, a humanities professor at the University of London, and governed by the British Academy.

As a good researcher, Crossick explained his 17-member expert reference group isn’t taking anything as a given—with one exception:

“We know that both digital publication and open access will become increasingly prominent over the next decade, and it is essential that the implications of these trends are considered for those disciplines where the book holds an important place. This means understanding the current situation of the monograph. Is it in crisis, as some claim? And what are the scholarly and cultural forces that make it so important?”

That group of investigators includes a diverse group of  academics and publishers, such as as Sally Hardy of the Regional Studies Association, Peter Mandler of the Royal Historical Society, John Holmwood of the University of Nottingham, and Cambridge University Press’s Richard Fisher, representing the Publisher’s Association. There’s also an adjunct international advisory panel with Colin Steele of the Australian National University, Gunnar Sivertsen of the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, and Harvard’s Peter Suber, who will help advise the project. Results from their work are expected by middle of this year, according to a release from HEFCE.

That same release emphasized the differences between open access publishing for journals—the focus of 2012’s groundbreaking Finch Report, the foundational document for Britain’s open access mandates—and monographs. In a footnote, the release noted that HEFCE and its peers “received clear advice that the monograph publishing world is not yet ready to support an open-access requirement,” and so it’s not including langauge in pending Research Excellence Frameworks requiring that monographs appear in open access.

The leading lights of this issue, Research Information Network research consultant Ellen Collins and JISC Collections’ Head of Projects Caren Milloy, made a similar point less delicately at the LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog. HEFCE, the Research Councils UK and others “have all carefully avoided the tricky issue of open access for monographs.

“Actually, that is not entirely fair. In fact, the various bodies have all rightly acknowledged that it is probably premature to implement any kind of policy on open access for books. Unlike journals, there are no clearly established business models for open access monograph publishing. Publishers, authors, librarians and funders are still negotiating this territory, trying to establish how to combine the best traits of existing models with greater availability and accessibility for readers.”

It’s not that open accesses monographs are unknown –here’s a list of publishers, societies and institutions they put out open access monographs. Given that it also includes sites which collect and open up theses and dissertations in electronic form, the list is pretty short.

Nor is it necessarily true that open access is a rum deal for booksellers, although part of that determination relies on a higgledy-piggledy determination of what it really costs to publish monographs. (And as Sexton said, this “is about the money–and it isn’t about the money.”)

A recent Dutch study sponsored by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) determined open access doesn’t cut into existing book sales and yet still increases usage, which supports the few past examinations of this issue. The authors recommend offering publishers a rebate to publish monographs as open access, addressing both the dearth of monographs and the urge to be open.

Meanwhile, the HEFCE program overseers, meeting in November, decided that their own remit extended beyond Britain, in part because of the perceived importance of English-language academic publishing internationally and the documented importance of open access in the developing world.


Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

Skip to toolbar