The following text is an extended version of the opinions I expressed in the panel “Open Access Publishing: Challenges and Perspectives” that was organized by the Hellenic Foundation for Culture and the innovative platform fairead in the Frankfurt Book Fair. The panel took place at the International Stage (Hall 5.1) on Friday, October 13, from 13.30 to 14.00.
In the life-cycle of books, including scientific books, libraries have exhibited their ability to play many different roles. For various reasons, I believe that these roles have substantial contributions. However, in the occasion of this panel, I would like to stick to the traditional concept of “libraries as customers”, which is a common attribute of libraries and remains the source of many challenges. Of course, there is the option of seeing libraries as publishers, which has already showed some very interesting examples, such as the Stockholm University Press and the Penn State University Press.
But as customers, who handle public money for public interest and under public accountability, they have two very simple requirements: access and preservation.
- Access is what we discuss in most of the occasions. It is the issue that brings many financial challenges and specifically what kind of models need to be achieved to have the proper kind of access. By Open Access we do not mean “no cost access”. We know well that any kind of publishing has costs that should be covered in a sustainable manner. We know that because libraries -more than anyone- know better the importance of sustainability and are aware that the monetary funds in the system need to be (re)distributed rationally and ethically. Funds allocated to any kind of model, either by subscription, or by purchasing, should not be on the expense of libraries and counter-fighting their role. This is ethical side, but there is also a rational one. We know that the problem, in several countries, like Greece, is not on the ‘Open’ part of the phrase, but on the ‘Access’ and what it entails. The main issue here is that the single act of accessing a digital book creates the challenge to balance the right to use, the right to reproduce and the necessity to protect the sustainability of the publishing sector. This is a very delicate exercise because the balance is disturbed; there are a lot of money for the well-being of the publishing sector, but the rights to use and to reproduce are not settled. Libraries and their communities need to be able to access digital books and to use them for exploration and mining, manually or -why not- machine-enabled. If an idea, this of accessing a work to acquire knowledge, is good, then it is good for any piece of work and not just for those out of copyright.
- In the digital world, little can be told about the preservation of books that are published only in digital format. In the physical world, libraries quite often play the role of preservation repositories; of these places that keep copies of out-of-market titles or of precious and historic editions. These, once they are out of stock, commercial value or copyright walls, can find a physical or/and digital place in a hospitable library. One of the most interesting small-scale scope libraries I found recently is the Reanimation Library in Brooklyn that collects books of marginal interest and tries through several ways to give them a second chance. Despite there are some important efforts, including OAPEN, we cannot say the same for digital books. Even if we had this opportunity to gather all digital-only books, then we still could not promise that their preservation and access to them would be guaranteed, just like it is happening with physical books. And this has to be addressed in a collaborative way.
There is a third requirement that libraries can express. Libraries reside close to their communities and as such know that the digital scientific book should be equipped with some additional functionalities. Quite often the discussion around digital books is about the functionalities that differentiate them from the physical ones, hopefully enabling them to override the various ergonomics restrictions. But to me quite often it is a matter if we can achieve the very same kind of interaction. For instance, can we annotate digital scientific books -in a very simple and device agnostic way- just like we do with pencils on printed papers? Can we enable our users to reflect themselves on a book? As by now, we cannot. But there are initiatives that show useful examples, such as the annotation of James Joyce’s emblematic work in “Infinite Ulysses”.
While this is a singular, exemplary publication, there are developments, based on open source, that can widespread annotation, such as hypothes.is. These can really enhance digital books and transform them from passive objects into active sources of content. We are impressively annotating classical texts, Homer and Herodotus, but we should be able to do it with contemporary scientific content; with content that is on the edge of innovation and will make community’s knowledge increase; with content that will advance open science.
Obviously, the transfer to the digital market is not going to be rapid and smooth. Apart from the various reasons related to human physiology and ergonomics issues, the production line of digital books is more intensive, demanding and complex in contrast to the -hundreds of years now- consolidated and robust production line of printed books. Eventually, this slows down the adoption of digital books .
The “book” of the future will combine reading and writing, annotation and social media, text processing and analysis, data mining and mind mapping, searching and linking, indexing and display, image parsing and distant reading in a multi-modal, cross-platform, inter-media environment.
Johanna Drucker, Graphesis: visual forms of knowledge production
These requirements are not irrelevant to the phrase “open access”. They define certain characteristics of what someone should expect to do by accessing a digital scientific monograph, as well as they frame the discussion for sustainable business models for modern publishing. Current models might not be sustainable with the perception that digital books are pdf-replicas of the printed ones and our attachment to this perception undermines the potential of digital publishing and its effects on science and community .
 You may find interesting the findings of the Future of Academic Book project by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK.  Many of these concerns have been discussed in the two versions of the Beyond PDF conference.