Performing openness in academic publishing

I was unsure about writing this blog post, but today I was turned away from signing up for the openly-advertised University of Sheffield’s Open Research initiative’s inaugural annual Open Research lecture for not being a current member of the institution. So urged on by a deep sense of irony, here I am with a rant about trying to publish a book open access.

After much collaborative work over many years, I’m really happy that the Live Coding book came out a couple of weeks ago, on MIT Press. A fresh editorial team at MIT were really helpful and responsive in taking it over the line, with copy-editing helping iron over the different voices in the book into what I think is a great text that I hope people will enjoy.

Between four of our institutions – the Deutsches Museum, London South Bank University, Nottingham Trent University, and University of Sussex, we raised the $15k subvention necessary from European and UK public funds to make the book open access under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license. As I understand it, this $15k was required to cover the loss in sales revenue due to the ebook/pdfs being made freely available. Given the live coding topic, it’s great that this means that not only is the book free to read in ‘digital’ form, it can in theory be modified while it’s being read.

In practice though the road was a bit bumpy. Although all copies of the book are openly licensed into the creative commons, some are nonetheless paywalled. Indeed, the ebook is has wide digitally distribution to the kindle, apple, google, kobo etc ebook stores where you can buy access to this creative commons license for $25.99. Unfortunately, the digital rights management (DRM) imposed by the store makes it difficult to benefit from the freedom to share and modify the text that the open license grants you. So really, you are paying $25.99 to lose benefits. No wonder creative commons are against this kind of DRM.

Worse, the MIT Press website steers you towards these digitally-rights-managed, $25.99 paywalls and away from the otherwise identical free-to-download ebook that we paid the subvention for. If you click the big ‘ebook’ button, which tantilisingly has no price next to it (screen shot below), you are directed to the Penguin Random House commercial distribution of it:

To access the ebook for free, you have to instead click on the ‘resources’ tab, and find a link to the epub or mobi ebook download there. Of course, this isn’t a mere resource for the book, but the actual book, so that’s a bit like hiding the free download behind a door that says ‘beware of the leopard’. I did negotiate putting some text on the bottom of the page pointing to this badly named tab, but unfortunately the tab could not be changed and the ebook links couldn’t be added to the front page. It also took MIT over a week after publication to make this resource tab appear, the non-paywalled ebooks weren’t available at all via MIT until that point. [Edit: To clarify, this was due to technical issue with MIT’s service provider which I now understand was causing serious problems across MIT’s site. I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything nefarious in this delay.]

You can also click on the ‘open access’ tab. After a couple of clicks this takes you to a different website, where the book is freely downloadable, but as fifteen separate PDF files. Many people (myself included) would find reading a book as separate PDFs awkward to download/sync to an e-reader, and difficult to read – the layouts are designed for print. So for most people, they’d want to click that ‘resources’ tab.

Actually, although ‘open access’ is a familiar term for academics, according to my (unscientific) poll on mastodon, unless you have an academic background, you probably don’t know what it means. So ironically, ‘open access’ is academic jargon, which acts here to guide the user away from itself.

MIT were happy to discuss all these issues, and to some extent agreed that the situation isn’t ideal, but nothing could really be done. They were open about the fact that they relied upon these ebook paywalls for ‘open access’ books to make the them financially tenable, even with a $15k subvention. They said that ‘epub’ ebook files will in the future appear on the ‘open access’ site alongside the per-chapter pdfs, which is good news. They also suggested we made our own website where the ebook can be downloaded, which we’ve done at livecodingbook.toplap.org, but really, promoting and distributing a book is the job of its publisher.

I believe that MIT Press are a non-profit themselves, so this isn’t about profiteering, but about the pragmatics of publishing research products in a financially sustainable way. The end result though is that authors can raise funds to make their books open access, but the publishers are still motivated to make people pay for them anyway. Actually for this kind of book, authors get some royalties too, so have some motivation to increase commercial distribution of open access books as well. That seems particularly unethical – authors personally paid to subvert the open license that they’ve used public funds to pay for.. When they were salaried via public funds to write the book in the first place! (I hearby pledge to donate my cut to an open source project.)

So I guess open access can be a kind of performance done to placate the funding requirements that come with public funding, and not a genuine effort to make publicly funded work readable by everyone. If you are considering publishing open access, my advice is to think and negotiate hard before signing the contract, to be clear about what versions will be creative commons, which of those will be open access, and how they will be promoted together. The best thing to do is retain copyright, then I believe according to the creative commons licenses, you have control over DRM.

All that aside, it is a lovely book, and it is especially nice to be able to hold a physical copy in my hands, and read it afresh.

3 thoughts on “Performing openness in academic publishing”

  1. This is a horrifying story. MIT Press’s behaviour, while not illegal under the terms of the CC By-SA license, can scarcely be defended as ethical. They may be a non-profit, but that does not excuse eating $15,000 of public money and hiding the result.

    I would very much like to hear from somebody at MIT Press explaining why they think this is remotely OK?

    1. Hi Mike,

      Unsurprisingly, as an organisation, creative commons are very much against DRM, and have put clauses in their licenses that forbid DRM as “effective technological measures” for restricting the licensed freedoms. I’m not a lawyer, but as I understand it, this doesn’t apply to the copyright holder as licensee, which would be MIT Press. But then today I realised that the book has a whole chapter’s worth of third party CC-BY-SA content that they don’t hold the copyright for. I’m waiting to hear from MIT about this issue..

      I am very keen to assume good faith on MIT’s part. Actually I think this way of publishing open access monographs is ‘standard’ in the industry. However, that’s all the more reason to challenge it where it makes no sense!

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