Librarians love to get free books into the hands of scholars and students who need them. Publishers love it when their books find readers—but they also need to cover the costs of turning an idea into a finished monograph. Now a nonprofit group called Knowledge Unlatched is trying out a new open-access model designed to make both librarians and publishers happy.
Here’s how the “unlatching” works: Participating libraries pick a list of scholarly books they want to make open access. They pool money to pay publishers a title fee for each of those books. The title fees are meant to cover the cost of publishing each book; publishers calculate what they think is fair and share those estimates with the Knowledge Unlatched group.
In return for the title fees, the publishers make Creative Commons-licensed, DRM-free PDFs of the selected books available for free download through the OAPEN digital platform (OAPEN stands for Open Access Publishing in European Networks), the HathiTrust digital repository, and eventually the British Library.
Authors and publishers decide which Creative Commons license they’re comfortable using. There’s no postpublication embargo period; the books will be available as soon as the publishers and Knowledge Unlatched can process and upload the PDFs. (Click here for a full list of the books selected for the pilot and whether they’ve been published and uploaded yet.)
The moving spirit behind Knowledge Unlatched is Frances Pinter, a longtime publishing entrepreneur and the founding publisher of Bloomsbury Academic. She’s the new venture’s executive director. Ms. Pinter and her team have been canvassing publishers and librarians for months and putting out the word about Knowledge Unlatched at library and publishing conferences. Several Australian libraries, including those of the University of Melbourne, the Queensland University of Technology, and the University of Western Australia, joined as founding libraries; other partners and supporters include the New York Public Library and the British Library Trust.
If participation rates count as a measure of success, the pilot stage has gone well. Knowledge Unlatched hoped to recruit 200 libraries in time to unveil the pilot collection at the end of February, but about 300 libraries signed up, according to Lucy Montgomery, the project’s deputy director. (She is also a research fellow at the Queensland University of Technology, which subsidizes her salary.)
“We exceeded our target by 50 percent,” Ms. Montgomery said. That’s reduced the title-fee cost to about $43 per library per book, she said. The pilot collection contains 28 books, not all of them published yet, from 13 academic presses. “On average, the publishers will receive $12,000 for making the book open access,” she said. “That’s a fantastic chunk of money"—enough, Knowledge Unlatched’s organizers hope, to reassure publishers that they don’t have to go out of business to support open access.
“It’s the first route toward open access that has seemed like a goer for publishers as well as others,” said Stephen A. Cohn, director of Duke University Press, one of the presses taking part in the pilot round. “Frances is a publisher at heart, and it seems like she has taken into account everyone’s needs,” including those of publishers, libraries, scholars, and students. “We really hope this will work,” Mr. Cohn said.
Four front-list Duke books are included in the pilot: Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells, and the Future of Kinship, by Sarah Franklin of the University of Cambridge; In Search of the Amazon: Brazil, the United States, and the Nature of a Region, by Seth Garfield of the University of Texas at Austin; My Voice Is My Weapon: Music, Nationalism, and the Poetics of Palestinian Resistance, by David A. McDonald of Indiana University at Bloomington; and Ever Faithful: Race, Loyalty, and the Ends of Empire in Spanish Cuba, by David Sartorius of the University of Maryland at College Park.
Mr. Cohn said that the authors had given their permission for the books to be made open access, and that they would receive royalties from the title fees the press gets from Knowledge Unlatched.
Amherst College’s library is one of those that signed up. That support is part of a broader strategy of supporting “every OA initiative we can” in search of good models, said Bryn Geffert, the librarian of the college, via email.
While he supports the experiment, he also has reservations about it. “What I like about the KU model is also what troubles me about the KU model—namely, the decision to let libraries ‘vote’ on which books to ‘unlatch,’” he said. “There’s a certain appeal in choosing titles through democratic principles—it’s hard to argue with democracy.” But he said he and some colleagues in academic libraries are concerned that “esoteric scholarship” is the least likely to win votes and therefore the most likely to remain locked up, even if it’s urgently needed.
“Scholarship about issues in the developing world is particularly ‘unpopular,’ and yet such scholarship—whose natural audience lives in the developing world—is in particular need of being ‘unlatched,’” Mr. Geffert said. “An initiative like KU seems unlikely to help such scholarship find its natural audiences.”
Still, Mr. Geffert thinks that the number of libraries Ms. Pinter has recruited “is a clear indication that she’s up to something good. She’s a smart woman, and she’s created a model that actually works,” he said. “But I believe we need other initiatives as well. I hope we can reach a stage at which we’re no longer ‘unlatching’ scholarly literature, but rather are refusing to latch it in the first place.”