How Do University of Michigan Press Book Authors and Readers Perceive Open Access?

Background

In Spring 2021, the University of Michigan Press (UMP) began to shift from a “Fee for Access” business model to a “Fund to Mission” open-access (OA) monograph publishing model. UMP proposes that this shift will allow them to better align with the mission of university presses “to ensure academic excellence and cultivate knowledge” rather than focus on a declining market for sales of scholarly books (Association of University Presses).

Fund to Mission relies on a hybrid funding model founded on support from the University of Michigan Provost’s Office and 200 supporting libraries. This approach means that UMP does not require authors to pay to publish their books OA (although the Press always requests support from institutions that can provide it). 

This study builds on previous research on UMP’s Fund to Mission model. Interviews and surveys of UMP authors described the tension between the perceived benefits of increased impact for their work and the financial challenges of OA publishing (Frankl, 2023). Quantitative research on over 8,000 reader responses to UMP’s online survey illustrated how OA facilitates information exchange, increases global reach, and elicits positive responses from readers (Lin & Mrjoian, 2023).

Methodology

I first inventoried 8,325 responses to a survey that users of OA books are prompted to take when they first open an OA book on the U-M Press’s Fulcrum publishing system. The survey asks respondents about their interests, how they found out about the Open Access ebook, how they plan to use the ebook, and whether they are willing to be contacted in the future for a follow-up conversation.

The image shows the book covers for the five selected books in order of publication. This is a decorative image.

Based on these responses to the survey, I selected five books:

The selection criteria included: (1) The amount and range of reader responses to the survey; (2) a diverse representation of book subjects; (3) the readers’ expressed willingness to have a follow-up conversation, confirmed by their responses to a final opt-in question in the survey.

World map visualization produced using Kepler.gl shows points of different colored light across the globe. Each point represents a reader who responded to an online survey connected to one of the five books in the sample discussed in this blog post. The image illustrates the global spread of respondents. It is illustrative rather than substantive.
813 readers responded to the U-M Press OA survey for the five selected books in this study. They came from all over the world. (Visualization produced using Kepler.gl)

To better understand the perceived benefits of open access publishing, I interviewed authors or editors of the five books, and at least three readers for each book. Out of the 813 readers who responded to the U-M Press OA survey for the five selected books in this study, 390 readers expressed interest in being contacted for a follow-up conversation and 17 readers were available for an interview during the duration of the study. All the readers I approached had explicitly opted into being contacted for further information but were still often surprised (and delighted) to talk in more depth. One, Nandkumar Kamat, published an account of his experience in The Navhind Times of Goa, India (Nadkumar, 2023).

The interviews with the 17 readers and 8 authors or editors were transcribed, anonymized (in the case of the readers), and uploaded as Source Data into the University of Michigan’s implementation of a custom GenAI GPT tool, Maizey. Maizey is a generative AI platform that can make predictions, recognize patterns, reach conclusions, and generate content in response to a prompt or query (U-M Maizey In Depth). I prompted Maizey to act as my “interlocutor” to analyze the responses, identify patterns and gaps, and make recommendations. 

I chose to use Maizey as an analytic tool for two reasons: 

  • To preserve the conversational and narrative-based tenor of the study 
  • To eliminate partiality or confirmation bias 

Findings

The authors viewed OA as a means of transforming the landscape of their fields, and hoped that their works would incite meaningful discussions or even changes. Their specific goals and motivations varied, highlighting the multifaceted potential of open-access books, and the variability of disciplinary and individual reasons that academic authors write. 

However, some common themes emerge.

  • Global Reach: Removing cost barriers to readers, which can often limit who has access to published works, ensures that their work can be read by people in various parts of the world, regardless of their ability to pay for it or access it through a subscribing library. 

“We knew that we wanted it to have global reach. There’s a lot of breadth in the regions that we were able to cover with this volume and we wanted that to be disseminated back to everyone.” Elizabeth King

  • Community cultivation: Authors felt that publishing their work OA cultivates relationships and builds community. 

“[Vidding] was work that was created openly. I didn’t want to gate it. I wanted the community. It was very much celebrating the artistic work of the community, and I wasn’t interested in putting that behind a paywall.” Francesca Coppa

  • Policy impact: Authors also showed interest in impacting policy. 

“I was trying to create some change. I mean the book even comes along with an appendix of teaching suggestions and ways that we can restructure classrooms and other locations on our campuses. So then, it made sense to think about how do you remove that barrier of cost?” Jay Dolmage

  • Increased accessibility: Some authors additionally highlighted the potential of OA to improve the accessibility of their work to print-disabled readers. 

“There was a time that students when they got a book for one of their classes, they were requesting a Braille version or a large print version. It wasn’t easily digitally changed that way. So open access had that potential to make that much easier, but only if we were careful and cared about the platforms and the ways that people were going to interact with the books.” Jay Dolmage

  • Better digital affordances: Several authors noted the opportunities to make their books part of the networked environment, advancing their digital scholarship ambitions. 

“Multi-modality is very important and is going to continue to be important for the newest generation of scholars, students, and the general population that is used to video and audio in addition to text.” Asta Zelenkauskaite

  • More citations: Authors suggested that OA works are more likely to be cited by a broader range of academic readers and authors. A recent study suggests that OA research outputs receive not only more but also more diverse citations (Huang et al, 2024).

“You can see what students cite in their papers. If it doesn’t have an online presence, it doesn’t exist. It used to be a joke that if you want to hide something, put it in a book. And now it's really true.” Francesca Coppa

“My previous monographs circulated modestly; libraries purchased them. Individuals in my field might have a copy… This book, I mean, 100,000s of hits on some of the pieces of it.” Danielle Fosler-Lussier 

  • More sales: While it seems to depend a lot on the book, a recent study by the Association of University Presses (Brown et al, 2023) suggests that OA availability increases awareness to the extent that this can sometimes translate into more sales.

“I know for sure that UM Press sold way more copies of the book by making it open access than if they hadn’t. It continues, actually, to sell really well, the physical copies of the book, including to libraries.” Jay Dolmage

The 17 readers interviewed represent various backgrounds across different countries, fields, and professions. Most are academic students or professionals in varying fields with different years of experience. Others are policymakers and professionals in the business and management sectors. Many are frequent consumers of OA books and research. 

Beyond the diversity of motivations for seeking academic books and information practices, some common themes emerge: 

  • Overcoming financial barriers: Most readers, especially those less affluent or living in regions where shipping costs are prohibitive, rely heavily on ebooks. They pursue OA editions because the pricing of ebook editions is prohibitive. 

“If I find a title that is not available for free, I’ll just go look for related information elsewhere instead of purchasing that information.”

  • Bypassing license restrictions: Restricted access to library-licensed copies of new materials is a shared experience for many researchers in the developing world. Sometimes, going to “pirate” sites is their only recourse.

“I’m looking forward to high-quality, peer-reviewed open access. Perhaps ZLibrary would not be our go-to for these things. We need more open access.”

  • Dealing with lack of, or tenuous, institutional affiliation:  The challenges of navigating licensing and library access rules are not exclusive to readers in less wealthy countries.

“I do have a community library card for the [US-based] university library, but I don’t get electronic access to those books from home. I have to physically go into the library to do that. When the library was temporarily closed to non-affiliates during the pandemic, that really heightened the discrepancy between those who were affiliated and those like myself who are unemployed, in my case, because of disability.” 

  • Serendipitous discovery: The interests leading readers to UMP’s OA books ranged from project or research alignment and educational resources to personal curiosity and broad accessibility. 

“I found a link to the book through a Tumblr post that was talking about the death of the very first documented Vidder. And I was like, that’s amazing, I love vidding.”

  • Affordable teaching and learning: The cost of textbooks and challenges obtaining them at reasonable rates have led to changing practices around learning and teaching. 

“OA makes possible zero-fee courses in terms of no textbooks or other items that students might have to pay, especially in community colleges where we're serving generally lower-income students in the first place.”

  • Community dialog and collaborative reading: For some readers, OA meant greater participation in discussions and reading groups, including in poorly resourced contexts such as prisons. 

“We have a small budget to purchase copies of books, but we can usually only purchase four or five of them… if more people want to participate, they purchase their own copies, and we’ve found that we get more participation if there isn’t a cost.”

Respondents’ Recommendations

Beyond sharing their experiences and motivations, the authors and readers interviewed made several recommendations for improving the publishing of OA scholarly books.

  1. Financial Sustainability: UMP should continue to pursue mechanisms that ease the financial burden on authors unable to pay for OA.
  2. Better Support Structures: OA publishers should provide services/support to help navigate the publishing process.
  3. Discoverability: It would be helpful to improve the visibility of OA resources to reach users more directly and efficiently. “If you can’t find it at the top of a Google search list ... then it doesn’t exist for my students, certainly, and I think that's true for a lot of people.” 
  4. User Interface: Enhance the website’s user interface, making it easier for users to navigate, search, filter, and access just the OA books.
  5. Translation: Providing resources in multiple languages or offering automated translation options might be beneficial.
  6. Integration with Citation Managers: Users suggested the automatic provision of bibliographic details of books to citation platforms, highlighting the importance of facilitating easy reference for users. 
  7. Accessible/Diverse Formats: Continuing to implement guidelines to enhance digital accessibility can potentially benefit a larger number of users. Some respondents also requested the availability of audiobooks, indicating the need for diverse formats.
  8. Improve the sharing of usage and engagement with authors. As one author said of her OA book, “We have some idea that it’s circulating a lot, but there’s still a bunch we don't know.”
  9. Incorporate User Feedback: Regularly solicit and incorporate user feedback to continuously improve the OA initiative. It is clear users value this resource highly and have invested interest in its ongoing success.