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Open access: taking academic publishing out of its ivory tower

Is the long reign of the weighty academic tome nearing its end?

My latest book, Why Do We Quote? The Culture and History of Quotation, is produced by Open Book Publishers, an innovative Cambridge-based academic publisher. It exploits digital publishing technology to make the full text freely accessible online.

Alternatively you can pay to download the text in pdf format or buy high-quality and reasonably priced print-on-demand paperback and hardback editions. Open access is increasingly used for journal publications, particularly in the sciences, but it is much less usual for full academic monographs, especially in the social sciences and humanities.

Yet it seems to me that open access represents the future for academic publication. It is a form of free knowledge-dissemination, using the new opportunities afforded by the web, and is very much in keeping with the open and democratising spirit of The Open University. It marks a striking contrast with the conventional mode of academic monograph publishing, in which publishers expect to sell only around 200 copies per monograph, each costing up to £80 in hard-copy format.

Inevitably these will be bought only by research libraries and individuals who can afford them. The result is the restriction of knowledge to a small minority of scholars. This may suit the publishers (and the academic promotion system) but it seems wrong that research, which is often publicly funded, should not be freely and publicly available.

And then there’s the global dimension. Over the years I have had numerous email from scholars in Africa (one of my research areas) who long to have access to copies of key texts, but who can’t afford them or can’t get hold of them.

Open access, as explained in the “Our Vision” section of the Open Book Publishers’ website, promises a more equitable distribution of knowledge. For more discussion, see the articles by Rupert Gatti (Google “CAM debate: access all areas”) and Robert Darnton (Google “Darnton: three jeremiads”).

Professor Ruth Finnegan is a Fellow of the British Academy