v32#3 Stop, Look, Listen — Eight Lessons Learned From Eight Years of Open Access

by | Jul 15, 2020 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  Dr. Sven Fund  (Managing Director, fullstopp GmbH, Society for Digitality, Wartburgstraße 25A, 10825 Berlin;  Phone: +49 (0) 172 511 4899)    www.fullstopp.com

Abstract:  Knowledge Unlatched (KU) was the first initiative to make monographs available Open Access in the Humanities and Social Sciences and has been offering annual pledging rounds since the pilot in 2013.  The KU model has grown considerably in the meantime and has expanded to include journals and other categories.  This article considers some key takeaways from the last eight years from an insider perspective, which should be of interest to publishers, libraries and research funding agencies, but also to comparable initiatives aiming to further develop their own approaches.

Keywords:  Open Access;  monographs;  Knowledge Unlatched;  scientific publishing;  scholarly publishing;  Humanities and Social Sciences.


Free access to scientific information in the form of Open Access (OA) has been developing rapidly since the beginning of the 2000’s.  Especially in the early years, the natural sciences received the most attention, while other academic disciplines played a negligible role in the rapid development of OA.  Frances Pinter, then a publisher and later Managing Director of Manchester University Press, felt that the lack of Open Access publishing in the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) was a central weakness of the model and one which needed to be addressed.  As a result, she devised an approach in 2012 to make HSS content available Open Access, and that was unique at that time.  In contrast to the APC model dominating scientific journals, in which individual articles are “bought free” by the authors or their research funding agencies/institutions, Pinter introduced a model based around institutional funding.  At the core of what she later called Knowledge Unlatched (KU) was a collaboration by libraries all over the world who work together to finance making academic books freely available to all users, regardless of their location.

A pilot was launched in 2013 as a “proof of concept” exercise to gauge the willingness of libraries and publishers to support such a collective approach.  Several well-established HSS publishers participated, and thanks to the collaboration of libraries worldwide, 28 new HSS books were made available OA at that time.  Since then, a total of six pledging rounds have been realised and alongside the purely quantitative expansion, the model has also undergone considerable qualitative development. 


In order to achieve KU’s entrepreneurial goal of making as much HSS content as possible available OA, various growth options were evaluated from 2015 onwards — once the model had been established.  A central question was the (justified) concern that new models in the library market would be rapidly adopted by a small group of enthusiasts but that the broader acceptance necessary for the successful establishment of such a model might not be present among all stakeholders, particularly in the early phase of KU, when funding within libraries was often taken from special or leftover budgets. 

In cooperation with libraries and publishers, two approaches have been tested: alongside quantitative growth (i.e., more titles in the respective pledging rounds), KU created a virtual marketplace in order to offer more variety in collections and models.  The rationale for this was based on the observation that a strong increase in the number of titles in the core model “KU Select” would almost inevitably lead to a greater segregation among participating libraries.  It was clear that the funds made available for OA monographs would not be enough to even begin to finance the range of titles that publishers could offer.  At the same time, it was assumed that the larger academic institutions would probably be those most willing and economically able to support several simultaneous offers.

It also became apparent early on that packages with little differentiation (i.e., numerous publishers contributing titles from a wide range of disciplines to an overall package) would be of limited relevance.  This followed the insight that libraries would not completely change their decision-making and acquisition behavior in a short time, even if this were now to take the form of a funding commitment for OA content. 

Parallel discussions with publishers revealed that they often had an interest in “opening” certain disciplines more than others.  This was primarily due to publishing strategies and pressure from editorial boards and authors.

Thanks to the cooperation with Language Science Press (LSP) in 2017, KU was able to test, at an early stage, an entire publishing program that could be offered OA.  This case study with LSP, KU’s first publishing partner, proved to be a pioneer that would lead to various other models.  As of 2019, 15 different partner models have been introduced by KU and libraries worldwide, based on a variety of approaches. 

Marketplace as a Core Strategy

The concept of a marketplace for OA models also includes other components, however.  There was an early strategic goal to be able to finance HSS journals via KU similar to the way in which the Open Library of Humanities works.  It was clear, though, that such a model would require a significant departure from the APC model prevalent in the STEM field, which had developed under very different funding conditions. 

In addition, early discussions with providers of OA infrastructures showed that these also had funding requirements which could additionally be built into the marketplace idea where appropriate.  

In the further development of KU into an OA marketplace, it was paramount that the core mission of KU, namely the collaboration of institutions worldwide, should not change.  On the contrary, this key element of the model, namely the role of librarians in the selection of content, should be further strengthened.

Eight Lessons from Eight Years

The intensive work with OA and the systematic development of test cases has helped KU to draw some key lessons for its endeavours in a rapidly developing and changing environment of scholarly publishing: 

1. Community Action Works — According to the classic schools of business administration, it is by no means a given that collective action by stakeholders around the world can function in a coordinated manner.  Obviously, there are several coordination issues, but KU has proven that over 600 libraries and more than 100 publishers worldwide can create a stable ecosystem that has enabled the financing of around 2,000 OA books and 46 journals to date.  The collective funding over the last eight years amounts to approximately ten million euros. 

On both the supply and the demand side, there has been a high proportion of participants in several pledging rounds.  The participation of libraries today is just as much driven by the individual profile of the institution as is the case with the traditional acquisition of paid content — a clear difference from the early days when institutions were often driven more by idealistic reasons to participate rather than investing in content relevant for their researchers.

2. Open Access is Multilingual — The model started as an initiative for purely English-language monographs, but it has since grown to include German and French language content, which libraries have been able to fund via KU.  There were initial concerns that the far smaller number of libraries interested in non-English content would not be enough to raise the level of funding necessary for books in other languages, but it has been proven that such a goal can also be achievable.  With packages such as the political science program of the German publisher transcript, or with the OpenEdition initiative in France, successful non-English-language models have launched.  In the case of transcript, it has even been possible to renew the model in the following years and thus to establish a longer-term sustainable publishing model. 

3. Ongoing Specialization — At the same time, the example of the original KU model (which today goes by the name “KU Select”) shows that models with broader thematic content are also undergoing changes and becoming more specialized.  Last year, for example, the collection was already streamlined to primarily include titles from those disciplines with a high degree of usage — a decision unanimously welcomed by librarians.  Increased specialization should also help institutions to more easily flip their current holdings and to reduce complexity in the face of greater demand. 

4. Growing Importance of Proof of Success — Faced with a growing range of OA initiatives and products, it can be observed that libraries are significantly more interested in seeing measurable effects than in the early days.  While support for some initiatives was first motivated by a high degree of idealism and political goodwill, institutionally funded OA is increasingly developing into a form of acquisition that must be able to compete with other models.  This poses certain challenges for OA providers, especially with an access model where decentralized storage and use of content is an integral part of the approach.  Obviously, users of such OA models do not have to use an institutional (and thus easily measurable) access route to the content, meaning that proof of use within the IP range of an institution alone is of limited value.

It can be observed that libraries — as well as publishers — often make their decisions regarding the support of OA collections or the publication of content based on usage and citation statistics.  With the portal KU Open Analytics, there is now a solution that consolidates the usage from almost two dozen platforms and can provide valuable insight into the use of open content.  The data can also include location-based usage from outside of the institutional IP range.  

5. Hosting Gains in Importance — The decentralized structures inherent in OA are increasingly reaching their limits, as the example of usage reporting above shows.  In view of the growing amount of openly available content and the need for a minimum level of efficiency and thus organization, this decentralization is coming under increasing pressure.  KU’s surveys of libraries suggested at the start of 2019 that a common hosting platform for OA content (at least for books) would be desirable.  The Open Research Library (www.openresearchlibrary.org), which has been online since the middle of last year, is KU’s reaction to this wish.

6. Timing is CentralKU has made several attempts over the past few years to identify the optimal time for the launch of its offers — and to accomplish this in a global context in which budget years and practices vary significantly.  Not surprisingly, the optimal timeframe fits into the traditional ordering behavior of libraries worldwide.  Attempts by publishers to offer products to the market at a later or earlier date have so far seen limited success.  It therefore seems advisable to launch new products in the second quarter of the calendar year in order to secure financing in the following two quarters.

7. Collaboration with Trade Partners Yields Mixed ResultsKU has been working with resellers since 2016, and the number of trade partners is now into double figures and growing.  While it could be assumed that such partners would generally be very important intermediaries in institutional OA, experience so far has been mixed.  Some resellers, especially in the German-speaking countries, have proven to be highly useful partners due to their customer knowledge and sales expertise, while others have proven to be more of a distraction from efficient processes.  The dependence on individual resellers by libraries is often high, but the institutional knowledge of the book trade about OA is usually limited.

8. Different Access Models for STEM Books — In KU’s experience, OA books from the STEM disciplines seem to fall more in line with the practices of the APC-based journal business.  Decision-making processes within institutions and the willingness of publishers to make significant titles from their programs available via cooperative models seem less suitable for institutional funding models.  Although KU has been able to report some positive cases, the cost-benefit ratio in general does not seem to be reasonable.


Open Access models for monographs have developed dynamically and, in terms of results, very positively since KU’s foundation.  Numerous stakeholders and research funding agencies continue to look for ways to further develop institutionally funded OA.  The basis for this positive development has been the willingness and ability of all participants to continually make necessary adjustments to its implementation.  Institutional OA is thus developing very successfully, but it requires a much higher degree of adaptability compared with other business and access models within scientific publishing.

It is to be expected that OA offers such as those from KU will continue to develop in popularity, both from the demand and the supply side.  Many publishers are actively interested in expanding the number of titles openly available to users everywhere and have largely overcome their initial concerns.  In order to increase the share of OA books in the output of publishers in a timely and reliable manner, the sustainability of reliable financing is crucial.  Publishers must ensure that they consider — and fulfil — the growing service requirements of libraries, who now see OA content as a normal part of their service, and thus as an integral part of their acquisition and financing structure. 


Fund, Sven; Mosterd, Max; Godek, Piotr (2019): Open Access Monographs in the UK: A data analysis, Berlin, retrieved 2020-03-22, https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2019/Fullstopp-Final-October-2019.pdf.

Montgomery, Lucy (2014): Knowledge Unlatched: A Global Library Consortium for Funding Open Access Scholarly Books, in: Journal of Cultural Science, Vol. 7, No, 2, pp. 1-28.  


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