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Many authors do not intend to make much revenue from books (textbooks or research books) they contribute to, yet they don't make it open access. Why?

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Because the publisher? – ff524 Feb 24 at 20:04
@ff524 Why not choosing a publisher that allows the book to be open access? – Franck Dernoncourt Feb 24 at 20:08
Probably because open access is relatively low in the list of considerations for choosing a publisher. – ff524 Feb 24 at 20:09
To me the real question here is "what value is added by the publisher". – David Ketcheson Feb 25 at 6:44
Note that the publisher intends to make revenue from the book - or at least not make a massive loss - even if the authors don't. If you're planning to publish it entirely OA, you need a) to find some way of offsetting the publisher's production costs (which are very substantial); or b) publish it yourself. Which of these situations do you envisage? The answers are massively different. – Andrew Feb 25 at 8:37

There are a number of reasons why not to, and they stem from the reasons one might want to publish a book, even if you aren't making much if any money:

  • The prestige of the publisher matters. For many tenure committees, professional organizations, etc. "A Book from BigDeal University Press" > "Some Markdown Files on Github" or what have you in terms of evaluation. In effect, you are getting paid, but in prestige and reputation rather than money.
  • Publishers take care of a number of things that, if you're self-publishing an open access book you have to do yourself, including copy-editing, layout, and most importantly, finding peer reviewers.
  • Seeing a book adopted widely (another part of the whole prestige aspect) will likely be more difficult for an open-access book, at least at present, where they are fairly common. Who is going to do the marketing? Has it actually been properly peer reviewed? Are there nice, hard-bound copies available (some of us like reading things on paper), etc.

That is not to say that there are not some very successful efforts in my field to do open access books. Hernan and Robins causal inference book, for example, has drafts and code available online:

But neither one of those authors is in the position to need much benefit from a book publication, and it's still being placed in a traditional press when it's finished.

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Nice answer (+1). A slightly off-topic question for you, if you don't mind: can you comment on what are essential differences, if any, between the book by Hernan & Robins you've mentioned and the classic treatment by Judea Pearl (and, perhaps, other books on the topic)? – Aleksandr Blekh Feb 24 at 21:00
In your first bullet, I would go so far as to replace > with >> (or \gg). – Nate Eldredge Feb 24 at 21:04
@AleksandrBlekh As disclaimer, I am not a causal inference researcher. I use computational models, which cheat, and are inherently counterfactual. But I know people who are. My generally feeling is that Pearl's book is more technical and a bit heavier on graph theoretical framing of things. Miguel Hernan is particularly adept at making causal inference concepts clear, and IIRC the book is geared more toward potential outcome frameworks, which are more clearly applicable to epidemiologists. – Fomite Feb 24 at 21:43
@NateEldredge: This is true, but don't you find this state of things very unfortunate? IMHO, a publisher's prestige is a relatively fuzzy concept, based on questionable value (excluding the stance of tenure committees, professional organizations, etc.). By "value" I mean value to science and humankind's knowledge. (to be continued) – Aleksandr Blekh Feb 24 at 22:31
For many tenure committees, professional organizations, etc. "A Book from BigDeal University Press" > "Some Markdown Files on Github" : where by "many" you mean "all". – Dan Romik Feb 25 at 0:45

Many authors do not intend to make much revenue from books (textbooks or research books) they contribute to, yet they don't make it open access. Why?

First, while authors may not "intend" to make much revenue, that still does not mean that they will happily give up whatever revenue they are actually going to make (and keep in mind that the actual amount of revenue is impossible to predict with accuracy at the time an author needs to make this decision). So if an author feels that making their book open-access will lead to a loss of revenue, then unless that author is sufficiently generous, passionate about open-access, and/or financially well-off, not insisting on making the book available as open-access would be a completely rational decision, regardless of whether the publisher would give permission or not.

Second, and more importantly in my opinion, after you have spent a few years and a huge amount of labor and creative energy writing a book, the idea of giving it away for free is simply ... uncomfortable, even for purely psychological reasons. I decided to make my book open access and am quite happy with my decision, but I can completely understand and respect authors who have made the opposite decision, and don't think such a decision should be criticized by anyone who hasn't gone through a similar creative journey themselves.

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As the entry level for self-publishing is now very low, there is a whole swamp of the low quality content. Once you join this swamp, it is very difficult to raise above it, as nobody can find you. A good quality content initially belonging to this swamp takes long time to be noticed, if ever.

It is critical to have the public reviewing system not for picking best of the best but first for discarding the really low quality junk. Automated search tools, even Google technologies, cannot do this properly, as the junkwriters are often much more experts is "search engine optimization". Hence they trash with lots of revenue generating ads around somehow always takes if not the first then at least a second place in the search results.

The only way known for me to mitigate this is to link (or publish in) the official website of the notable university. Web search will take this into consideration, but the option is not easily available for all potentially good publishers.

It is the lack of the serious public reviewing system that hinders publishing of the free content.

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ff524 basically answered in the comment: publishers don't usually allow it. Just as with journal articles it might be possible to negotiate publishing under an open access license for a fee. Sometimes it is also possible to negotiate being allowed to publish a "preprint" version on your homepage or a preprint server such as the arXiv. Typically this is a version without the editing and layout work done by the publisher.

Of course authors can just decide to not publish with a publisher (or self-publish) and just upload the book to their homepage, as many people do. You will miss out on royalties (not a big deal, as noted in the question) and marketing efforts of the publisher.

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"Of course authors can just decide to not publish with a publisher (or self-publish) and just upload the book to their homepage, but this has basically the same status as articles that are not peer reviewed." I must say that I disagree with this. On the one hand, part of the peer review process is the prestige of publishing in the most competitive journals. There is no "Annals of textbook publishing," and (at least) in many academic fields, publishing textbooks is viewed more like service than research... – Pete L. Clark Feb 24 at 20:18
On the other hand, I don't think that textbooks are "peer reviewed" -- parts of them are looked over by people designated by the textbook company, but not in the same way. Moreover, textbooks are not published solely because their content is innovate or novel -- there is no way to explain the flood of nearly identical calculus textbooks in these terms. They are published because the publisher thinks they can make money.... – Pete L. Clark Feb 24 at 20:20
In my opinion, a high-quality self-published textbook nowadays confers most of the rewards of traditional publishing. The main differences are: (i) the royalties, which are usually rather nominal but a few people (think Stewart of Stewart's calculus) can make real money. (ii) the marketing. Because the publisher wants to sell the text, they have resources available to promote it that most individual authors lack. Those with sufficient web-presence or social media savvy can compete with this, but most academics do not have the time or skills for this. – Pete L. Clark Feb 24 at 20:22
By the way, in the above comments I had in mind mostly textbooks. I see now that the OP didn't specify. When it comes to a research monograph, prestige of the publishing company does play some role. – Pete L. Clark Feb 24 at 20:24
With the textbook company I signed with, part of the agreement is that they publish it for say... 3 years, and afterwards I can do what I want with it as all rights revert back to me. That could be fairly common. – Rick Henderson Feb 25 at 1:46

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