University Press releases free digitized manuscripts

By JAMES SCHARF | October 31, 2019

Last week, the Hopkins University Press released digitized copies of 100 out-of-print books to celebrate International Open Access Week. These books are part of the Hopkins Open Publishing: Encore Editions initiative which began last year after a $200,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

The Encore Editions initiative, a collaboration between the University Press and the Sheridan Libraries, was created to identify 200 significant works of scholarship that the University Press has published which are no longer in print and create open-access digital editions of them. Most of the selected books are monographs, Barbara Pope, the director of the University Press, said in an interview with The News-Letter. Monographs are important to academics both as scholars and as professionals, she explained.

“[Monographs] are a piece of scholarship that a humanist or social scientist will publish as an author to move forward the scholarship in that field and/or because they are required to get a book published to get tenure or a promotion,” Pope said.

The topics of monographs are typically very specific because they are written for a specialist audience, not the general public. Junior Computer Science major Conner Delahanty said that while he was pleased with the concept, he wished there would have been a greater focus on scholarly texts other than monographs, which tend toward the humanities and social sciences.

However, he added that he understood what he believed to be the trade-off that the initiative was facing.

“Personally, I would have liked there to be more STEM representation, but in that regard, a STEM-sort of book will basically take the form of a textbook and textbooks are ridiculously expensive... I can sympathize with how they’re going about it,“ he said. “But more diverse selection... [would have been better].”

Such specialist literature, if available online at all, is typically locked behind paywalls that require users to pay a fee before reading. Institutions like Hopkins usually purchase access to certain collections for their affiliates, but independent scholars often must pay out of pocket, limiting the range of sources they can access. 

Pope stated that when the University Press ran an experiment to test the effect of removing the paywall on viewing figures, the baseline numbers tripled.

“The main advantage of open content is that it is available freely to the world, and therefore... we know that engagement increases dramatically for most books when they are released open and brought back to life [compared to] when they are out of print,” Pope said.

Pope stated that the University Press worked with the Sheridan Libraries to identify the titles that would be a part of the initiative. The team selected books by considering the importance of each work to its field and by predicting what the scholarly public’s interest might be in specific titles.

“We had to figure out which books were the most important and would get a lot of engagement and that were important to the field out in the world,” Pope said.

Elizabeth Mengel, the associate director of collections and academic services in the Sheridan Libraries, emphasized that the initiative focuses on digitizing already significant texts.

“We chose books with historically high use because we believe these were titles that might have high appeal as ebooks,” Mengel said.

In an email to The News-Letter, sophomore Leland Held, a Political Science major, noted the importance of providing historical material to the world.

“It will allow for scholars in a variety of fields all over the world to explore topics which we may not have had the necessary primary sources to form solid research,” he wrote.

Despite the benefits of open access, Pope noted that the amount of free material that can be published online is limited. He explained that the process of bringing a book up to publishable quality is a major endeavor.

“Open access is a really good tool for us, but we also are a division of the university that has to break even,” Pope said. “So we have to be careful about how much free content we put out and about our ability to continue to publish that content.”

Delahanty said that he believes that the social impact of releasing academic literature through open-access digital editions makes it worth it for the University Press to pursue such projects, he said.

“I’ve always had the opinion... that as more people are able to get more and more knowledge, quality of life improves. So, this is definitely a good start as long as truly everyone is able to have access to it,“ he said.

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