Preprint to Monograph: A Path to Travel By

Guy Geltner and John WIllinsky



Despite numerous eulogies, the academic monograph remains a staple of scholarly communications across the humanities and social sciences (HSS). In Euro-American academe it continues to function as a professional visiting card (“My current book project deals with dirt”) and a milestone that tenure, promotion, fellowship and grant committees rely on greatly in evaluating individuals, also on the basis of the publication venue (“She has published with Rummidge University Press!”). Reflecting the same culture, moreover, visitation committees of academic programs and departments, especially in the humanities, consider peer-reviewed monographic output as a major qualitative indicator.


There is certainly room for debate on how much of what is currently being published in monograph form is best served by the format and how much of it owes to inertia and conservatism. Still, the two of us are prepared to defend the monograph as an encompassing unit of thought. Its demands for sweeping comprehensiveness and sustained coherence is on a scale that it would be a shame to see lost to the great article chase, as scholarly publishing goes digital. Yet one thing remains clear: monographs are notoriously expensive to produce and bring to market, both due to presses’ overhead and the costs of a book’s  apparatus, multiple languages and color images—all of which are common to HSS fields. It is for these reasons, too, that monographs struggle to find an amenable and sustainable business model in the open access (OA) environment, although suggestions are forthcoming.


There are other reasons for the delay, however. At least part of it owes to scholars’ ignorance of the possibilities of disseminating monographs in OA and an understandable reluctance among both authors and publishers to expand traditional parameters, including the citation of soon-to-be-published work. We think (and statistics are beginning to bear this out as well) that a creative and active use of preprints can benefit authors and publishers of monographs, as well as the scholarly community at large, no less than preprints are currently benefiting those working with journal articles. This, we argue, is a good in and of itself, but one that may also help pave the way to a constructive dialogue with publishers about the production, work flow and marketing of monographic literature (as well as edited volumes).


We therefore write to share our respective and overall positive experiences, each in a different field and with different university presses, but in the common hope that it will help others strike similar or parallel paths. We both chose to go with traditional university presses, knowing that there are emerging open access alternatives for HSS (see below). Finding what feels like the right home for a book can be a complex process. But we were determined, as well, to help change the presses with which we wanted to work. We recognize that our ability to negotiate new terms owes something to our relative seniority in our fields and our stated priorities in promoting open access. Junior colleagues, especially those waiting for their first book contract, may justly prioritize the latter, which is why senior leadership (also on evaluation committees and editorial boards) is so crucial.


1.     John’s tale: Given that the book in question – The Intellectual Properties of Learning: A Prehistory from Saint Jerome to John Locke – seeks to establish the historical precedents of the presumption that learning warrants open access, by delving into a history that begins in the late antiquity of Jerome, I felt compelled to make a case to the University of Chicago Press for the book to itself be open in some form. That and the fact that I try to walk the talk of my open access advocacy, even as I did want what Chicago does with and for its books.

The press had little experience in this area. I, on the other hand, had previously arranged with MIT Press to make an earlier book (The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship, 2006) open, and it had gone into a second printing, with 800 copies of the PDF of the published work having been downloaded by readers with a simple email registration. Chicago’s first response to my suggestion that we emulate this model was to counter by allowing me to put an early draft online under a different title, so that there’d be no mistaking it for the book. This fell dramatically short of what open access is all about. I countered with an “experiment” that they would allow the final peer-reviewed draft (prior to copyediting) to be posted online at my university for a year (and I’d delete much earlier drafts from Academia dot edu). At the end of the year, I would provide the press with the email registrations and number of chapters downloaded, and they’d have the option of asking me to take it down.

When I did post my copy, not only did I make its draft status clear on every chapter, I suggested how it could be cited as such (and with a URL), to try to work against the assumption that authors are horrified that drafts will be cited. I see this as a transitional measure, and hardly ideal. The published edition does differ in a good number of places from the draft, principally through the copyeditor’s skilled hand and my own extensive rewrites. But that seems no reason to unduly restrict access to what I had once been happy enough with in the life of this book. Thus far, five months in from the book’s release, there have been 972 chapters downloaded by 368 individual registrants, with some twitter chatter on the book’s openness (including complaints that it has to be downloaded chapter by chapter, as it was submitted to the press, rather than with a single click for the whole). I’ve yet to see the draft cited, but it is early days still.


2.     Guy’s tale: Content-wise, there would have been little irony in publishing Roads to Health: Infrastructure and Public Wellbeing in Later Medieval Italy in a traditional format with a traditional press and paid access. So the intellectual leverage with my chosen press (The University of Pennsylvania) was limited on that front, as compared with John’s. Much like John, however, I have long been practicing what I preached and in recent years made all my articles OA. Amsterdam University Press, the publisher of my previous book (Flogging Others: Corporal Punishment and Cultural Identity from Antiquity to the Present, 2014) also kindly allowed me to make a PDF of the published version, as well as the book’s Dutch translation freely available on my (non-commercial) website. Last but not least, some of the work on my new book was financed by an ERC grant, in compliance of which resulting publications had to meet some OA standards. I was a little hopeful, therefore.

The UPenn series in medieval studies about to publish my book had no pertinent experience, either. But my editor willingly listened. I suppose that, having accepted the book and after a full version went through anonymous peer review, he and the press had more skin in the game. They flat out refused an OA book (we did not even discuss how much a subvention fee could cost). But they did agree for me to upload to a non-commercial website the final version of the text I submitted to them, that is, after peer review and including my revisions but without copyediting. Unlike John’s agreement, mine did not stipulate monitoring or registering downloads, which I initially offered as a way for us to generate new data and study them for everyone’s benefit. On the other hand, they insisted that my final draft be embargoed for 12 months once the book came out in print. Waving my royalties had no further impact on their proposal.

I plan to honor my agreement with UPenn, of course, although it provides no access to my work for a certain period. Yet I remain hopeful that the preprint that will go live in a few weeks will create enough attention for the work in general that the press will see the benefits of such monograph preprints at least from a marketing perspective. John and I have also put the two presses in touch on the matter, so they too can learn from each other’s experiences. Who knows, maybe one day presses will propose going with a preprint to its authors, as they begin to see the advantages and overcome their fear of “premature” citation. There is also one more possible angle (other than UPenn relaxing its own terms), and that is engaging an open access organization, such as OAPEN, created by Dutch universities (see below), to accelerate the work’s achieving an OA status.


These are but two examples of how to make your monograph OA without scaring struggling scholarly presses. Remember: a preprint can be a good way to promote the book and the debates it engages, given that audiences (including reviewers for journals) will have access to it well before the actual publication date, cutting short that particular cycle by many months. Publishers often ask authors to write blog posts, make themselves available for interviews and generate other promotional materials, so why not use the actual text and its reception, in citations of drafts and social media? You may also find an open-access advocate among the series’ editors or the press’s board, colleagues who could help push a favorable decision through. Waiving royalties may also help convey the message that you are truly committed to the endeavor, rather than it being just about promoting your own work. At any rate, under the current circumstances, neither of us would recommend you broach the topic before contract negotiations have started. But once they have, it can’t hurt: sometimes it is simply a matter of “ask and you shall receive.”


Whatever approach you choose, building up a track record with more presses will help others along the way and help publishers, especially university presses whose constituency should be clear, to update their policies for a digital age. That said, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Critical University movement of May 1968, open access emerges even more clearly as a plea to honor “everyone’s right to know the truth” of, in this case, the humanities’ best efforts at knowing the past.



Further resources on open monograph publishing:

Knowledge Unlatched


Open Book Publishers

Open Humanities Press

And should you want to start your own, or are working with, a scholarly press, Open Monograph Press is an open sources (free) publishing platform for managing and publishing books.