Increasing numbers of scholarly books are appearing as ePubs. Many are not. A lot of classic texts circulate in pdf and ebook format online through agencies like the Internet Archive (http://archive.org/details/texts), Marxists Internet Archive (http://www.marxists.org/) and ebooks@Adelaide (http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/). But this has the normative effect of getting more people to read the same things. That would be good if they read a lot, but if everyone only reads the top half dozen titles in a given discipline, there's precious little room for development at the classroom level. As a teacher I want my students reading as much as possible across as wide a range as possible, and that means with the least possible dent in their pockets, because students have had to learn, in these parsimonious days, to make every cent count.The books and articles that can't be downloaded or borrowed free have a great deal less chance of being read.
So the boom in online publishing should be good for everyone in the open access movement. The problem is not just that institutions and funding agencies have trouble recognising the quality level of online publications (a problem exacerbated by the proliferation of specialist titles for which humanities in particular have been famous for decades: there is a need for a journal of Blake scholarship or Turner studies or the 17th century Neapolitan baroque – that's the nature of specialisms). The other problem is that quality assurance isn't just stupid management-speak (though they have taken it over for some dodgy purposes). The small list I run at MIT Press gets about 30 proposals a year. We publish about 3 to 4 titles annually. A good number of the titles we don't take appear under other imprints The amount of work going into the successful titles (and indeed into a good few of the unsuccessful ones) is impressive. Assuring the quality of an article is a time consuming process. Journal refereeing is typically unpaid but it has to be organised; copy-editors need to check facts and grammar; typesetters need to check that they have the text and images set to everyone's satisfaction; and the issue has to be delivered in good time and good shape to its readers. All that time and skill costs. Anyone who has hit print in this way knows how much work an author has to do after delivering the manuscript. Multiply that by the work everyone else involved does. The question then is how to pay for these services, if we don't want to spend large tracts of our lives cleaning up other people's publications unpaid and unrecognised.
If you use e-journals you'll have noticed that they come in bundles. If a library wants the Journal of Gerbil Science, it's going to have to take the whole suite of rodentology titles, regardless of interest. Back in 1948, in the age of Hollywood's Paramount Decrees, the parallel practice of 'block booking' was made illegal. The claim is that for the specialist titles to survive, they have to be cross-subsidised by the big titles that most libraries want. The libraries, under intense cost-cutting pressure, don't see subsidy as their business. Of course, the student (or staffer) doesn't pay per use: that comes out of fees and overheads. The sciences have already revolted, demanding open access to the elite journals by threatening boycotts. The supposedly radical humanities and social sciences haven't, in part because, although there's a perceived hierarchy, there is no equivalent to Nature or Mind.
Most of us share out our publications, placing some in top print journals and some in online start-ups. Most of us would prefer a major university press to a print-on-demand solution. Some open access publishers, notably Open Humanities Press (http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/), Amsterdam's Institute for Network Cultures (http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/portal/) and Melbourne's re:Press (http://re-press.org/) have begun to gather some impressive titles to a mix of hardcopy and free downloads. Behind them lies a huge body of unpaid labour done out of sheer faith. While that is a great resource, we should remember that the early web was like that, but pretty soon turned into the hypermall it is today. Free labour is not necessarily a sustainable business model (Facebook notwithstanding). You are always your own worst proof-reader: that alone make self-publishing a frightening prospect.
At the moment we seem to have the scant choice between copyright as revenue source or no revenue at all. The challenge is to find alternatives. Publication subsidies are forbidden by a number of grant agencies, and smack of vanity publishing. But we may have to get use to the idea that if we want a thriving research culture, we may have to include the costs of publishing in grant applications. Most of us want the speed of online publishing – the speed of blogging, say – but also the assurance that a translation is accurate, that an unfamiliar field has been fact checked and is on the money, and that the references and data are presented in a form that can be followed up. That's necessarily slow. One prospective new journal I'm working on is considering a pre-press release of articles in draft for community critique and revision as one way of maximising benefits from online publishing. Meta-refereeing is beginning to have purchase, where groups like Open Humanities Press (OHP) establish a system for assuring the overall quality of online open-access titles. The Directory of Open Access Journals (http://www.doaj.org/) lists almost 9000 journals; OHP ratifies 14 of them (http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/fibrecultre.html). It isn't a perfect system, but it helps navigate the vast production of open-access research. But its all work.
The problem doesn't get simpler in the era of MOOCs – massive open online courses. The controversy and doubtful legitimations should make us pause over the lessons for open research. Do we actually know that an open slalom will work? Should the Journal of Creationism have the same clout as Environment and Planning D? Can we trust to some kind of market mechanism to get the cream to the top, or can we expect what the economic market has provided so far: quality for a tiny elite, and surrogates or nothing for the vast majority? Can we expect what we have seen in the blogosphere: the end of public debate in favour of sectarian enclaves? Publishing models run exclusively on the economic motive are failing already, and we have nothing sustainable to aspire towards yet. The challenge is to convert the values of open access into sustainable models.
As so often in the network economy, it is a matter not of control over the means of production but of distribution.