Open Access Books

Video on Open Access in 60 Seconds

Video about open access. (CC BY 3.0 DE)
Source: Brinken, Helene, Jonas Hauss, Jessika Rücknagel (2021). Open Access in 60 seconds,

The key takeaways from this article are


Open access has developed into a highly dynamic field in the area of book publications in recent years.


As the publication landscape in the area of scholarly books is very heterogeneous, the established open access models for journals cannot simply be transferred.


An efficient infrastructure with various publication and funding options has now also developed in the area of open access books.

Open access for books – this long-neglected topic has gained enormously in importance in recent years. Until well into the 2010s, the open access activities of research funders, libraries and authors focused mainly on the area of scholarly journals. However, the stakeholders in the scholarly publishing system have now also recognised the enormous potential of open access for books, and have initiated transformation measures (Bargheer et al., 2017; Ferwerda et al., 2017; Stone & Marques, 2018). This is impressively demonstrated by the numerous studies and projects conducted at national and international level; by improved funding structures and new funding models; and by dynamic initiatives, working groups, and discussion forums.

Scholarly Books: Importance and Types

Book publications still play an important role, especially in the humanities and social sciences. The text-oriented disciplines favour the more extensive book format in the interests of “long argument”, where the theoretical approach must be comprehensively set out. Furthermore, the results of inter- and transdisciplinary research can be published only to a limited extent in the research report format possible in journal articles.

Common types of scholarly books are monographs, edited collections, and conference proceedings. As a rule, scholarly books appear in different editions: as a digital publication, or e-book, and, in addition, as a print volume. They are published either in a series or as a single publication. Substantively and technologically, a large proportion of open access books are digital counterparts of print books. In addition to their content, they also usually contain navigation elements such as tables of contents and figures. However, providing the work in digital form enables in-depth content analysis through multiple apparatuses (footnotes, endnotes, critical editions), as well as enrichment through links to further stocks of knowledge, such as Wikipedia, specialised databases, or primary sources and digitisations. In addition, the e-book format allows the incorporation of research data, virtual research environments, and dynamic objects such as scripts, visualisations or software.

What Are Open Access Books?

A book is open access when access to the e-book is not restricted by licence or payment barriers, but rather it is available free of charge and re-usable in the long term immediately upon publication. Publishers of open access books can earn revenue through publication fees (book processing charges, BPCs) and the sale of the print edition (dual publishing), which is often produced using digital print-on-demand technology. Other publishers finance the basic costs of their open access segment via crowdfunding (e.g., Knowledge Unlatched, transformative agreements negotiated by consortia) or institutional memberships (e.g., Open Book Publishers [OBP], the Open Library of Humanities [OLH], Language Science Press).

As in the case of open access journals, authors and editors of edited collections should not have to grant exclusive rights of use to the publishers or publication platforms. For licensing purposes, it is recommended to use an open Creative Commons licence, such as CC BY or CC BY-SA. Studies suggest that books published in open access gain a larger and more diverse readership (Lucraft, 2021). Besides being made available in open access immediately upon publication (gold open access), books, too, can be self-archived in an open access repository (green open access; see Open Access Strategies).


Looking Back: From Serials Crisis to Monograph Crisis

The reasons why open access for books was neglected for many years date back to the beginnings of the open access movement. Sparked by the serials crisis in the 1990s, the movement emerged in the natural sciences, where book publications traditionally play at most a marginal role. It was only in the mid-2000s that the advent of a monograph crisis (see Herb, 2015) precipitated by the serials crisis became the subject of increasing discussion. Rising book prices, gaps in the supply of scholarly literature in the libraries, and authors who during the publication process performed more and more tasks themselves yet still had to pay sometimes high publication cost subsidies: the problems of closed access now became evident in the area of scholarly books.

Open Access Books Versus Open Access Journals

Against the backdrop of the monograph crisis and the increasing establishment of open access in the area of scholarly journals, calls for open access in the humanities and social sciences also became louder. However, compared with scholarly journals, the publication landscape in the area of books has a number of particularities, the most important of which will be mentioned here (see also Snijder, 2019; Open Access Books Toolkit, 2020):

  • In the humanities and in parts of the social sciences, an important role is played by small and medium-sized book publishers that are highly regarded in their specialist areas. Close relationships between authors and publishers are not uncommon. Both groups have in part adopted attitudes to open access that range from wait-and-see to critical, also because the participants in this setting find it harder to maintain the necessary competencies in the rapidly changing publishing landscape. For example, knowledge of the self-archiving rights of authors is sometimes lacking, and authors often have to negotiate with publishers to secure their rights to self-archive their works in a repository
  • In contrast to scholarly journals, print editions of books are of continuing importance despite generally declining sales figures, and are desired not least by the authors themselves. The dissemination channels and reception processes continue to be geared towards the processing of physical and fee-based objects. 
  • Not all books are alike: they range from unostentatious edited collections and conference proceedings, through elaborately designed several-hundred-page monographs, to experimental, multimedia-enriched publication projects. 
  • Submission, peer-review, and editorial processes are less standardised than in the area of journals. Especially in the German-speaking area, responsibility for quality assurance lies with editors or publishing house staff (editorial review).
  • The costs of publishing open access books vary greatly. However, because of the larger size of the works, publishing costs are, as a rule, higher than those for articles in open access journals. Furthermore, certain book types, such as handbooks, lexica, or editions, require elaborate editorial processes that are factored in by the publishers. This does not mean, however, that open access books are less cost-efficient than open access journals. In the case of the high-priced open access journals of commercial publishers, the price per page is even several times higher than that of the overwhelming majority of book projects.

All these factors make it clear that in order to develop their full potential, the models and tools developed for journals must be adapted to the specific requirements of open access books. This is true not least with a view to developing sustainable business models for small and medium-sized publishers (see also the international project Community-led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs, COPIM), building suitable publication infrastructures, and developing adequate funding instruments. Both the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the German Research Foundation (DFG) have recently drawn up programmes to address these challenges (BMBF: Richtlinie zur Förderung von Projekten zur Beschleunigung der Transformation zu Open Access [Directive on the Promotion of Projects to Accelerate the Transformation to Open Access], 2020; DFG: Funding Programme: Open Access Publication Funding, from 2021 onwards). (2021) (CC BY 4.0 International)

Open Access Services for Books

Video on open access book publishing. (CC BY 3.0 DE)
Source: Stern, Niels: Publishing your book in Open Access?,

Although numerous challenges in transforming books to open access have yet to be mastered, authors already have a wide range of options when it comes to publishing an open access book. Many established publishers have incorporated open access models into their portfolios, and offer gold open access publications using CC licences. Publishers are often also willing to discuss the possibility of self-archiving a work in an open access repository after an embargo period (green open access). The fear frequently voiced by publishers that open access leads to serious shortfalls in the sales of print editions has been refuted in various studies (Graf et al., 2020; Snijder, 2019; Collins & Milloy, 2016). 

Academic presses operated by universities or their libraries are an affordable and high-quality alternative to commercial publishers. The majority of the German-language university presses have joined together in the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Universitätsverlage (working group of the German-language university presses). They have collaboratively produced a variety of materials on publishing books in open access, including a paper on quality standards (AG Universitätsverlage, 2018) that is also helpful when examining an open access offering and choosing a publisher. 

And finally, as in the case of journals, there are now a number of publishing initiatives founded by scholars and scientists (e.g., the consortium ScholarLed). These initiatives are committed to fair open access and stand out because they demonstrate a high degree of transparency with regard to their business models (see Nordhoff, 2018; Barnes & Gatti, 2020). Scholarly books are now increasingly published via institutional publishing platforms (Open Monograph Press [OMP], PubPub, Janeway). These platforms do not use publishing house business models, but rather are funded as a common good, which entails specific challenges.

Funding Possibilities

In order to relieve the financial burden on authors and editors, many institutions now make specific funds available for open access books. Publication funds are also being established at federal state level in Germany. The DFG funding programme Open Access Publication Funding, which was established in 2021, grants institutions an allowance of up to 5,000 euros towards the costs of the open access publication of books resulting from DFG-funded projects. The same amount can be drawn down annually for book publications via project-related publication expenses within the framework of DFG project funding. In addition, DFG publication grants can be awarded for editions of primary texts and manuscript material as well as for works of exceptional scientific importance. For some time now, the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) have had dedicated programmes in place for funding open access books. The German ZEIT-Stiftung provides funding of up to 10,000 euros for German- and English-language open access publication projects in the humanities and social sciences. Via the Open Access Monograph Bursary for early career researchers in digital humanities launched by the EU Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities (DARIAH-EU) in 2021, up to 7,000 euros per book can be made available.

Video on open access monograph funding. [german] (CC BY 3.0 DE)
Source: Brinken, Helene (2020). Finanzierung von Open-Access-Monographien,

Finding Open Access Books

Practical Tip

Numerous search engines specialise in open access publications and provide free access to full texts  There are also special search services for finding open access books. You can find an overview in our Practical Tip for finding open access literature


Open access books are indexed at many locations and are often searchable in the usual databases and search engines. The Bielefeld Academic Search Engine (BASE), which also enables a targeted search for books or book chapters, specialises in open access content. In addition, open access books can also be easily found via the popular search engines, for example, Google Scholar. An important role in relation to findability and visibility is played by the Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB), the central database for open access books, which can be searched by subject, language, and publisher. The metadata of books indexed in DOAB are harvested for inclusion in diverse library catalogues. The combined online library and publication platform OAPEN (Open Access Publishing in European Networks) as well as disciplinary repositories for the humanities and social sciences, such as media/rep/ and SSOAR, are suitable for searching for open access books. In addition, the discipline-specific pages on offer an introduction.

Conclusion and Outlook

For decades, open access for books was systematically implemented only by a very small number of protagonists, and thus remained a peripheral phenomenon. Although these pioneers recognised the scientific potential of open access for book-friendly disciplines at an early stage, comprehensive practices, approaches, and providers were lacking. However, although there is still a need to catch up, the area of open access books is now highly dynamic: Extensive studies (e.g., in projects such as COPIM and OPERAS-P) are being conducted, publication funds are being established or expanded, new business models are being developed, and new publishing projects are being initiated. Moreover, networks like the Open Access Books Network, ENABLE!, or the Focus Group Open Access Books are being founded; manuals are being produced and recommendations are being formulated (see Adema, 2019; Godel et al., 2020); and information platforms, such as the Open Access Books Toolkit initiated by OAPEN, are being created. Further impulses for the transformation of scholarly books to open access are to be expected from the 20 projects to promote the acceleration of the transformation to open access that are being funded by the BMBF from 2021 onwards.