Publishing between profit and public value: Academic books and open access policies in the United Kingdom | Intellect Skip to content
Volume 13, Issue 1
  • ISSN: 1601-829X
  • E-ISSN: 2040-0586



Since Cambridge University mathematician Timothy Gower’s public boycott of Elsevier kicked off the so-called ‘academic spring’ in 2012, activist calls for open access academic publishing and the expansion of the scholarly knowledge commons through new digital technologies have only intensified. These have had direct, dramatic and fast-evolving impacts upon governmental policy, as well as debates about the public value of research, in the United Kingdom. However, the bulk of the attention in this context thus far has been given to journal articles and academic publishing companies like Elsevier that specialize in periodicals. Comparatively little attention has been given to the effects of these open access policies and discourses upon academic books and their publishers, even though the largest university press in the world, Oxford University Press, and the largest higher education textbook publisher, Pearson, are both UK based. This article, therefore, will explore how, precisely, the open access movement in the United Kingdom is affecting academic book publishing, with potentially global consequences. I begin by tracing the contemporary origins of open access back to open source software initiatives and exploring their recent impact upon Research Councils UK (RCUK) and Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) policies. Then, I look at open access initiatives and other strategies in response to shifts in policy and public discourse within the two overlapping yet distinct fields of academic book publishing, (1) scholarly book publishing and (2) higher education textbook publishing, and find unintended consequences potentially resulting in less openness and equitable access to knowledge production and consumption. Ultimately, I will contend, the open access movement in the United Kingdom risks further concentrating control of academic book publishing within a few powerful institutions, such as well-endowed elite universities and those businesses whose profits rely upon managing, manipulating and repackaging the information freely available in the digital age.


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