ANU Press in the time of Covid-19

15 July 2020

James J. Fox
The Australian National University


Around the world, the need to access information during the COVID lockdown has enhanced the open-access movement. ANU Press is the world’s largest open-access university press: last year its publications had over 4.6 million downloads, but these numbers have now skyrocketed. Since March 2020, ANU Press has seen a 44% rise in downloads.

As other university presses around the world have opened up some of their content in digital form, others have suffered under the lockdown of physical distribution networks. It is therefore timely to offer a snapshot of the ANU Press experience.

When, in 2003, the decision was taken to publish books electronically and to make them available to download for free, the University’s initiative was the first large-scale effort by any university press in the world to provide open access to all its publications. Procedures, protocols and a host of technical issues had to be worked out, and a monitoring system had to be put in place to measure outcomes.

Critically important was the decision to decentralise the Press by creating editorial boards across the university to organise the peer-review of manuscripts and to make decisions on publications. This dispersed model founded the Press firmly on a wealth of academic expertise and shared the responsibility for its publications widely throughout the university.

Academic publishing differs from more general publishing. It consists largely of monographs on a range of research topics intended, in the first instance, for scholars, researchers and students. Some monographs may have general appeal, but success has to be judged in terms of reaching a specialised audience and in the recognition that this affords in an international arena.

The conventional understanding is that the market for academic publications is limited. When, however, this market is opened to the world, through electronic publishing, these presumed limits are radically changed. The numbers achieved by ANU Press have been impressive.

By the end of 2019, ANU Press had produced a total of 763 publications and, according to Google Analytics, publications for 2019 reached a total 3,407,900 downloads. These numbers, however, tell only part of the story of how ANU Press books are accessed across the world. ANU books are also registered with open-access digital libraries OAPEN and JSTOR, and can be downloaded directly from these sources. In 2019, OAPEN recorded 268,449 downloads and JSTOR OA Books recorded 970,387 downloads for ANU Press books, bringing the total download for 2019 to 4,646,736.

Even these numbers do not tell the full story. Libraries throughout the world now download ANU Press publications and add them directly to their catalogues. ANU Press facilitates this access by providing all the metadata necessary for electronic catalogues. Once lodged in a university catalogue and available on that university’s server, downloading can be done directly.

The Changing Contours of Open-Access International Publication

To appreciate these statistics, it is necessary to recognise some special features of this kind of electronic publishing. Books never go ‘out of print’; they remain fully available and accessible. As a result, every book has its own distinctive history. Some are initially popular and then decline, but can revive again. Others remain continually popular with tens of thousands of downloads; others tend to increase in popularity year on year.

One feature of this publishing is that books may be downloaded in part or as a whole. The ANU Press website allows a reader to download an entire book or a selection of chapters. This multiplies the availability of items that can be downloaded and makes it important to distinguish between partial and full downloads. Some publications become notable for a particular chapter.

Another crucial feature of this publishing is that it is overwhelmingly international. By its fifth year in existence, downloads from outside of Australia exceeded those within Australia. In 2019, 73% of downloads were from overseas. This international trend has continued.

For ANU Press, there are distinguishable overseas markets. In 2019, the United States accounted for 20% of downloads. China, a fast-growing market, accounted for 11%. Combined with India, Japan, and the Philippines, this group of four represented 16% of downloads. Four countries in Europe – UK, France, Germany and Italy – had combined downloads of 12%.

Equally significant is the diverse audience downloading ANU Press books from the ‘rest of the world’. This group, consisting of some 130 countries, accounts for 25% of total downloads. Although no single country downloads 1% of ANU Press publications, the number of these countries gaining access to a substantial number of publications is impressive. Among the top downloading countries are Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia and Ukraine. Other top downloading countries from the Asia-Pacific region are Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia, with notable downloads also from Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomon Islands. Nearer the bottom of this list with a mere 500 to 700 downloads are French Polynesia, Kiribati and Guam. The international spread of access is key to the Press’ recognition.

Electronic Formats and Identifiers

The ANU Press website provides a menu for downloading. You can download a publication as a PDF or read it online as a HTML file. These are the two formats that the Press has offered from the beginning. It is also possible, now, to download books in two ebookreader formats: EPUB and MOBI. You can thus read ANU Press publications on your Kindle or other reader. While these new formats provide enhanced access, the PDF remains the most common format for download.

Just as all publications must have an ISBN number, all now also have a DOI code that enables their electronic identification. When the Press began, this Digital Object Identifier was only beginning to play a role in electronic publications and, for many years, ANU Press publications were produced without this code. When it was eventually considered essential, all new publications were given a number and, over a period of two years, all previous publications and chapters in edited volumes were retrospectively given this coding.

On the ANU Press website, there is also a special alert for libraries that explains that ‘ANU Press welcomes its publications being included in internal library catalogues’ and then gives instructions on how to access this metadata. Again, the emphasis is on facilitating and enhancing access.

Editorial Boards

The Press’ editorial boards are at the heart of its operation. They were created to represent a wide range of research at the ANU, and to distribute decision-making on publications to academics with expertise within their particular fields. The number of these editorial boards has grown as the Press has grown.

There are currently 23 boards comprising general fields – humanities, social sciences, law and Asian studies – as well as more specific fields of research. Each board considers publications submitted to it, sends manuscripts for peer-review and oversees the preparation of volumes that are successfully assessed. The flow of work is centrally monitored to ensure a steady production process.

One of the strengths of ANU Press, and perhaps a source of many of its publications, is a great variety of monographs on the Asia-Pacific and extensive coverage of Indigenous research.

Many of its publications are organised in series. Terra Australis, a series on archaeology and prehistory focusing on Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia and Island Melanesia, is a major publication series. The Press has already published 32 volumes in this series, most of which attract large numbers of downloads. More specialised series are the Comparative Austronesian and Islam in Southeast Asia series, both of which have substantial downloads. The Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) series has produced over 50 volumes with consistently high downloads.

ANU Press also publishes a number of journals that are managed by specific editorial committees. Foremost among these is the Aboriginal History, the Australian Journal of Biography and History, the ANU Historical Journal II, and Agenda – A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform.

Some of the Press’ most successful publications have been large, well-illustrated scientific volumes, whose high cost as published volumes would have allowed only limited public access. One outstanding success has been the 986-page volume Protected Area Governance and Management, a compendium of original case studies on the governance and management of protected areas around the world. This volume, whose print-on-demand copy sells for $230, is available in French and Spanish translations and has had over 100,000 downloads to date.

Multimedia Publications

An electronic format offers many new publishing possibilities. Initially, the Press was concerned to establish its credentials and therefore made only a few attempts at multimedia presentations that would take its publications beyond a simple print format. Recent publications, particularly its language textbooks, have accelerated change. The Joy of Sanskrit, for example, is an introductory textbook that includes simple Sanskrit conversations as well as spoken verses from the oral tradition. Available only in ePub and HTML formats, which enable the reader to access its video and audio content, the volume has proven to be a worldwide success. In 2019 alone it had over 26,000 downloads.

It is clear that ANU Press’ open-access model is an opportunity other universities could consider in the current lockdown and afterwards for more effective distribution of their knowledge and research. It is time now to consider an alliance of open-access university publishing.

Professor James Fox is currently Chair of the Advisory Board of the ANU Press and was, with Colin Steele, involved in the establishment of the ANU Press.