Open Access Ahoy: An Interview with Ubiquity Press

This is the sixth article in a series, Digital Challenges to Academic Publishing, by Adeline Koh. Each article in this series features an interview with an academic publisher, press or journal editor on how their organization is changing in response to the digital world. The series has featured interviews with Stanford Highwire Press, NYU Press, MIT Press, Anvil Academic and the Penn State University Press.

This interview is with Brian Hole of Ubiquity Press (@ubiquitypress), a small new London-based digital publisher of peer reviewed, open-access academic journals. Unlike many traditional publishers, Ubiquity only takes payment for the service of publication, rather than taking over the rights to research and then selling access to it. While Ubiquity is still a for-profit company, it has much in common with Anvil Academic, another open-access venture that I interviewed earlier this month. Join us as Brian tells us about the new model for publishing Ubiquity is currently developing.

AK: Ubiquity Press appears to be a very unconventional academic publisher. Could you speak more about your goals and aims? Are you a non-profit or for-profit academic publisher?

BH: Perhaps we are somewhat unconventional today, but we feel that we are returning focus to the reasons academic publishing exists in the first place: to serve researchers, advance science, and benefit society. Many people today believe that the more established publishers have become too distanced from the research community to do this.

We’re a ‘researcher-led’ press–we aim to serve researchers and all of our staff actively participate in academic life. We support research by lowering the barriers to publishing for smaller societies, less well-funded disciplines, and those in developing countries. We want to achieve the widest possible dissemination of research, with the greatest recognition and impact for those who produce it.

We do this by supporting publication of all research outputs, from traditional journal articles and books through to research data and software. We publish 100% open access and charge low, optional APCs (article processing charges) that are therefore no impediment. We also form partnerships to support smaller presses, especially those in developing countries, to ensure that there are avenues to publishing for researchers there.

While we seek to keep our charges as low as possible, Ubiquity Press is still a for- profit publisher. We both need to be sustainable and want to drive innovation, and we think we have better opportunities to grow the company and to attract motivated and high quality staff this way.

AK: What is the history behind Ubiquity Press?

BH: Both myself and my cofounder Tom Pollard have publishing backgrounds, with Elsevier and Biomed Central respectively. We both later returned to do PhDs at University College London, where we became increasingly aware that the traditional publishing model was not working well for many academics (an understatement). We found several smaller societies, including in my own field, archaeology, that were publishing journals but unable to afford the fees to be in order to properly distributed and benefit from a professional online presence of an established publisher. We started the company with the simple goal of developing a professional platform that these societies could afford to be on, and ran this for a couple of years.

At the same time, I was conducting my doctoral research in India, and was concerned to find that despite programs such as HINARI and publishers’ waiver systems, the majority of researchers there found it difficult to both access and to publish in international journals. Either they found the charges too high (and were denied waivers), or their own local journals lacked international exposure. Because of that we have started providing support for presses and societies in developing countries.

We are finding that many of the larger societies also find the platform and the low cost model appealing and we are now expanding. This year we also launched our metajournals platform, which encourages the publication of data and software, and are processing our first open access books, which will be available very shortly.

AK: Do authors have to pay to publish with Ubiquity Press? Is there a difference between publishing journal articles and books in this regard?

BH: We do have article processing charges (APCs), but we don’t expect authors to have to pay these in most circumstances, as these should be picked up by their funders or institutions. This is essentially the same for both books and journals. The developing country and student journals we publish have no APCs.

Our aim is to be fully transparent as to how the charges are calculated, so that authors and funders can decide whether they are fair and make an informed decision about whether to choose to publish with us. We only charge for the actual cost of publishing, and are now looking at a model where the APC is based on the number of pages. Because we are able to leverage new technology and are free of legacy print and distribution costs, our APCs tend to be significantly lower than those of traditional publishers.

AK: What is the funding model that Ubiquity Press uses?

BH: We are developing our funding model as we grow, and being in a changing landscape means that we need to be flexible. Other than APCs we charge the societies that publish with us an annual platform fee, based on what they can afford (once again some journals are produced free of charge). We then charge for printed copies if they are required, and produce and distribute them via print on demand.

On top of this we also participate in some funded research projects that enable us to keep up to date with important developments in the fields we’re seeking to develop, such as data publishing.

AK: Do you have editors who work to create “lists” as is done in traditional university presses?

BH: Not at present. We don’t feel that trying to provide comprehensive coverage of a discipline is always in its best interest, as often this simply results in works that offer little more than what is already offered elsewhere. We’re now focusing instead on areas where we believe we can really add value, such as emerging fields and areas traditionally poorly served such as research data and software.

AK: Kathleen Fitzpatrick has urged scholars to ‘publish’ work online before seeking publication in traditional academic outlets (for example, blogging a book project before looking for a publisher). How do you feel about this? Will this help or hurt the author in finding a university press for a more traditional book?

BH: We’re fully supportive of authors who want to do this, or to put preprints in their university repositories. This can both improve the work through useful community feedback and lead to more effective promotion of it. Several studies have shown that such activity leads to significantly higher average citation counts for the published articles, and there is no reason not to expect the same for books. To us the goal of a university press is to enable the widest possible dissemination of researchers’ work, so this should be encouraged rather than seen as a barrier. It is however important for the author to link any prepublication versions to the final article of record, so that they gain the maximum benefit from it.

AK: What is your take on the traditional peer review process, and new forms of peer review? Would you be open to “publishing” a book online and soliciting reviews the way Kathleen Fitzpatrick published Planned Obsolescence with NYU Press?

BH: Peer review plays an essential role in modern academic publishing, both because it helps to ensure work meets a certain standard, and the feedback should also help the author to improve it as well. There is no reason why the reviews should always be kept private, and in many cases it is very beneficial to the community for them not to be. We expect to have several openly peer reviewed publications in the near future.

Soliciting community reviews while writing a book is a very promising model, and we’d certainly support any author who wanted to do this. However, and as was in fact done with Planned Obsolescence, we would still require that traditional peer review take place before publication.

AK: How do you look at web metrics as alternate forms of recording scholarly impact? For example, would you consider a blog with 3000 page views the equivalent of a high “impact factor”? Would this help or hurt the author in securing a contract with your press?

BH: All kinds of metrics are important for assessing the impact of a research output, and in order to measure this the more you can use, the better. We’re very enthusiastic early adopters of the “ImpactStory” service, which provides a wide range of altmetrics that indicate how often an article has been viewed, saved, cited, recommended and discussed in a variety of ways by users on the web. This is important because 3000 blog page views are not at all equivalent to a high impact factor, and need to be understood in the correct context. They may be indicative of an author with a readership that extends beyond academia to the wider public, and we would certainly view this as a positive thing.

AK: Do you think that there is a space for the scholarly monograph in the current and future economy, given that they are expensive to produce and are almost never profitable? What do you think is the future of the monograph?

BH: We think the monograph will continue to be very important, especially in the humanities where it represents a significant proportion of research outputs. If anything, the combination of online publishing and print on demand has both lowered distribution costs and increased access to the long tail of work, making it more profitable than it was.

The appropriate size of a work depends on the nature of the research itself. Freed from the traditional constraints of print publication, an ebook can be of any number of pages, and it is likely that we will see many more books coming out that are somewhere between a journal article and a traditional book in size. Along with altmetrics, making monographs and chapters citable will also make it much easier to track their impact, helping them to compete with articles in terms of perceived value. Open access monographs will also become much more common, and we’re already engaged in a project with several other university presses to help these become established.

AK: What do you think is the future of the university press?

BH: University presses are extremely important for scientific communication, because they represent the interests of researchers much better than most other presses can, or are interested in doing.

They are also an important outlet for open access content while the bigger publishers are not yet willing to play ball, and if properly supported can be expected to save their institutions money by providing lower costs alternatives to the existing high APC alternatives. Closing down such presses is very short sighted, and in Europe we are now seeing a reverse trend. As a growing spin out from UCL, Ubiquity Press is very well situated to support smaller university presses, especially with making the transition to digital and open access publishing. We’re particularly excited for example about a partnership we’ve just announced to do this with the University of Nairobi Press.

It is essential for the future of academic publishing that it be resituated within the university and wider research environments, rather than controlled by a few large external actors that do not have its core interests at heart. We envisage a future where many smaller presses and publishing services operate cooperatively across institutions to achieve this, and hope to play an important role in helping it come about.

AK: Interesting. Could you elaborate on the partnership you’re planning with the University of Nairobi press?

BH: The University of Nairobi is one of the largest in Africa, and also has a well established press that has focused up until now exclusively on printed monographs. At the same time many of the university’s departments and associated societies run journals, generally print-only and with very limited distribution. These journals are important as they not only provide an essential outlet for region-specific research (e.g. in agriculture and development), but they are also an important venue for early career stage academics to begin publishing with. Many established foreign journals can be difficult to be accepted by, and when they are open access the fees are seldom waived, so local alternatives without charges are needed. The University of Nairobi Press have been wanting to help these journals for some time, but have lacked the experience and technological resources to do so, which is were we come in. We’ll be enabling access to editorial management tools, providing production services and hosting the journals on our platform, while they will act as the local point of contact for editors and authors. Eventually we’d like to see a transfer of skills and capability to the university press so that it can take the journals on completely. This is something we’re doing at no charge, though we’re looking at various sources of funding to make it sustainable on a larger scale.

AK: The idea of a publishing consortium sounds like a great idea. How can a small college get involved with you if it wanted to explore such a venture? What would it entail (would the college be able to maintain control over their own imprints, etc.?)

BH: We’re very approachable and open to working with anyone, especially where we have complimentary skills and resources. We’re also not about taking ownership of books or other presses. A good example is the UCL Arts and Humanities imprint, which we are now co-publishing. This will continue to be run by UCL staff, who will handle editing and peer review, while Ubiquity Press will take care of production, print on demand and online distribution. Both the UCL and Ubiquity logos will appear on the books, and as with all of our content the copyright will remain with the authors.

AK: Thanks so much Brian for chatting with us today!

BH: My pleasure!

Image from Ubiquity Press.

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