Project Aims to Bring PLoS-Style Openness to the Humanities

January 29, 2013

Open access isn't just for scientists. Opening up research is an idea that appeals to more and more humanists and social scientists. The trick has been how those fields can support the open sharing of research.

Several recent publishing ventures and platforms, including the Open Humanities Press and Anvil Academic, are investigating how to bring more open-access journals and monographs online. A brand-spanking-new nonprofit organization, called the Open Library of Humanities, aims to create a humanities-and-social-sciences version of the successful Public Library of Science, or PLoS, which in the past decade has established itself as a major presence in open-access, peer-reviewed scientific publishing. Like PLoS, the Open Library of Humanities, or OLH, will be peer-reviewed.

"For me, there was an itch, a frustration: Why are we always talking about science?" says Tim McCormick, one of the three founders of the new venture. "I'm sure that it has probably crossed the minds of many people, and a number of people have said to me, 'I've always thought there should be a PLoS for humanities.'"

Mr. McCormick hails from the publishing-and-technology worlds. He used to be a senior product manager for Stanford University's HighWirePress; he's now a consultant with Stanford's MediaX, which encourages tech collaborations between researchers and the business world. Mr. McCormick's OLH co-visionaries are academics: Caroline Edwards, a lecturer in English at the University of Lincoln, in England, and Martin Paul Eve, also a lecturer in English at Lincoln who's also a computer programmer. Both Ms. Edwards and Mr. Eve have experience editing open-access journals in their fields.

Momentum in Many Fields

As Mr. McCormick points out, the humanities and social sciences have a sometimes underappreciated history with open access. Some of the movement's most visible leaders come from nonscience backgrounds; Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project, is a philosopher by training, for instance.

But the sciences have the most robust mechanisms in place to encourage the open sharing of work. PLoS is an especially visible publishing option. The now-venerable preprint repository arXiv has long been the place physicists, computer scientists, and others to go for the latest research. The cause of openness has gotten a big boost from the National Institutes of Health's public-access policy, which requires that research supported by the agency be made freely accessible via the PubMed Central repository within 12 months of publication. Researchers have petitioned the government to expand the policy to all federally backed research.

Worldwide, the open-access movement has had a banner couple of years, with the sciences leading the way. Faculty members at more and more institutions have adopted open-access resolutions, opting to make some version of their work more broadly available. In Australia the main agencies that support research have lately embraced a policy similar to the NIH's.

On a sadder note, the recent suicide of the information activist and programmer Aaron H. Swartz, who faced serious federal charges over the unauthorized downloading of thousands of articles from JSTOR, has made the issue of access to information the subject of passionate public commentary.

A particular inspiration for the Open Library of Humanities was recent open-access momentum— "ferment," Mr. McCormick calls it—in Britain. "It happened remarkably fast, faster than you could imagine it happening in the U.S., maybe," he says. The so-called Academic Spring there included a high-profile boycott of the commercial journal publisher Elsevier, led by the Cambridge mathematician Timothy Gowers. That boycott has not brought about a transformation of scholarly publishing, but it has helped raise awareness among researchers in many fields. Then, last summer, the British government endorsed most of the recommendations of the Finch Report, which urged that the country adopt an open-access regime. (The specifics of how to do that are still being hotly debated.)

A Dream and a Web Site

Right now, the Open Library of Humanities is mostly a dream and a Web site, which went live only a week ago. "At this moment, we're a project," Ms. Edwards says. "We've got a loose organizational structure." But an advisory committees has filled up quickly with an impressive roster of well-established academics. For instance, Michael Eisen, an associate professor of biology at the University of California at Berkeley and a co-founder of PLoS, is on the Academic Steering & Advocacy Committee, along with David Armitage, chairman of Harvard University's history department, and other notables "The right people are on board," Ms. Edwards says. "We need a legitimate mandate, and that has to come from academics themselves."

The group is in serious talks with foundations to line up money—somewhere in the neighborhood of $1-million to $1.5-million, they hope—to build and sustain the Web platform they'll need, hire a staff, and work out the details, starting this summer. How will the venture be organized so that it works for different disciplines? Will it draw on existing open-access journals now sequestered in hard-to-spot niches? A robust peer-review system will be essential in order to help humanists and social scientists deal with lingering uncertainty about whether open-access publishing is a good career move. Many are "standing on the edge of the cliff" deciding whether to jump, Mr. McCormick says.

As for how the platform might function, he points out that there's an accumulated wealth of open-access publishing precedent to learn from. The OLH team has been talking informally with PLoS, drawing on its knowledge and experience.

Mr. McCormick advocates what he calls "subtractive design": Make the process as smooth as possible for the user, and work with existing open-source tools wherever possible so as not to waste time and money.

Most of all, he wants to seize the moment. "I don't really like the term 'cognitive surplus,' but I have the sense there's a lot of unfulfilled idealism out there, a lot of academics living in fear," he says. "One thing we want to do is to tap into the wish people have to do something new and better, not just fix a problem."