This is the tenth interview 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 Duke University Press, Anvil Academic, NYU Press, MIT Press and the Penn State University Press.
AK: Hi Martin, thanks so much for speaking with me today. First of all, could you please tell me more about the history of the Open Library of the Humanities, and what problems in academic publishing it intends to intervene in?
ME: If you will forgive a bit of narrative backstory, I’d like to begin on a personal note that leads into the rationale for the OLH. My first foray into the world of open access came when, as a Ph.D. student, I felt a sense of outrage upon realising that the system of academic publishing was one wherein academics gave their work to publishers (without compensation), then academics performed peer review (without compensation), until finally they proofread the material (without compensation). This, in itself, did not strike me as entirely problematic (I thought it “did the trick”, even if somewhat strangely) until I also learned, at the same time, that many many libraries cannot afford to give their researchers access to all the material they need to do their jobs and that some of these publishers are making obscene profits. Indeed, the cost of journal subscriptions for academic libraries has risen by 300% since 1986.
How, I thought, can this be the case? What am I missing? In the years since that point, however, I have come to the conclusion, time and time again, that the vast majority of academics are not interested in the issues of scholarly publishing. They just want to get on with their research and not have the process of publishing get in the way. This much is fair enough; after all, much of the practice is somewhat obscure. However, while I do not deny that there is a cost to publishing, I have also, since then, encountered academics who have vigorously defended the right of publishers to impose massive cash levies on research and learned societies who believe that the subsidy to their other activities provided by publishing revenues are more important than disseminating knowledge as far as possible.
All along throughout this process of realisation, I attributed the publishing status quo to systems of accreditation and hiring and firing. We want to publish in high-prestige venues because their names will serve us well as proxies for peer respect (and, therefore, promotion). High-prestige venues can then charge what they want because lots of the research that academics want to read is contained within their walls. So the cycle continues. But this research is locked away from academics at institutions where it can’t be afforded. It is, likewise, hard to access (and of low visibility) to members of the public. In short: it is highly visible to those at prestigious institutions with large budgets (those with power), while it is made far more inaccessible to the majority at the margins. Access to research is tied to power through finance.
So, when the UK government and its Research Councils looked to mandate open access in 2013, I was extremely pleased. I thought the whole system needed a disruptive shake-up and that national-level mandates, where they could be enforced, would finally make academics want to learn about the processes of publishing and dissemination and to change things for the better. I wanted a revolution! Of course, since then, everybody under the sun has complained about open access; you’d be forgiven for thinking that it will cause the end of civilization as we know it given the fuss. What has actually emerged, though, amid a cloud of fear, uncertainty and doubt is a threefold change:
- There is an enhanced awareness of open access and there are fewer objections to the basic principle.
- It looks as though the majority of UK research papers will be made green OA.
- Gold OA, however, has now become associated with Article Processing Charges at an unaffordable rate for the humanities.
It was in this context, at the end of 2013, amid a swirl of Twitter conversations that the idea for the Open Library of Humanities was born; a high-volume gold open access publisher with strict quality controls run on a not-for-profit, but for-sustainability, basis. At first, it was to be a project like PLOS – that is, based on Article Processing Charges at an affordable rate. However, gold does not have to mean APCs and we soon realised that there might be a route to achieving gold open access without publication fees, something that I hope we can come on to talk about.
So, to give summary answers that undoubtedly need more unpacking: the OLH hopes to address some of the problem of inequality of access to humanities research. We aim to do so through a novel, not-for-profit business structure and through rigorous quality control in a large-scale open access model. We have a monograph component planned in partnership with four presses to see what we can do there. We have a high-profile academic steering board, including David Armitage at Harvard, David Palumbo Liu at Stanford and Kathleen Fitzpatrick at the MLA, who have helped us decide exactly what to build to best and most realistically suit scholarly communications in the twenty-first century. We have initial funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to get our business model in place. We have 115 articles pledged for launch.
AK: This is really cool. Could you explain more what you mean by “Gold Open Access” and “Article Processing Charges” for our readers who may be unfamiliar with these terms? What are the pluses and minuses for each?
ME: Of course. Unfortunately, like any field of endeavour, open access has developed its own jargons that are perhaps designed for concision but inevitably result in exclusion and, in many cases, extreme boredom for those not in the know.
“Open access” refers to the lowering/removal of price and permission barriers to research. The removal of price barriers consists of making research freely accessible over the internet for anyone to download and read. The removal of permission barriers refers to allowing others to re-use academic material beyond the provisions enshrined in fair dealing (usually implemented through Creative Commons licenses).
“Gold” open access refers to the material being made open access at the source. In this case, the publisher makes the final version available for everyone to read, free of charge on the internet, in its paginated, typeset, copyedited form. It does not imply or require any particular business model. This is a good idea because it provides unfettered access to the final, shining article/book in all its glory. It is harder to achieve, though, because it requires new economic models.
“Green” open access refers to authors depositing a copy of their work, once published anywhere else, in an institutional or subject repository, which anyone can then access. Green is symbiotic to gold. Most publishers allow authors to deposit the accepted version of their manuscript, sometimes with an embargo, and you can use the SHERPA/RoMEO tool to ascertain publisher policies. This is a good idea because it widens access and requires no large-scale reconfiguration of business models. It is less desirable in some ways, though, because, as publishers claim that they add value to work, it often does not have that “value added” portion (typesetting, proofreading, copyediting etc.) and can be placed under a time-restricted embargo to sustain publishers’ subscription revenues (although I personally think that the notion of lengthy embargo periods is odd: surely if there is enough “value added” in the final publisher version, subscription will be maintained?).
The most frequently proposed alternative business model to replace subscriptions for gold OA is one of “article processing charges”. Although the majority of gold OA journals have no fee, many commercial publishers have decided that the best way to maintain their current levels of profit (or “sustainability” as it is sometimes more tactfully phrased by those making large sums from the academy) is to ask for an author fee. It is imagined that this will be paid by the author’s institution or their funder. This, then, becomes a service model: the publisher isn’t selling a research item (this is good), but they are asking the author for a fee. How much? $2,950 per article in the case of most Taylor & Francis journals. Other publishers often operate at a similar level, although there are lower-priced models (SAGE Open for instance currently charges a far more affordable $99). These high rates are not so good, particularly when the majority of humanities work does not receive external funding.
There certainly is labour in publishing that must be compensated and this cannot be over-stated. It is not, however, at least in my calculations, $2,950 worth of labour for a single article, especially when large portions of academic publishing (and most notably typesetting) are often outsourced at extremely cheap rates to the Indian subcontinent, while academics, as previously noted, provide many of the other parts of the chain.
This, then, is my gambit: libraries currently pay for the same research many times over so that they can all privately rent it. There is, therefore, enough money in the system to support all the publications we need many times over. Article Processing Charges, on the other hand, provide gold open access but put the burden of paying for publisher services (and/or shareholder profit) onto the author’s institution. Why not, instead, distribute that cost? Get many academics libraries to all pay a small amount once (like a subscription) to sustain the infrastructure and staff that will be capable of supporting the publication of gold open access articles, free for all to access (like a supply-side service charge). While there’s definitely more to say on that, we are calling this a library partnership subsidy model.
AK: Yeah, $3000 for an article is out of the price range most humanities academics can afford. Could you speak a little more about your library partnership subsidy model? How does it work? And have any libraries jumped on board yet?
ME: The idea behind the LPS model is that competition is not a good setup for the economics of scholarly publishing. This runs contrary to much contemporary political thought on markets as the best way of solving all problems. Indeed, the marketeers would position all agents as rational actors competing within a transparent medium. I’m not sure this is the case here. For instance, it is worth considering whether true markets can exist in the sale of journal subscriptions to academic institutions; after all, there is no comparable “competition” to a research article when a researcher needs it. Furthermore, researchers have no price sensitivity to journals: they don’t care whether it costs a fortune for libraries to subscribe to the journals in which they publish, they are motivated instead by the prestige factor, as I have already mentioned.
To address this problem, it makes more sense, to my mind, to pay for infrastructure, not for commodity research items. Following this logic, this could mean that a market was possible in terms of APCs, but that assumes, in the first place, that researchers publish on the basis of price. Because there is a legacy of prestige, I do not think this is the case. Therefore, as a viable transition mechanism to publishing as a service industry, the OLH project seeks to invert the current system of subscriptions. By this, I mean that many libraries pay a small amount. Say we get 400 libraries paying a banded average of $875, we should be able to publish 250 articles and 12 books with our university press partners (whom I can’t yet name, sadly; you will know them, though). Compared with some top journals in the humanities, the saving per article for libraries could be in the realm of $23 or more. Given the relatively low asking price, the high output and potentially massive pay-off, we hope this looks an attractive economic proposition for libraries.
So far, we’ve had an extremely positive response from the libraries with whom we have informally spoken. The more formal approaches begin from May onwards this year, when I have funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the University of Lincoln, UK to build the model. Of course, though, this is only dealing with one form of economics; we have to also deal with the economics of prestige and hierarchy and that’s where our concept of overlay journals comes in…
AK: $875 per library--you’re using US dollars, I’m assuming--will net exactly how many equivalent journal “subscriptions” in the existing model, would you say? It seems pretty reasonable to me. And what are “overlay journals”?
ME: Well, this varies from journal to journal. I would be reticent to single out any specific journal as a comparator but, as an anonymous example, one top humanities journal published 46 articles, excluding book reviews in 2012. For that year, the subscription cost was approximately $1211 ($26.32 per article for each institution). Another published 26 articles in 2012, excluding book reviews, at a total cost to a single institution of $415 ($15.96 per article for each institution). Remember that this is being paid many times over by different institutions per article/journal.
If we publish 250 articles, at a cost to each institution of $875, the “cost-per-article-per-institution” falls to $3.50. And it’s all open access. And there are 12 OA books thrown in. All we take from that is the cost of paying people to do the work, which is right and fair, and the costs of the technology. We undertake editorial work, typeset, copyedit, host, and digitally preserve the articles. All made possible through the collaborative mechanism. That’s a huge economy of scale and saving for each institution.
Some caveats: in our model, institutions are not technically “buying” access to a journal, so caveat lector on the price comparisons. Instead, they are supporting the infrastructure and, as a result of their contribution, have a say on the library governance body. It also only works if enough libraries participate.
That said, the type of savings of scale that can be provided through this model are not available in the traditional every-institution-paying-for-everything, for-profit setup. Cooperation can solve the budget crisis in scholarly communications where competition has failed us. But it requires enough acquisition-budget librarians/managers to take the (very small) initial trial plunge.
This, though, is where overlay journals come in. As I’ve already mentioned, prestige is key to the academic publication system; it as much an accreditation mechanism as it is a scholarly communications channel. If one is to solve open access, it must be within the framework of prestige and hierarchy, even if one does not approve of the problems that this creates. For this reason, simply creating a new venue is not enough. We need a way to get existing venues working in this way and also to preserve choice for academics of where to publish. To that end: enter overlay journals.
The OLH platform is conceptually split into two components: the OLH base and the overlay journals. Material can be submitted to either. Overlay journals have independent editors and autonomy over their peer review practices. However, the infrastructure is shared between all journals and with the base. In the case of overlay journals, they can keep their own branding and their own practices, we will simply verify that this has been carried out correctly. I’ve written more about this elsewhere, but the essential thing to realise is that the OLH is itself a megajournal, a discovery platform and an infrastructure for any number of other journals (the overlays). It looks a little like this:
In this way, we get the best of all worlds: we can preserve a freedom of choice of journals; we can allow existing journals to port in; we maintain editorial autonomy; we gain a massive economy-of-scale benefit through collaborative funding; and we go open access.
AK: Ah, that makes a lot of sense. So, my concluding question: Can you speak about some of the goals you hope that OLH will be working toward in the next few years?
ME: Certainly. The number one goal of the OLH is, pure and simple, open access. I really do believe that if we designed a system for scholarly communication from the ground up, today, “open access” would not even feature as a term; it would just be what is done. With the internet, to do otherwise seems nonsensical. The problem is that we have built complex corporate structures to support the necessary labour for academic publishing that do not cope well with OA. So, the second goal for us is to implement, on a large scale, a model of gold OA that does not rest upon direct, author-facing payments, but instead, as above, supports the publishing infrastructure through collective efforts.
Longer-term, we’d like to introduce experiments in peer review practice, editorial curation (i.e. editors can re-curate existing material into journal issues), humanities data journals, annotation and commentating, versioning and many other features. But innovation has to be correctly paced and not inflicted; we will only implement features about which the academic steering committee have been consulted. I’m also eager to ensure that any experiments remain opt-in; enough damage has been done to the simple, good concept of OA through a corroding level of fear, uncertainty and doubt (sometimes instilled by vested interests) that objective number one is the priority: let’s make a space for great, peer-reviewed work that is published online for all to read without payment from either authors or readers.
I’d also like to close with a quick ask. We would not have got as far as we have without the support of many brilliant people and I’d like to thank them. If any of the above appeals to any readers, however, be they librarians or scholars, I’d love to hear from you. If you’re an academic, you can pledge to publish with us and if you are a librarian at an institution who might like to support us, please do drop me an email.
AK: That sounds terrific. Thanks so much for speaking with me today Martin!
ME: My pleasure, and thank you!