OLH: Building a Grassroots Academic Movement

The Open Library of Humanities: Building a Grassroots Academic Movement

Guest post by: Dr Caroline Edwards, Editorial Director of the Open Library of Humanities and Lecturer in Modern & Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London.

OLHResearchers involved with CREATe may be interested to hear about recent developments at the Open Library of Humanities (OLH). I came to speak about the OLH at CREATe’s invited roundtable on “Open access, peer review and scholarly communication: Taking digital innovation seriously” in September 2013, as part of a discussion about “non-orthodox” and scholar-led activities in open access and new forms of research communication.

The OLH was set up in January 2013 as an academic-led project to build an open access publisher with no author-facing article processing charges (APCs). Stimulated by governmental and research council mandates around the world, the move towards open access publishing has thus far privileged a business model which compensates publishers’ lost revenues by shifting the cost of publishing onto authors (and their institutions) in a pay-to-publish model. Although this model has worked very well in the sciences, with publishers like the Public Library of Science (PLOS) demonstrating the benefits of open access to scholarly research and the viability of the APC model, humanities disciplines face a funding crisis and departments struggle to meet the exorbitant costs of subscription journals so additional funding for open access is scarce.

The OLH was designed to address this growing need for open access in the humanities and social sciences without simply shifting costs onto authors themselves. Access gaps to scholarly research are felt by even the wealthiest research libraries in the world, and scholars in developing countries experience the entrenched inequality that arises from unaffordable journal subscriptions. The serials crisis in journals publishing over the past 30 years has seen profits of over 300% above inflation for commercial scholarly publishers – crippling university libraries and diverting funds away from monograph publishing and other research resources. And yet, it has proved extremely difficult for academics to challenge this system – partly because they are shielded from the economic realities of publishing, and also because they are entangled in a complex system of academic prestige which means that they must publish in reputable journals within their field to achieve career advantages like promotion and tenure. Of course, this makes no sense as soon as we consider that it is academics themselves who establish the reputation of a journal in the first place – through their own labour as editors, peer reviewers, and authors.

Debates around open access reached a peak in the UK in June 2012 when the government’s Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, chaired by Dame Janet Finch, published its report (known as “the Finch Report”). The policy clearly favoured “gold” open access over its “green” equivalent – meaning that research should be made open access immediately upon publication, rather than archiving an article pre-print or making an article open access after an embargoed period. As the Finch Report on open access was passed on to HEFCE to implement a period of consultation with universities and academics in 2012-13, debates about open access reached a peak. The Open Library of Humanities launched as a project in this fevered climate, and we quickly attracted wide media attention with interviews appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Times Higher Education. With my colleague and open access advocate, Dr Martin Eve (author of Open Access in the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future, Cambridge University Press, 2014), I built a prestigious international advisory board and committee structure of academics, librarians, programmers and publishers, and set about facilitating discussions concerning: how to build a suitable tech platform; how to fund “gold” open access that did not incur any author-facing charges (sometimes also referred to as “diamond” open access); and how to tackle the thorny question of academic prestige – one of the most substantial barriers preventing academics from submitting their work in new open access publishing venues.

The OLH was particularly well received in the US, and secured seed funding in 2014 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Scholarly Communications programme. This initial funding helped us to test the feasibility of our economic model for launching a humanities and social sciences “megajournal”, as well as a platform for pre-existing journal titles that wanted to migrate to the OLH. In July 2015, this was followed by a major 3-year grant from the Mellon Foundation of $741,000 to Birkbeck, University of London (where Martin and I are lecturers in the Department of English & Humanities) to build the sustainability model for the platform, expand the number of journals published by the OLH, and build our own open-source typesetting and translation software. Sustainability is a crucial question for open access publishing, facing commercial scholarly publishers, university presses and born-digital publishing initiatives alike. The OLH’s innovative business model is the Library Partnership Subsidy – an international library consortium whose members fund the cost of the OLH’s journal publishing activities. Members of the consortium are also given a seat on our Library Board and vote on a quarterly basis to decide how best to spend LPS revenues: including voting on which humanities journals they would like to fund to “flip” to open access from subscription models, and how they would like to meet the cost of expanding the OLH’s journal titles. This business model is designed to build a sustainable transition towards open access publishing by matching publishing costs with subscriptions savings for libraries. As the library consortium expands internationally, the OLH can therefore spread the cost of open access publishing across a large number of libraries who each pay a small amount (which is banded, according to the size of the library, and by Year 3 will average out at $850 per library).

Having received charitable status, the OLH launched as a non-profit open access publisher at the end of September 2015, supported by 99 libraries worldwide (this number has since risen to over 120 libraries). The platform launched with 7 journals: the liberal arts journal AsiaNetwork Exchange, the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon, Studies in the Maternal, and our own new Open Library of Humanities multi-disciplinary megajournal. Our journals all have well-established academic reputations and strong readerships. Moving onto the OLH platform enables them to keep their own review policies and editorial control whilst also benefiting from LPS funding so that they do not need to charge their authors to publish gold open access.

The reception to the OLH’s launch almost two months ago has been extremely positive – with media coverage in the US, UK, Europe, Latin America, Japan and Australia. The OLH has recently hit the headlines as official news of our partnership with the Dutch linguistics network LingOA revealed that the editorial board of its flagship journal Lingua had resigned en masse from their partnership with Elsevier – the OLH and its technological services provider, Ubiquity, are to host the editorial board’s new journal Glossa from January 2016. Meanwhile, our first national-level library partner has recently joined the LPS network – the National Library of Sweden (Kungliga biblioteket). Whilst our library consortium continues to grow at a rate that exceeds our initial forecasts, we are also busy expanding the editorial team at the OLH. New editors have recently joined the editorial board, expanding our disciplinary provision to include Film & TV Studies, Geography, Media & Communication Studies, and Music & Sound Studies – in addition to our pre-existing editorial coverage in Anthropology, Art Design & Art History, Cultural Studies & Critical Theory, Digital Humanities and Library & Information Science, History, Literatures & Languages, Political Science & Political Theory, and Theology & Religious Studies. In addition, we are building editorial teams for article submissions in languages other than English and a French version of the OLH website, with its own editorial structure to handle French-language submissions, will be joining us in Spring 2016. With our translation software development over the next 3 years, the OLH will be offering community translation services on our platform to help articles published in other languages find the readership they deserve in the English-speaking world.

We’re working hard at the OLH to build a grassroots academic movement that is inclusive, transparent (see, for example, Martin Eve’s recent interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education discussing the cost of open access publishing for the OLH), and committed to maintaining academic control of scholarly dissemination. This mission is driven by a determination not to allow commercial interests in scholarly publishing to dictate the terms under which we publish our humanities and social science research, and a commitment to expanding equality through open access to research that is affordable for scholars and libraries, rather than serving the interests of shareholders. Developments in open source publishing software have made it possible to dramatically reduce the costs of open access publishing, and our own technological development work over the coming years will help build publishing tools that can benefit the community as a whole.

Scholars involved with CREATe can help us in this mission, which we hope will overlap with CREATe’s own objectives of investigating new forms of research communication, new digital formats for authorship, and “non-orthodox” academic activities (we like this term!) that are addressing the problems in scholarly publishing outlined above and building alternative scholar-led models for research dissemination. You can help us reach out to academics working in legal theory, critical legal studies, socio-legal studies or any other area of law which may be of interest to humanities scholarship – we are opening up a call for editors to apply to join the OLH editorial team as Section Editors in Legal Studies. Full details of the editorial role can be found below.

Call for Applications to Section Editor in Legal Studies:

Applications are invited for the position of Section Editor in Legal Studies as part of the Open Library of Humanities (OLH) Editorial Board. We are looking to appoint editors in legal studies who would like to join us in our mission to make open access publishing fairer, sustainable, and scholar-led. Editorial roles at the OLH involve managing journal article submissions within a disciplinary section as part of a team – including screening submissions, organising peer review, liaising with authors and reviewers, and preparing articles for copy-editing. Section Editors are not expected to handle any more than 6 articles per year.

Anyone interested in applying should email editorial@openlibhums.org with a CV and cover letter outlining research interests, professional activities, and any editorial experience.


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