FWF: What was the idea behind the OLH?
Caroline Edwards: My colleague Martin Eve and myself set up a small open-access journal of 21st-century literary criticism called Alluvium in 2012. At that time in the United Kingdom it became apparent that researchers were going to have to think seriously about moving towards open access because the government and research councils were adopting a pro-open access policy that would require research outputs to be made available to the general public.
From the perspective of researchers working in the humanities in the UK, many scholars had not thought about open access prior to this point. When the Finch Report was published in June 2012 they realised that a mandate was likely to be imposed on them. So it was a very political climate at the time, and many of our colleagues expressed anger that the research councils – via HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) – could institute such a mandate without their input. So we set up the OLH because we felt strongly that there was a huge gap in the way in which people talked about open access. And specifically, that the larger publishers were pushing hard for gold open access via an article processing charge (APC) model. But working in the humanities disciplines, which receive limited funding compared with sciences and STEM subjects, it was obvious to us that there was not enough money to support APC-led open access publishing.
Publishing Gold Open Access
There are multiple ways authors can provide open access to their work. One option is to publish in an open access journal (“gold open access”). The publication is available immediately, with no embargo periods. Usually an open access fee (article processing charge APC) is paid by the authors, or on their behalf for example by their institution or funding body. In contrast to traditional publishing the copyright remains with the author, not with the publisher. The author chooses a Creative Commons license which defines permitted reuse.
FWF: So what is the concept of the OLH?
Edwards: The starting point for us was to think about the following questions: Could we come up with an alternative model that did not have to use APCs? How would we fund open access publishing without APCs and how could we make the project as international as possible? So the first thing we did in Spring 2013 was to launch a website and invite colleagues from around the world to join a series of committees, composed of high profile open access advocates, scholars, publishers and librarians. Around this time we were contacted by the American philanthropic funding organisation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who subsequently gave us an initial seed funding grant for one year, followed by a three-year grant which we are now running. That gave us a certain amount of legitimacy as well as media coverage when the full grant was awarded in April 2014.
FWF: How does it work?
What is unique about the OLH is the funding model.Caroline Edwards
Edwards: What is unique about the OLH is the funding model. Through the conversations we had with many librarians over the course of 2013 and 2014 it became clear that many were prepared to help us transition towards a different kind of publishing that was not-for-profit and more sustainable for humanities disciplines than the APC model. So we created the “Library Partnership Subsidy” (LPS) – rather than libraries paying via a subscription model, supporting institutions instead put in money into a “cost pool”, which we use to build the infrastructure for our publishing platform and pay for the production costs like copy-editing, typesetting, digital archiving, etc. By the time we launched in September 2015 we had almost 100 libraries supporting us from across the US, UK and Europe.
FWF: What is your experience after the launch? How has the platform been accepted?
Edwards: The project, and the supporting platform, has changed since our initial idea of setting up a megajournal that would publish a large number of articles across the humanities disciplines, with a number of different overlay journals building up over time enabling readers to curate published material within specific research areas. Although we still do have the megajournal, it is now one of a number of journals that we host. In our ongoing consultations with a number of academic editors it became clear that the humanities disciplines did not want to give up their connection with a particular journal title or brand, and the community of scholars that journals have built up over the years. So we thought if we couldn’t persuade the majority of academics to jump ship and publish in a new experimental venture like the OLH megajournal, perhaps we could persuade them instead to join the OLH platform via their journals – moving communities of scholars to open access, rather than completely shifting researcher behaviour.
That is why we opened up applications for journals interested in joining the OLH platform and benefiting from our technological innovations and APC-free model, whilst maintaining their journal title and editorial autonomy. We are now working through a process of formalising biannual journal applications procedures. In fact, since launching the platform in September 2015, it seems that many colleagues want this project to move much more quickly than we had originally anticipated. There is a huge groundswell of support for the OLH model and we are currently working with partners in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, who are very keen to have open libraries of other subjects like, for example, maths or engineering. That is looking very promising, so it may well be that over the next year we could start to host other open libraries.
FWF: Does this mean you could bring the publishers in, too?
Edwards: We have been collaborating with different publishers from the beginning. To give an example: when a journal that is already publishing with a university press using a subscription model applies to join the OLH platform and transition to open access. In order to be able to flip to open access, the journal wants to have access to our funding mechanism so that it can remove the barrier of having a subscription. In such partnerships, the journal maintains co-branding between the OLH and the university press. That means that the publisher manages the production process and we pay them. So the editors are pushing for open access but are still committed to working with their press. The OLH has a charitable remit of extending open access and so we are happy to enter into such partnerships, so long as the end goal is that such journals move to an open access publishing model.
FWF: In summary, what are the advantages of your concept compared to traditional publishing?
Edwards: Firstly, as a scholar-led platform it is very important to us that we have become a charity and that the OLH is not a profitable institution. We are not against publishers in the sense that we both co-operate with, and respect, reputable presses who work hard to put out high-quality scholarship, have considerable experience in scholarly publishing, and are dedicated to their scholarly mission. But we are against the idea that public money and university budgets are being pumped into profit-making organisations whose margins have risen dramatically over the past 30 years. This has led to the “serials crisis” and diverts financial resources away from supporting research, teaching, and helping students. So the concept behind the OLH is one that gives academics and librarians more scholarly, editorial and financial control over how they publish.
We are against the idea that public money is being pumped into profit-making organisations whose margins have risen dramatically over the past 30 years.Caroline Edwards
Secondly, as a born-digital publisher we can be more nimble than other publishers who have expensive overheads to maintain; for example, we can customise and build our own digital infrastructure, which makes the OLH really cost-effective. Our articles can incorporate other formats such as video content, benefitting from the latest advances in online publishing – with high-quality presentation, annotative functionality, robust digital preservation, discoverability and easy-to-share social media buttons. We can also extend the scholarly conversation around an article through interactive features such as comments sections. In this way, we can shift the boundaries of traditional publishing away from the narrow parameters of a 17th-century print model that has just been uploaded online (quite literally, when you think that article pdfs are an image of a print document which is simply stored on a journal’s webpage) and towards a much more interactive form of scholarly dialogue that is also machine-readable and -searchable.
FWF: Several surveys show that the principles of OA publishing find an overwhelming support especially in the humanities. But if it comes to practice, scholars in the humanities are rather reluctant comparing to other disciplines. What are the reasons for that?
Edwards: The tricky question of humanities scholars’ varying attitudes towards open access is one reason why our approach at the OLH has been relatively conservative so far. We did not want to push people into adopting all of the innovations that online open access publishing can facilitate (such as peer-to-peer or post-publication review) before they were ready. The humanities community seems evenly split between those who champion open access, and those who either oppose open access or are only comfortable when it maintains a traditional, or recognisable, model of scholarship in terms of the editorial and review processes undertaken.
FWF: Do you think that there are also generational aspects to this debate?
Edwards: In my advocacy work for OLH, I have been surprised to discover that early career researchers seem to be more digitally engaged and willing to experiment with online publishing formats, even though they have much less security than their senior colleagues since they are entering the job market at a very difficult and competitive time. So, in a sense, they often don’t have the luxury of being able to submit their work to be published in new ventures and are obliged to stick with well-known, “traditional” journals to give themselves the best chance of landing a job, or achieving tenure. But, despite this stark fact of job insecurity, younger scholars are nevertheless clearly interested in publishing their work open access and trying out the digital innovations that it can offer. They have also quickly realised how citations become multiplied when you publish online, which can really help a younger scholar’s career in its early stages.
FWF: Is funding another reason why humanities academics might be more reluctant to publish open access?
Edwards: Yes, because humanities research is generally funded at a much lower rate than research conducted in the scientific disciplines. So Article Processing Charges (APCs) have the effect of preventing many scholars in humanities disciplines from being able to publish open access – and this is particularly true for independent scholars and academics at less research-intensive institutions, where money for ACPs is scarce and shared between a large number of departments. The way in which open access publishing has moved towards an APC fee structure as the default business model has forced scholars in the humanities into an awareness that we urgently need to think of alternatives. I think we really made our mark early on when we launched the OLH as a community-driven project by having a different funding mechanism that directly opposed APCs. We tried to involve as many people as we possibly could, bringing colleagues from around the world in our committee discussions so that we could interrogate these difficult questions of funding with the people who had the necessary experience to help us.
FWF: Are there any other reasons?
Edwards: The reasons for this ambivalence towards open access among humanities scholars varies from discipline to discipline, as well as within disciplines themselves. Some disciplines within the humanities have obviously been pushing for more online engagement, such as subjects like Film & TV, Media Studies, or Dance and Performance Studies. These subjects rely on the textual analysis of audio-visual and performance content – something that is not adequately served within a print context, where authors have to describe a particular scene or performance without being able to reproduce it. Digital publishing with open licenses obviously serves these disciplines much better and improves the quality of the reader’s experience of such articles by being able to view the scene or performance described, within the article itself. Theology is another example where scholars are really pro open access. The theological scholarly community seems to have a strong ethical and moral imperative in advocating for wider public access to their scholarship via open access.
FWF: How many articles and journals will be submitted and published next year?
Edwards: This year there will be 320 articles published across the journals currently on the OLH platform. Next year we are anticipating accepting between 10 and 15 new journals migrating onto the platform. That would mean that the number of articles we anticipate publishing in 2016-17 would rise to about 470 to 500 articles. However, we are also currently involved in several substantial, multi-year grant applications to support the launch of more “open libraries” in other disciplines – which the OLH would host on its platform and support via our LPS funding model. If that happens, these projections become part of a much bigger umbrella organisation of open libraries, publishing many more articles and hosting a large number of journals. We have to wait and see if this happens in the next year or two.
FWF: You have currently 189 supporters but mostly from the UK and US countries. The same is true of authors. Do you have plans to attract supporters and authors from other regions? And if so, how?
Edwards: Our target is to have 300 libraries supporting the OLH by 2018 with an average contribution of 850 Dollars per institution. From the start we wanted it to be a multilingual project and over the course of next year we are going to roll out a multi-language platform. We already have a French platform ready to be launched with a French editorial team in place. This came about partly because we were pursuing a strategy of moving beyond simply publishing in the Anglophone context, but also because we were approached by French editors writing to us saying: “We want the OLH to be available in French.” Launching a French-language OLH site with the journal submission process in French should help to encourage more submissions of articles written in French and could possibly help us to secure funding in France. Ultimately, we are hoping to roll out a series of OLH sites in several languages, starting with German, Spanish and Italian. That will take time, of course.
FWF: What kind of new technical features are envisaged?
Edwards: There are three main projects at the moment that are part of the work currently being funded by our Andrew W. Mellon grant. The first of these is an annotation software development project. At the moment it is possible to go onto our website and annotate OLH journal articles. This project is extending our annotative functionality, customising the code for our annotation software so that users can change the privacy setting of their annotations and other comments. This is a really exciting project that has obvious benefits for both research and teaching by offering private or group settings for annotations.
The second technical feature we are currently working on is a piece of software that allows user-generated translation of OLH articles. This means that readers can offer their own translations of an article (either in its entirety or, perhaps, just translating pertinent sections of the argument), with the translations being visible as they are uploaded in real time. In addition, the community will be able to rank the quality of translations, so that the best translations would rise to the top. Then over time other people could contribute to the translation, so the article becomes a group-translated work.
Finally, the third area of technological development we are building is to bring our current typesetting software up to production standard. This is something that my colleague Martin Eve has already done substantial work on, and it would mean that we could bring down the internal production costs of publishing. Those are the main tech projects we are doing right now. And all of the code we produce is open source (released under GPL licenses) so that everyone can benefit from the programming work that the OLH is doing.
FWF: Does open access also have the potential to support the communication and exchange of scholarly work and its values with the society?
Edwards: One of the key motivations when we started the OLH was the recognition of how hierarchical academia is becoming. Many people who are “research active” may not hold a tenured position, for example, or may be working on fixed- and short-term contracts, meaning that they often do not have access to published research behind paywalls, without the benefit of university membership. Similarly, after graduating, students no longer have access to scholarly materials once their university accounts have closed, which prevents them from building on their studies beyond the university. It was also clear to us that there are other sections of society including NGOs, professional bodies, or even politicians, who need access to academic research results for professional reasons. If these people cannot access scholarship, society is poorer as a result.
Mandates obviously help to draw attention to the urgent need for increased open access.Caroline Edwards
In my personal experience running Alluvium, the small open access journal of contemporary literary studies I mentioned earlier, I’ve discovered that school children and colleagues in teaching have started to use it in the classroom. Although it is hard to monitor how many members of the general public use open access platforms to read scholarship online (since article metrics can of course only ever reveal the number of page views and downloads, not the identity of each reader), the broader point about open access and open science should definitely translate into a commitment to extending scholarly dialogue into society.
FWF: One last question: What would you recommend funders like the Austrian Science Fund to further push Open Access especially in the Humanities?
Edwards: Mandates within different nation states obviously help to motivate scholars and draw attention to the urgent need for increased open access. Another tactic that we’ve found to be particularly effective at the OLH is to build a network of networks. Many of the people who have subscribed to our Library Partnership Subsidy are librarians who have met us, working at institutions where we have been invited to speak. So asking people who support initiatives like the OLH to recommend such grassroots movements to their colleagues at other institutions, is one strategy for increasing the number of supporters.
For example, we are just in the early stages of setting up a library action team. In the UK we have a number of people who are really strong supporters of the OLH and who go to library conferences and promote our project to their colleagues. This can be a powerful way to increase awareness of a not-for-profit publisher like the OLH and we are grateful for such advocacy. If anyone would like to contact us to discuss similar forms of outreach, please do get in touch with our European Library Partnerships Manager, Saskia C.J. de Vries: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Caroline Edwards is co-founder and director of the Open Library of Humanities (OLH). She is also a literary scholar in the field of Modern & Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. Edwards edits the open-access journal of 21st-century literary criticism, Alluvium.
About the OLH
The Open Library of Humanities (OLH) is a scholarly-led and charitable organisation dedicated to publishing open access (OA) scholarship with no article processing charges (APCs). Launched in September 2015 as a publishing platform for “Gold Open Access” journals, the OLH has been a pioneer in building an international consortium of editors and of library-supported funding – known as the Library Partnership Subsidy (LPS) – and other disciplinary fields are now looking towards this new model of funding gold OA publishing. With partners such as the Dutch linguistics network Ling-OA, the OLH is demonstrating how subscription journals can be “flipped” to open access in an innovative and sustainable way. In Austria the OLH is currently supported by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and the Austrian Science Fund FWF. The FWF has provided an initial funding until 2020 equivalent to 15 institutions.