The Open Humanities Press (OHP) announced recently that it is entering the Open Access (OA) book publishing market, launching five new OA book series. The books will all be made freely available online as full-text electronic files, as well as being offered as print on demand (POD) paperbacks. To get a better idea of the significance of the news I contacted a few OA advocates, and emailed some questions to OHP co-founder Sigi Jottkandt. The latter questions were answered collectively by the OHP Steering Group.
The Open Humanities Press was launched in May 2008 by a group of academics looking to, as they put it, "overcome the current crisis in scholarly publishing that threatens intellectual freedom and academic rigour worldwide."
OHP's first project consisted of launching a portfolio of seven independent OA journals in critical theory (there are now ten journals). Since humanities research tends to be published in book form it clearly makes sense for OHP to publish OA books too.
To that end, in August it was announced that, in conjunction with the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office (SPO), OHP is launching an OA monograph series in critical and cultural theory. This will consist of a new five book series edited by senior members of OHP's editorial board.
All the books will be freely available as full-text digital editions. In addition, they will be offered as "reasonably-priced paperbacks" — on a print on demand basis. And since they will be OA texts, the books will all be published under Creative Commons licences, with authors (who retain the copyright) able to choose the CC licence that best meets their needs.
How does the partnership work? After OHP has completed the peer review process the manuscripts will be passed to SPO, which will convert them to structured XML for electronic and print on demand publication. The paperback versions will be sold through "the usual online distributors."
SPO will also add metadata to the electronic books and catalogue them. They will then be archived in the University of Michigan Library for long-term preservation.
OHP is keen to stress that the new initiative is not just about making books OA. The aim is also to take advantage of the online medium to experiment with new methods for sharing and communicating research. As Gary Hall, OHP co-founder, and co-editor of one of the planned book series (Liquid Books), puts it: "As well as creating a prestigious open access venue for humanities monographs publishing, our collaboration with SPO will also enable OHP to explore new directions that the book-length argument might take once it's released from marketability concerns."
Authors will, for instance, be able to make their manuscripts available online in various pre- and post-publication versions so that others can comment on and annotate the text. The aim is to make the books more than static text, and create, "a gathering place for readers to engage the text publicly."
And by utilising the print on demand model OHP hopes to assist authors publish books that — while of inherent scholarly value — might be considered insufficiently cost-effective for traditional print publishing.
OHP has attracted some OA heavyweights to its editorial board, including the de facto leader of the OA movement Peter Suber.
Suber believes that the new initiative is significant in a number of ways. "It shows that OHP is moving forward, not stalled. It shows that it can recruit a significant partner (SPO). And it shows that it's committing to ambitious new OA series, not just individual OA titles."
But the new initiative is most noteworthy perhaps because the plan is not only to make books OA, but to do so in the area of the humanities. Historically OA has been viewed as of relevance to the sciences alone, and only to journals — not books.
So where does the new OHP project fit with the current OA scene, and what implications might it have for the wider OA movement?
"I've long included books within the OA movement and my own OA efforts," responds Suber. "OHP isn't the first book publisher committed to OA, but it's now one of the most prominent and ambitious. It should help bring the very idea of OA books (or at least OA scholarly monographs) to the attention of humanities scholars — as well as the OA activists still focusing exclusively on journals."
UK-based publishing consultant Alma Swan agrees, pointing out that it is illogical to think of OA as relevant to journals alone. "If we make the argument that publicly-funded research should be OA, why stop short of books? It's ridiculous that we do this. We just need a new economic model for books, that's all."
And that, of course, is the challenge OHP faces: demonstrating that there is an economic model, not just for OA books, but for OA books in the humanities. Suber, for one, is optimistic. Indeed, he anticipates that OHP could provide a viable new model for the wider scholarly publishing market. For instance, he says, "I think that OHP may help 'prove the concept' for university presses who are not already experimenting with OA books. University presses are often sympathetic to OA, under pressure to make more money (or lose money more slowly), and increasingly unable to justify the expense of a conventional printed book for an esoteric monograph with low sales potential. The combination of OA and POD has beautiful synergy and may soon become the dominant model for scholarly monographs."
Ideas about the relevance of OA books may in any case be changing. One of those who has in the past expressed scepticism about the idea is self-styled archivangelist Stevan Harnad. Commenting on the news from OHP Harnad says, "Yes, OA is first and foremost about journal articles. There it is immediately desirable and feasible, without exception. But it can be extended to other kinds of content too, where desired and feasible — for instance, esoteric monographs. So OHP is fine, and welcome: If they can publish good OA monographs (getting the quality authors and making ends meet), more power to them!"
He adds however, "It's just that — for the time being — for every other kind of content (including monographs), the authors that will want OA and the publishers that will want to provide it will be the exceptions, not the rule."
So is the concept of the OA book an idea whose time has come, or will OHP face an uphill struggle? Jottkandt is cautiously optimistic. "We've witnessed a tremendous growth in awareness about OA within the humanities community just in the last 3 years," she says. "It's hard to predict where things will go from here but we see lots of signs for hope.
Time, of course, will tell.
The questions below were answered collectively by the OHP Steering Group: Paul Ashton, Marta Brunner, Barbara Cohen, Jean-Claude Guédon, Gary Hall, Sigi Jottkandt, Shana Kimball and David Ottina.
RP: How do you see OHP overcoming the current crisis in scholarly publishing?
OHP: We see OHP as part of a broad-based movement within the scholarly community to address the crisis. The beauty of it is that in this networked world, completely autonomous projects like ours can and do arise to tackle the specific challenges and needs of their disciplines and contexts. We need not necessarily coordinate in order to work towards a common goal, the free and open exchange of knowledge.
RP: OHP maintains that the crisis in scholarly publishing is threatening intellectual freedom and academic rigour. How is it doing that?
OHP: Traditional publishing venues, for a variety of reasons (often beyond their control) are no longer able to make publication decisions based solely on scholarly criteria. This undermines intellectual freedom in that young scholars increasingly must take the publishing industry's marketing considerations into account when choosing an area of research.
It also arguably undermines academic rigour when the most profitable formats today tend to be course readers, text books and introductions.
The traditional book-length argument, which has been the dominant form for much of humanities research, is increasingly being pushed out of the equation, although such books are typically required for tenure, and increasingly even for junior hiring.
Journals & books
RP: OHP has announced that it plans to publish five new OA book series. This is not the first OHP initiative is it?
OHP: No. OHP launched just over a year ago as a collective of independent OA journals in critical theory. Our feeling was that there were quite a few excellent open access peer-reviewed journals, but they weren't getting recognition because they were a bit isolated. By collecting the journals under a single banner we hoped to show both humanities and open access communities that there is actually quite a bit of significant OA activity in the humanities.
RP: You started with seven journals, but have grown to ten I believe.
OHP: Yes. The journals project is ongoing. We are always on the look-out for good peer-reviewed OA humanities journals. Once proposed, journals are vetted by OHP's editorial oversight group and, if they meet our scholarly and access criteria, become part of the collective. More details about the journal process and criteria are here.
RP: In the press release announcing the new OA book series OHP states that authors will, "have the option of making their manuscripts available online in various pre- and post-publication versions for reader commenting and annotation if they so wish." What does this imply?
OHP: To clarify: all of OHPs books will be available full text OA online and nearly all of them PDF too (and we're also looking at ePUB). These will be traditional publications in the sense that they will be 'set' texts in the way paper publications are.
However, some of the books (in particular the Liquid Books Series) will also be published through websites that allow for more direct participation so that the online artefact can become a gathering place for readers to engage the text publicly.
RP: The press release quotes Gary Hall as saying: "Our collaboration with SPO will also enable OHP to explore new directions that the book-length argument might take once it’s released from marketability concerns." Can you expand on that?
OHP: One of OHP's goals is to explore the new forms of scholarly communication that might emerge once humanities scholarship is freely opened to the world. Along with the traditional book form, which we expect to be a staple of OHP's offerings, we're also interested in offering a more exploratory space for scholars to try out ideas and forms that traditional publishers cannot afford to take chances on.
RP: Ok, this goes to the point about marketability then. When will the first OHP books be available?
OHP: We hope to have the first books out within a year.
Ways to publish OA books
RP: What would you say to those who argue that OA is only about journal articles, not books?
OHP: Are you referring to the way many of the problems associated with copyright or licensing restrictions can be eluded with regard to journal articles — not least through the self-archiving of the pre-refereed pre-print — in a manner that is not so easy when it comes to book publishing?
If so, then even though the exclusive copyright in a 'work for hire' associated with book publishing may mean that the exclusive right to sell or give away copies of it now belongs to the publisher, there are still ways in which authors can publish their books OA.
RP: Can you expand on that?
OHP: For one thing, book authors could decide to publish only with an open access publisher — such as Open Humanities Press. But there's also Australian National University’s ANU E Press, Bloomsbury Academic, re.press, Rice University Press, University of Tennessee’s Newfound Press, Athabasca University’s AU Press, Open Book Publishers, National Academies Press, California University Press's Flashpoints series, or the 'digitalculturebooks' project of the University of Michigan Press and the Scholarly Publishing Office of Michigan’s University Library to choose from.
For another, they could contact their publisher to ask if they can publish their book online. Ted Striphas, James Boyle and Lawrence Lessig are examples of authors who have recently published books in this fashion. Other publishers will now allow authors to deposit preliminary or representative book chapters in the repositories of the institutions where they work.
For yet another, authors could decline any offer to sign a contract that awards copyright or an exclusive license to a publisher, and decide to publish only with those who will bring their book out on a non-exclusive basis.
The other variation of the argument that OA is only relevant to journals that we've heard is not so much that OA is inherently about journals as that books are just expensive to produce OA. We partnered with the University of Michigan's Scholarly Publishing Office (SPO) specifically to challenge that notion.
SPO has deep expertise in the electronic publishing workflow and OHP has expertise in manuscript selection and editorial development. By working together, we are confident we can produce books cost effectively.
We also hope to demonstrate a compelling model of a direct Library-Scholar partnership that other OA scholars can appropriate for their specific disciplinary needs.
RP: One of those who has historically expressed scepticism about OA books is Stevan Harnad. While he welcomes news of the OHP book project, and wishes it well, he suggested to me that — aside from scholarly papers — the number of authors that will want to make their research OA, and the number of publishers that will want to assist them make it OA "will be the exceptions, not the rule". Do you think that is fair comment?
OHP: It's a little tricky to say, since the context is a bit unclear, but if Stevan was commenting that presently only a minority of humanities faculty actively seek out OA options, that's our perception as well. It does suggest a strong need for educational outreach to faculty through a variety of means (grassroots peer advocacy, leadership by senior scholars, scholarly communications offices, etc.).
In addition to these kinds of efforts (that many of us on the Steering Group are also involved in), we're aiming to create an editorial identity for OHP that is sufficiently well-regarded that the OA form we publish in will not necessarily be the first and main attraction for all authors, although it will no doubt be welcomed by the growing number of humanities and social sciences scholars who recognise that OA is the best way to get their work read.
But if Stevan's comment is a prediction about the permanent marginality of OA publishing, we're certainly working hard to make sure that doesn't happen. In the humanities, primary research is published in book form; so rather than being a supplement or nice-to-have, OA for books is completely fundamental for humanities disciplines, and analogous to the call for opening data in the sciences.
RP: Thanks for your time, and good luck with the new project.
The five new OA book series will consist of:
· New Metaphysics (ed. Graham Harman and Bruno Latour)
· Critical Climate Change (ed. Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook)
· Global Conversations (ed. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o)
· Unidentified Theoretical Objects (ed. Wlad Godzich)
· Liquid Books (ed. Claire Birchall and Gary Hall)