Open Library of Humanities aims to ‘flip’ journals to open access

New publishing model aims to make research accessible to all without charging authors

December 3, 2015
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It sounds like something that might happen to a secret agent who changes sides after capture. After the mass resignation of its editorial board last month in protest against its publisher’s pricing policy, the linguistics journal Lingua is being “flipped” from a paid-for subscription model to a new kind of open access model under a different publisher.

Lingua is perhaps the highest profile recent defector in the war between for-profit publishers who sell paywalled journals – in this case Elsevier – and advocates who want published research to be freely accessible, and object to publishers’ substantial profit margins, or both.

Open access is not a new idea in academia. But the Lingua defection is significant for two reasons. First, it is a humanities journal – the natural sciences are generally perceived to have led the way when it comes to open access. And second, Lingua is defecting to the Open Library of Humanities (OLH), which was formally launched at the end of September and which has, its founders say, a unique open access model.

“It’s rather a coup,” says Robert Eaglestone, professor of contemporary literature and thought at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a member of the OLH’s academic steering and advisory committee. “But that’s going to be happening more and more.”

Normally, open access models charge authors an article-processing charge to cover the costs of review and publication. Compared with the traditional model of journal subscriptions paid for by university libraries, this in essence transfers the cost to those doing the research.

This system may work relatively smoothly in the natural sciences, where a research grant can cover the fee; but in the arts and humanities, scholars often rely simply on their salaries, making it harder to raise enough cash. At Elsevier, such charges range from $500 (£332) to $5,000 an article.

To get around this problem, the OLH charges university libraries small fees – currently estimated at about $5 per article per institution – to cover the cost of publication, while authors pay nothing. Articles are then made openly available, explains Martin Eve, senior lecturer in literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London.

Eve founded the OLH with Caroline Edwards, a lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at Birkbeck, and the pair now act as editors-in-chief.

At the time of writing, 127 university libraries have signed up, and two or three new ones are joining every week. They are predominantly from the UK and North America, and include the University of Cambridge, Harvard University and Yale University. Generally they are from the anglophone world, but Eve hopes that institutions in other countries will soon come on board in greater numbers.

Guaranteed savings

The attraction is simple: under every situation the OLH has modelled, libraries will pay less in contributions than they currently do for journal subscriptions, Eve claims. One obvious reason for the lower price is that OLH is not-for-profit, whereas commercial publishers are reputed to have profit margins of up to 40 per cent. And, Eve adds, “it gets better the larger the consortium”. If 300 institutions came on board, per-article costs would drop to $3.

Unlike some other open access ventures, the focus of the OLH is not on creating new, rival open access journals but rather on “flipping” existing ones. This is what is happening at Lingua. Last week, the OLH’s board of libraries approved plans to bring it into the fold. Currently the OLH has seven journals, six of which were “flipped”, and in January the board will vote on whether to accept four more.

The hope, Eve says, is that authors will submit to the journal they are familiar with, but the publishing model will have simply changed “under the hood”.

However, in the case of Lingua, Elsevier owns the brand, so the former editorial board will have to call its new journal Glossa. But, Eve counters, “what is it that makes a journal good? Surely it’s the people.”

In a way, the OLH model is similar to the traditional journal subscription system in that libraries foot the bill for publication. But in this case, for-profit publishers are cut out of the deal. Another difference is that once the articles are paid for, they are available online to everyone, not just those with access to one library. This gives rise to the “free-rider” problem: students and scholars will be able to access OLH journals even if they do not contribute to the costs of the project.

This issue has been raised before, Eve says, “but so far it hasn’t stopped the institutions” from signing up.

Building reputations

Another challenge the OLH faces is getting scholars interested in publishing in its newly flipped journals. “The crucial thing they have to build is not the platform, but the reputation [of their new journals],” says Eaglestone. “That’s the mission of the OLH.”

Eaglestone intends to publish his next article in an OLH journal. But with a strong publication record crucial for promotion, will more junior academics submit to journals that, at least at first, might be an unknown quantity?

“Persuading the younger scholars to do it will be the success or failure of the project,” Eaglestone says. “More established scholars need to put their money where their mouth is” and commit to using the OLH, he adds.

Could the OLH help to overthrow entirely the subscription journal system? Eaglestone thinks that such journals “will move to full open access or they will die off”. But, so far at least, this has not happened in the natural sciences. Many journals, some with considerable kudos, are now open access. But prestigious subscription titles such as Nature, Science and Cell are still the most sought-after places for scientists to publish.

“An article in Nature makes your career,” Eaglestone acknowledges. But he counters that arts and humanities journals do not have such a clear hierarchy of reputation, making it easier to convince authors to switch journals.   

For now, Eve aims to flip about three journals a year to the OLH. In five years, he hopes, the OLH will be hosting 20 journals and the organisation will be self-funding from library contributions (currently it is being supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation).

But ultimately, how fast the OLH grows depends on how many universities support it. “The challenges are the rate of growth and making sure new universities come on board,” he says.

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