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Worth the Effort?

April 11, 2014

Library directors at selective liberal arts colleges may this fall found a new open-access publishing house. In the months ahead, the libraries still need to convince faculty members the effort would be worth the time and money.

The Lever Initiative, founded last summer by the liberal arts college libraries that make up the Oberlin Group, is investigating the possibilities of establishing an open-access publishing house for scholarly short-form monographs. After a review of the market and a survey of faculty attitudes, the task force published its first report in March, summarizing the first phase of the effort and identifying four options:

The group could go it alone and establish an independent publishing house, the report suggests, while a more cautious option would be to find a publishing partner that could provide “existing infrastructure and expertise.” Should the group choose not to found a publishing house, it could always donate to open-access initiatives, award grants for authors to publish such books or simply focus on advocating for the open-access movement, the report reads.

“If we go it ourselves, then the world is our oyster,” said Pamela Snelson, college librarian at Franklin & Marshall College. “We can do what we want. We have the freedom, but we also have the problems, the challenges of getting it going.”

Partnering with an established publishing house, meanwhile, would bring more support in the startup phase, but would also the limits of working “in the framework that has been developed,” Snelson said.

The options are not exclusive, nor are they without their own drawbacks, members the initiative said. But in interviews with Inside Higher Ed, the library directors also expressed an urgency to fix what they called a “broken” scholarly publishing system dominated by rising costs, declining budget allocations and quality, and large publishers such as Elsevier, Springer and Wiley.

“We have to get in on these conversations now,” Snelson said. “Nothing has coalesced into ‘this is what it’s going to be.’ We need to share with publishers what we feel should be the principles going forward.”

The task force last year enlisted consultants at TBI Communications to analyze the state of the open access book market, who found that “publishers striving to attain open access are struggling with how to continue to provide stringent peer review and quality while preserving their economic viability and sustainability.”

“The humanities and social sciences have been hardest hit by the growth of ‘big deals’ for journals, which have diverted library funds away from the purchase of research monographs and into large consortia deals for electronic journals and resources,” the report reads. “The same disciplines have also been slowest to adopt open access opportunities, perhaps believing that open access models would prove too costly for departments or individuals with small research budgets and lack of public funding.”

Patricia A. Tully, the Caleb T. Winchester university librarian at Wesleyan University, said faculty members at her institution have grown so accustomed to electronic journals that the library spends about 90 percent of its acquisitions funds on such subscriptions. The market for ebooks and open-access monographs -- perhaps because of the longer format or range of different platforms -- seems to be “5 to 10 years behind,” she said.

“While there are several initiatives going on for providing open access for journal materials, for scholarly monographs, we’re not nearly as far along,” Tully said. “It does feel more and more like only schools that have a healthy endowment or are privileged in some way have full access to scholarship that people need in order to do their best work, and we’d really like to open that up.”

The Oberlin Group won’t make a decision until its annual meeting in October, but members of the task force this week provided an early look at what their open-access publishing house could look like.

To fund the initiative, the group may seek a percentage of its members’ acquisitions budgets rather than charge an author publication fee -- a strategy used by some open-access publishers to recoup costs. The question of peer review also remains unsolved, even though the library directors said the end product would have to ensure the quality of its publications. The publishing house would initially target tenured professors, who unlike junior faculty members don’t face as much pressure to have their work featured in traditional journals, the library directors said.

“I know how traditional promotion and tenure boards can be, and I certainly understand the anxiety of junior faculty,” Tully said. “Junior faculty are sometimes doing incredibly innovative things... but they don’t tend to believe that it’s going to be given the appropriate weight when they come up for tenure.”

The initiative still needs to convince faculty members that establishing an open-access book publishing house is worth the effort, however. In a survey of more than 600 faculty members at member institutions, almost three-quarters of responders said they were satisfied with the selection of books in their libraries. The survey also contained some good news for those seeking new models of publishing: 82 percent of the surveyed faculty members said they would consider publishing a book through a new open-access publishing house.

The library directors acknowledged that more grassroots outreach is needed to build support among faculty for an open-access publishing house.

“Basically, it’s identifying faculty at our own institutions that would be willing to be partners and advocates, then letting them do their thing with their colleagues,” Tully said. “They have more weight than we do, frankly.”

 

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