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Sustaining Open Access

May 12, 2014

A recently proposed model on open-access publishing has drawn praise for rethinking the roles institutions, libraries and professional organizations play in promoting scholarly communication, but can its collaborative structure be sustained?

The proposal envisions stakeholders forming partnerships, each handling one or more of the duties of funding, distributing and preserving open-access scholarly research -- specifically in the humanities and social sciences. To fund the new structure of scholarly communication, institutions would pay into a centralized fund that awards grants to promote research through a competitive application process.

“Deep structural changes to the scholarly communication system are needed not only to respond to the current funding crises in higher education and the emerging forms of scholarship in the digital age, but also to foster and deepen the connections between the academy and the wider public,” the white paper reads. “Only a model that builds collaborative alliances across a wide variety of institutions and that engages a range of stakeholders can provide a fair and equitable path to truly open and sustainable forms of scholarship.”

The long-awaited white paper, released last month, was written by Rebecca R. Kennison and Lisa R. Norberg, the two library administrators behind K|N Consultants. It has so far attracted reactions that tend to fit the same mold: full of praise for the overall vision, and full of questions about the working details.

In a hypothetical case, a made-up scholarly society that faces declining publication and membership revenue is awarded an annual grant of $275,000; $100,000 of that money is earmarked for the society’s flagship journal, which becomes open to anyone, and $50,000 for a smaller journal. Another $100,000 funds the society’s book series, “which has been recast as an innovative digital initiative that will be built on a new multimodal publishing platform,” and the final $25,000 goes toward attracting younger scholars.

While the $275,000 is dwarfed by the $660,000 the society once earned from journal subscriptions, nearly all of that money was invested right back into maintaining the journals. And with a library partner handling online hosting and a university press responsible for print subscriptions, the society is able to cut some of its costs.

The proposal doesn't envision a massive influx of new funds, but rather a redistribution of how universities now spend their funds. What institutions would pay in the new model depends on several factors, including the number of full-time students, faculty members and researchers on their campuses. As Rick Anderson has pointed out in a Scholarly Kitchen blog post, that formula produces some odd results. Princeton University, for example, would contribute only $39,875 a year, compared to Arizona State University’s bill of $366,890.

Bryn Geffert, librarian of the college at Amherst College, suggested that stakeholder buy-in -- especially among institutions -- could be the model's greatest challenge. “I think this proposal will succeed or fail largely based on whether universities and colleges pony up the kinds of funds that the professional organizations can then tap into,” he said. “If they put up that kind of money, then entrenched stakeholders will move, because they will follow the money.”

Although the money should come from the budgets of institutions, not libraries, Geffert said redirecting library funds could actually be an effective way of changing the landscape of scholarly communication.

“It would be hard to find a library director who would tell you she is gladly and gratefully writing million-dollar checks to Elsevier every year,” Geffert, who is also a member of the Lever Initiative, said. “I believe there are some library directors who would welcome the excuse to no longer be able to pay the bills to companies they’ve never wanted to pay the bills to, and instead have that money go to a venture such as this.”

Others have raised concerns about who will manage those funds and award grants. “We all know there’s politics involved in any kind of grant making,” said Seth Denbo, director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives for the American Historical Association. “That group would have to be very carefully constituted.”

Kennison, director of the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship at Columbia, described Anderson’s breakdown of the proposal as a “fair read, fair interpretation,” and she acknowledged Denbo’s “legitimate concern.”

“The actual decision on who should get the money should come through independent review boards,” Kennison said. “It’s similar to applying to any grant agency.”

The proposal has attracted interest from several organizations that could serve as review boards, Kennison said. Although she did not disclose the names of the organizations, she gave the American Council of Learned Societies and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition as two hypothetical examples.

As the initiative grows, Kennison said she could see the centralized system splitting into a federated model, categorized by different academic disciplines or regions.

Despite the proposal’s emphasis on collaboration, one stakeholder reported to feeling left out. John Tagler, vice president and executive director of professional and scholarly publishing for the Association of American Publishers, said the proposal didn’t seem to identify a role for commercial publishers.

“To some degree, it doesn’t really acknowledge that the publishers have contributed in terms of innovation -- and also collaboration -- over the last 15 to 20 years ... and it sort of overlooks the fact that we’re aiming for the same goals,” Tagler said. “Where is our role?”

Kennison, who spent several years as a senior production editor with Blackwell Publishing (before its merger with Wiley), admitted that she and Norberg have revised the proposal to be more inclusive of publishers. “There’s nothing that excludes a commercial publisher or a university press or anybody else from coming in on the publishing side of things,” she said. “In fact, we would welcome that.”

Using their own institutions as examples, the authors suggest Columbia University could partner with the California Digital Library to publish the Modern Language Association’s journals and book series and enhance the MLA Commons network, while Duke University and Wiley-Blackwell could team up to publish all of the American Anthropological Association’s journals.

Tagler called the white paper a “starting point” for conversations about open access initiatives in the humanities and social sciences, but added that it didn’t offer “a new approach or a new sort of concept.”

“It basically is working within the assigned responsibilities and playing musical chairs with the existing roles, shifting them around and putting more responsibilities in the libraries and academic institutions,” Tagler said. “It doesn’t really reinvent the wheel -- it just sort of changes its spokes.”

Kennison stressed that the proposal is about more than simply finding a new way to publish journals and books. “It’s not just about the ‘traditional ways’ that scholarly output has been done, but also about modes that we haven’t even been able to imagine,” she said. “It’s very much about supporting the infrastructure for scholarly communication, and not just certain types of output.”

Kennison said she and Norberg are gathering feedback on how to pitch the model to institutions, and searching for private funders who could match institutional dues. The authors are also seeking partners for a proof-of-concept phase.

 

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