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open neon sign

photo courtesy of Bill Smith

I recently had a fascinating conversation with Rebecca Kennison about the ambitious project she and Lisa Norberg first described publicly in a white paper back in 2014. They examined the complex landscape within which scholarly research is published and came up with a plan to build a new system for funding humanities and social sciences publishing that would make it open to all while preserving it for the future. Their plan is breathtakingly audacious. It’s also thoughtful and respectful of the interests and concerns of all stakeholders. Essentially, the plan is a way to say “we can make all humanities and social sciences research open if we want to. But every institution of higher learning will have to chip in.”

The Open Access Network (OAN) is turning the white paper’s key idea into action. It has already gathered some institutional partners and recruited some pilot non-profit publishers that want to make the shift to open access but currently don’t have the financial means to do so. At the same time, the OAN is continually exploring the complexities of publishing in these fields with humanists, social scientists, and their scholarly societies.

We’re nearing a tipping point in scholarly publishing. Neither scholars nor the general public has access to a lot of the work being produced by academics, and publishing just for the sake of adding lines to a CV is no longer an acceptable cost of doing academic business. Assuming a critical mass of scholars will have access to research libraries that can afford to provide nearly everything is not realistic or sustainable, even though libraries spend enormous amounts of money trying to provide as much access as possible with rising costs and shrinking budgets. The idea of open access is gaining traction among scholars, and any number of experiments are under way to develop new ways of making it possible.

Big commercial publishers have seen the writing on the wall and are busy launching new open access journals and doubling their bets by offering so-called “hybrid” journals – ones that make money on subscriptions and then make more money by setting individual articles free for a price. Last year, a staffer at Nature Publishing Group told me that their journals now published more open access articles than paywalled articles. It’s becoming the new normal in the some fields.  

Scientists in many disciplines can build the cost of open access publishing into grants, and increasingly funders require that research results be open to all and are willing to pay for it. But – surprise! – there isn’t a lot of cash available to fund the publication of humanities and social sciences research. The “author pays” (more accurately, the “author wrangles the money from someone else to pay”) model of financing publication isn’t going to work. Nor can we rely entirely on ad hoc volunteer efforts or even well-planned and thoughtfully financed projects of limited scope. We need a sustainable system for scholarship writ large. The one we developed for a print era when public funding of higher education was generous is over. Luckily, we have new ways of sharing knowledge. We just have to make the shift, somehow.

Librarians have known the old system was unsustainable for years and have thrown themselves into library-supported publishing. Many institutions have repositories where faculty can post their work. Many provide labor and software support for publishing open access journals and books. However, all this work hasn’t replaced the broken system. It has created more avenues for publishing, but it’s a parallel universe, not a fix. Besides, this isn’t a library problem for libraries to solve. It’s a higher education problem. We need all hands on deck to fix it.  

Rebecca argues that thinking big about the entire system, not creating piecemeal solutions, is what is needed now. The OAN will be focused on bringing together scholars, their societies, university presses, and institutions of higher learning of every size and stripe to build a new infrastructure to fund “open everything” – journals, books, digital projects, open textbooks and other learning materials. This is an attempt to think holistically about what an open world of knowledge looks like.

In brief, the idea is for all institutions of higher learning, regardless of size or mission, to contribute to a common centrally-managed fund which will disburse resources to publishers – societies, university presses, and others – to pay for the publication and preservation of research. Though there are many moving parts to this model, it’s designed to be a big-picture process for engaging institutions in supporting an open, transparent, sustainable, and durable infrastructure for scholarship. The first step is to model this infrastructure with early-adopter institutions and scholarly societies. Then, the OAN will encourage wide adoption by institutions, based on their size and taking into account contributions they have already made to open access through establishing repositories, supporting publishing, or investing in various open access projects such as Knowledge Unlatched, the Open Library of Humanities, and Lever Press.

Though institutions are currently used to taking a competitive stance, this collaborative support for openness should be attractive even in a self-interested way. Our graduates are currently shut out of the expensive resources that institutions provide to currently enrolled students at great expense. Wouldn't they be happier if that funding meant they had continual access? It should appeal to the public, which has lost faith in the competitive and costly way higher education works today.

The OAN doesn’t lack chutzpah. It hopes to recruit half of higher education institutions to pay into a common fund by 2018. Ambitious? Yes. But I can’t think of any other project that has thought through the entire landscape of scholarly publishing as thoroughly as OAN.

I suspect one reason Rebecca is able to see the big picture while working out the nitty-gritty details is that she has seen scholarly publishing from many angles. After a few years of teaching English courses at the college level, she became the managing editor of Cell and worked as a production manager at Blackwell. She worked for database companies (remember Silver Platter?) in the early days of making print research digital, and later became Director of Production at PLoS – a ground-breaking open access science publisher. More recently, she was Director of the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship at Columbia University. She knows scholarly publishing from many angles and is a dab hand at project management.  

While this is a very large project to manage, it’s exciting to see such a big-picture attempt to build a new framework for a new way of communicating scholarship that will be open by default. It’s not realistic to assume that business as usual will go on. The OAN is thinking about the whole process, from creation and innovation of new publishing platforms to preservation of the record, working out a map for how to build and sustain new kinds of publishing that meet the needs of all stakeholders through collaboration and a commitment to openness. I’m impressed, and I hope it gathers a lot of support in coming years.


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