Open access 'seems such a seismic change'

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Jane Winters was interviewed as part of Research Information's report The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018

What do you see as the biggest challenges in scholarly publishing today?

There isn’t a single challenge that runs evenly across all of the disciplines, but the biggest one we’re facing is how we can make open access work in a way that preserves what’s good about current scholarly publishing activities, and is also sustainable and allows for innovation. It’s very difficult to move past open access at the moment. It seems such a seismic change in how we think about the way we publish. 

In the UK open access has largely been implemented through hybrid journals, and the recent Plan S announcement is very firmly positioned against hybrid journals – so the system is still clearly being shaken up. There may have been a sense that journal publishing had settled down into this hybrid model, but it didn’t deliver entirely on the promise of open access and allowed publishers to preserve what they were doing without having to innovate quite so much. We’re going to have to find ways of working around that. 

A particular concern for people like me, a historian working in digital humanities, is how we accommodate books in all of this. The business models for book publishing are not really there yet, although there are some interesting experiments. It’s also the case that digital and open book content is largely excluded from ways of measuring usage. The price of a lot of academic books is an issue as well. Are there ways that we can work together to try to bring cost down?  That’s not an easy problem to fix either, but it’s an ongoing challenge in terms of recommending books to students and inequalities of access to this material. 

What can researchers do to help overcome some of the challenges?

I would encourage researchers to understand how publishing works and what open access involves. It may not be something that most people want to spend their evenings doing, but learn about licensing and your rights. As researchers we also need to look at what we’re rewarding within university career progression processes, to make sure that innovative approaches to publishing are valued as well as simply publishing in traditional formats. We also have a duty to help our students to learn how to get to grips with all of this, and particularly to help early-career researchers think about the best ways to publish their work openly. In a very rapidly changing environment it’s quite anxiety-inducing for people at the start of their career, who tend necessarily to be a bit more risk-adverse because they need to maximise their chances of getting a permanent job. 

What can libraries do to help with the challenges?

Libraries are a tremendous source of advice and knowledge, particularly around authors’ rights and licensing and copyright – questions that can be enormously confusing for people. Libraries generally manage institutional repositories, so they can encourage people to make best use of them and help to make sure that we’re using repositories to expose our research effectively. Many libraries have also started to become publishers in their own right. A number of open access presses are springing up, many of them based in libraries, and they are taking advantage of the huge amount of knowledge that resides there, for both book and journal publishing.

What can publishers do to help overcome the open access challenges?

Publishers can make their open access options and processes much more transparent. A lot of the time you have to dig around as an author to find out exactly what the options are. It’s even more opaque in relation to books; there’s this sense that you can publish open access if you really want to but we’d rather you didn’t.  

It’s a fantastic opportunity for publishers to experiment with different business models, and different forms of publication. The shortform book has really been given a shot in the arm by open access because there’s less of an issue around the costs if you’re going to make it open access. 

I don’t think that many publishers take full advantage of the opportunities of online publishing to enhance the book or journal article, to think of it as a networked object that can link out to other material and be linked to from other sources as well. That’s not easy to do, particularly where economies of scale are involved, but we’ve got opportunities to think much more imaginatively about what we’re publishing as researchers. 

Publishers could help themselves a bit more by making clear exactly what’s involved in publishing scholarly material, because a lot of it is hidden from authors. And those conversations about where the value lies and what publishers are bringing to scholarly communication are really important.

Jane Winters is a professor of digital humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London

Download the free report, The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018, here.

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