Keeping independence

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Siân Harris investigates a project to bring down the barriers to electronic publishing for small, not-for-profit publishers.

We are getting used to the idea that all the background literature that a researcher needs to read can be found online. Whether they start from a specialist database, a subject-based portal, a publisher website or a mainstream search engine, researchers expect to be able to search and click through bibliographic links to reach all the relevant papers and other reference material. But does that really happen?

Of course, any database or search engine has its limitations and some resources could be missed by not using the right key words or not recognising the relevance of a misleading article title. But what about if the papers that might be of interest to the researchers are not available electronically at all – and what if they are not even covered in a bibliographic database? In today’s electronic world such papers would be pretty much invisible to many researchers.

In fact, this situation is fairly common in arts, humanities and social sciences. The big commercial publishers have, of course, made significant investments either in their own electronic journals platforms or in using a journals hosting service from another company. But many arts, humanities and social science journals are published by much smaller university presses or scholarly societies.

For not-for-profit organisations such as these, with perhaps just two or three journals, the investment to digitise the papers and make them available electronically may be beyond the organisation’s means. And, even where they are available digitally, it can be hard for a single journal title to compete with the big-deal packages of the larger publishers. The task of publishing and selling such titles therefore often ends up moving to a commercial publisher, either through an outsourcing agreement or through the outright sale of the journal.

However, there is another option, according to Mary Rose Muccie (pictured above). She is director of Project MUSE, an initiative that was started by Johns Hopkins University Press, USA, in 1995 and opened up to include other university presses and society publishers in 2000. The idea behind MUSE, which the press came up with in partnership with the university’s library, is to provide a low-cost central platform from which to sell collections of high-quality journals in similar subject areas.

If a publisher’s journal passes the criteria for inclusion in MUSE (for example, being peer-reviewed, having a relevant subject area and keeping to its publishing schedule), then the publisher does not pay anything for this inclusion. They do, however, receive a share of the profits from the sale of subscriptions to these collections to libraries. ‘We are helping them stay independent and keeping the journals from disappearing,’ explained Muccie. ‘It brings information to researchers’ desktops that they wouldn’t otherwise have got.’

Some 70 publishers are part of Project MUSE. The majority of these are from North America but the project also includes publishers from elsewhere in the world, such as Oxford University Press (OUP), Edinburgh University Press and Australian and New Zealand Association of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Although some university presses such as OUP are very large, most of MUSE’s participants are far smaller. ‘The majority of publishers have between one and five titles in MUSE,’ said Muccie.

And commercial publishers are deliberately absent from the list of MUSE participants. The only exceptions are a few cases where former Project MUSE journals have been sold to a commercial publisher and the new owner provides access to the back issues that were part of the project.

Around 1,300 libraries around the world currently subscribe to MUSE. Of these, around 40 per cent have opted for the project’s Premium collection which includes all the titles in the project – currently more than 300. A further 50 per cent or so of subscribers take the Standard collection which holds around 75 per cent of the titles in the project. Subscribers can also opt for more subject-specific collections or buy individual journals through the project too, although not all the participants allow this for their titles.

Deciding which journals to include is an important part of the project and all the journals have to meet criteria about their quality and relevance. ‘We can only take about 20 new titles every year to avoid diluting the royalty pool too much,’ said Muccie. ‘We routinely have to decline titles. Our first priority is to help journals that wouldn’t be online otherwise.’

As part of this aim, the project will be launching a new initiative next year to help start-up journals and less well-established titles. Such journals would not currently gain a place in MUSE but Muccie and colleagues recognise that publishers are under tremendous pressure to start titles and they want to support them in these endeavours.

This initiative within MUSE is price and revenue neutral, according to Muccie. ‘It will be offered as part of the Premium package and the publishers have to permit MUSE to sell these titles unbundled too. We use the same criteria for deciding which titles to include except that we expect very low scores for collection development,’ she explained. ‘It gives the publishers a chance to get their new journals in front of more people.’