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The lone publisher - in search of silver

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John Murphy shares his experiences of attempting to launch an open-access journal

The open-access (OA) model is well established in scientific, technical and medical publishing. Organisations that fund research are prepared to pay for the results to be openly published and thus shared freely with those who cannot afford to pay for serials.

It’s a bit harder to sell the idea in humanities and social sciences. Are there donors who want to fund the publication of monographs on Renaissance poets? Or the use of Facebook by rebels in Libya? Or the depiction of food consumption in Hollywood films? If so, please get in touch.

OA journals are an excellent way to transfer knowledge from rich economies to less rich ones. Yes, developing countries need STM information and the latest ideas on crop rotation, but to develop fully a country might also need to grow its cultural life, media and social aspirations.

I noticed that many general newspaper publishers were having trouble making a profit in the face of intense competition for readers and advertising revenue from online publishers. It occurred to me that if major news corporations are feeling the pinch, where does this leave small newspaper publishers in emerging democracies where they might face competition from state or local government-funded propaganda sheets?

With this in mind, about two years ago I began to investigate the idea of an OA journal focusing on case studies of general newspapers that have come up with new business models or ways of garnering revenue, in order to support independent editorial content. Journalism in Transition was the working title and it was intended to be read by editors of newspapers in “emerging democracies”.

I sought advice from an existing OA publisher in the humanities in the shape of Gary Hall of Coventry University in the UK. He is a co-founder of the Open Humanities Press and also co-founder of the online OA journal Culture Machine.

His response to me was: ‘it’s an interesting idea but will there be enough people willing and able to write about this topic to sustain such a journal over the long term?’ He pointed out that journalists are used to getting paid for their writing and that there is an additional challenge with OA titles in that there is no income from subscriptions to play with.

‘If you are looking for sponsorship to help support the running of such a journal, you may be better off simply taking the idea to a publisher, and getting them to publish it with you as the editor,’ he suggested.

He had more advice for me too: ‘You might be able to get the likes of UNESCO or Soros interested in sponsoring it but, in my experience, it’s hard. People generally start OA journals because they believe in the idea of OA as a philosophy, because it’s easy to do so, they’re cheap to operate and run and they can do so without needing to satisfy the requirements of a commercial publisher (for profits etc.).’

So, with so many challenges highlighted, what business model does Hall use? According to the title of a recent presentation Hall gave about how the Open Humanities Press works, ‘We don’t have funding, we don’t charge subscriptions, and we don’t have author-pays – we just have friends!’

Caroline Sutton 

Other issues he raised were around getting the right people on the editorial board. After many emails to leading figures in academic journalism, I received some encouragement but there was a feeling that nobody wanted to be the first to have their name associated with the idea. A pathfinder grant application for the project was refused on the grounds that the project did not appear to generate enough revenue to sustain it after the grant ran out (even though part of the idea was to continue seeking grants).

No-cost publishing?

The next stage was to see if it could be published for nothing. At least that would allow me to prove my concept and maybe others would then jump in and help get funding. That part was relatively easy. There are countless Open Source Journal Management Systems, even some hosted services, but these all seemed to want some money. Until I found ePress. This service is based at the University of Surrey, UK and its charges are based on the number of articles you wanted to publish. Amazingly, the first 10 articles – enough for a launch issue – would be free.

EPress began in 1995 as an “electronic libraries” research project funded by the UK’s JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) as a pioneering electronic publishing venture. It was taken on by Nigel Gilbert, a very techno-savvy sociologist.

As Gilbert explained, ‘We were funded for three years to employ someone to run some electronic journals. He got fed up with the repetitive nature of the work and produced a Perl script. When he left I rewrote it in PHP. I now edit a journal of sociology so if something goes wrong I know about it very quickly and fix it. Other than that the only cost is some university servers.’ Today, nearly 50 journals use the EPress service, although this number is small compared with others in the field.

Gilbert also had some encouraging words about the idea of publishing OA journals in the humanities and social sciences. He believes that academics in developing countries are just as interested in the humanities as in any other part of the world; they just don’t have the money to pay journal subscription charges. He comments that it is important to make social science and other literature available to the widest possible audience rather than assume they are just interested in road building and crop rotation.

Attracting authors

So, for my journal proposal I had a way to publish, but as yet no high-profile names to launch my title and attract authors. It felt like trying to launch a new political party. You either had to have a lot of money or enough charisma to persuade people to join you and work for free, or both.

Nigel Gilbert

Then, just to cap it all, someone else launched a blog on the same subject using WordPress, stealing all my thunder!

My OA journal idea was quietly shelved but what does this experience say about OA publishing in social sciences and the humanities?

Caroline Sutton, a founder of OA publisher Co-Action Publishing and president of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, said there are some small publications around that have been put together by academics relying on favours. But she added that journal publishing is not always the first choice for academics in the social sciences and humanities anyway.

She said: ‘They tend to write books, but journal articles could be thought of as a teaser for their next book. Ironically, there seems to be money around for publishing books. There are so many books in social sciences and humanities that would never have been published without subsidy because you will never sell enough copies to get the costs back. Some books are being published under an OA model and are being downloaded in their thousands.’

The European Commission has helped to fund the OAPEN project, which has seen university presses from all over Europe cooperating to publish OA books. Maybe the next round of EU funding might include journals? Sutton believe that, while we may have to wait a little longer for this idea to become common, it will eventually happen just as it did in STM.

As well as writing for Research Information, John Murphy lectures in journalism at the University of Hertfordshire, UK