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The humanities and social sciences have been reluctant to adopt open-access publishing, but change is afoot, reports Rebecca Pool

In Spring 2009, a tense debate took place at the University of Maryland, USA that painfully highlighted the chasm between science, technical and medical disciplines, and the social sciences and humanities. A senate committee from the university had proposed a resolution that called for faculty members to publish research in free, online databases.

At a time when open-access (OA) publishing had been widely accepted in academic institutions across the world, votes were cast 37 against the motion and 24 in favour. Student newspaper The Diamondback Online reported a ‘face off’ between science and humanities academics with one history professor saying: ‘Open access applies well to some disciplines and hurts others.’

While not every academic in the humanities and social sciences will support this sentiment, many may sympathise. From the beginning, OA has moved slowly in these sectors compared to its support in science, technology and medicine (STM).

Biomedical scientists were particularly quick to embrace the new breed of journals that were digital, online, free of charge and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions, while OA archiving rocketed amongst physicists. This reflects attitudes to online information itself; a survey by the Research Information Network in 2007 revealed that only one fifth of researchers in the life sciences and physical sciences rated print versions of current journal issues as very useful for their research. In the arts and humanities the figure was three fifths.

These stark contrasts in attitudes are partly due to the different ways in which the research sectors are funded. Unlike STM disciplines, much research in the humanities and social sciences is produced by individual researchers without the support of a specific project grant. Instead, many of these academics derive relatively small amounts of funding from their institution’s block grant based on the results of a research assessment exercise.

While these funds provide the humanity and social science academic with the time and resources to carry out research, they rarely cover publication costs. This limits the scope for them to publish in OA journals funded through publication fees. It could also explain why there is no humanities or social sciences equivalent to PubMed Central or the Public Library of Science, both with a strong focus on the OA publishing of relatively well-funded medical research.

Governments also tend to plough more funds into the STM disciplines. Consequently, the well-established tax-payer argument for OA, which states that tax payers shouldn’t have to pay a second fee to find out about tax-payer-funded research, carries more clout in STM. And the simple fact that more people demand free and easy access to research into cancer, say, than they do into Roman history research, only fuels this argument further.

Another important distinction is that journal prices tend to be higher in STM fields than in the humanities and social sciences. From a library or university viewpoint, this is a compelling reason to consider OA publishing. In contrast, the more-affordable humanities journals give less urgency to trim costs by turning to OA options.

A breed apart

But it’s not all about cash; the way in which these academics carry out research is very different too. Bloomsbury, publisher of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, is well aware of this fact. In September 2008, the UK business boldly launched a new academic and monograph imprint, Bloomsbury Academic, selling humanity books under an OA model.

But why books? Bloomsbury Academic is exploiting a fact that other organisations and institutions have realised, but not acted on; humanities researchers value books over journals.

As the company’s publishing director Frances Pinter explained: ‘For STM researchers, the main conduit for research dissemination is the academic journal. For the humanities and social sciences it’s more of a mixed model. These fields are more reliant on the long-form publication of books, because it isn’t always possible to represent a set of ideas, theories and themes, and write about them in article form – people just need more space.’

Gary Hall, from the School of Art and Design at UK-based Coventry University, agrees. Hall is co-editor of Culture Machine, an OA journal of culture and theory, founded in 1999. He is also co-founder of the Open Humanities Press (OHP), an OA publishing initiative in the humanities that recently launched an OA book series. ‘The publication of (humanities research findings) is less time sensitive. You haven’t cured an important disease for which people need to know the results quickly,’ he pointed out. ‘The extended argument is more valued in the humanities – if you want to get the humanities on board you can’t just concentrate on journals publishing, you have to have books as that’s what’s important to these researchers.’

The case in point came in May 2008, when Hall and colleagues launched the OHP. Described by the Public Library of Science as a ‘beacon of hope’ in a sector where OA remained relatively untouched, the initiative was well received. But, still, the users wanted more.

‘As soon as we launched the Open Humanities Press we got lots of people writing to us from the arts and humanities saying it’s great to see journals, but what we really need is books,’ said Hall.

The organisation has since joined forces with the US University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly Publishing Office (SPO) and this year will publish five books as part of its OA book series in critical and cultural theory. One series ‘Culture Machine Liquid Books’, is a collection of experimental digital ‘books’ published under the conditions of both open editing and free content.

So how will OHP’s model of OA book publishing work? After vetting and peer review, manuscripts are passed onto the SPO and converted to structured XML for electronic and print on-demand publication, metadata creation and cataloguing as well as archiving in the University of Michigan library. E-books are available from the OHP and SPO websites whereas paperback versions can be bought from online distributors.

Authors retain copyrights for their works and have a choice of Creative Commons licences. They can also choose to publish their manuscripts online in various pre- and post-publication versions for reader comment and annotation.

‘Our mission is to help academics make their work available online and help them publish it. We keep a high standard of professional publication, we maintain the editorial quality with our international editorial board, so we cut costs this way,’ explained Hall. ‘Print-on-demand will also subsidise making titles available as OA. It’s working.’

Hall is also certain that placing content online for free doesn’t detract from hard copy sales, but actually stimulates demand. ‘[Businesses] that have published books online [for free] are finding that there is very little damage to sales, in fact a lot of the time, sales increase,’ he asserted. ‘People find the book, dip into it, but very few will read an entire book online, or even print it. If you like the book and want to read all of it, you will buy it.’

Financial balance

Like the OHP, Bloomsbury Academic originally advocated the OA publishing of books, with financial support from the sale of hard copies using print-on-demand technology. However, since its initial announcement the publisher has added another money-making element to its business model.

‘In the last year the e-book world has begun to take off, especially in academia,’ observed Bloomsbury Academic’s Frances Pinter. ‘So we’ve decided to sell an enhanced e-book as well as the print book, while still putting the content online, under a Creative Commons licence.’

According to Pinter, the free, online, HTML version will comprise text with footnotes at the end, while the e-book will have enhanced functionality, possibly more content as well as a layout and index like a conventional book. ‘Yes, our original model was to put the book online free and sell printed copies, but Bloomsbury still has to make money; myself and my colleagues have to get paid. So now we will sell enhanced e-books as well,’ she added.

The publisher is currently working on the software platform for its new business model with the website scheduled to launch this April. And, while the current website comprises half a dozen research publications ready to download, more will follow. ‘We have more books coming,’ highlighted Pinter. ‘In terms of forthcoming projects, we’ve got about a hundred on the go.’

All change

Bloomsbury Academic and OHP are just two of a small, but growing number of organisations that can see the potential for OA publishing of digital monographs in the humanities, as well as the social science sectors. For example, OAPEN (Open Access Publishing in European Networks) is an EC-funded consortium of publishers and universities, launched in September 2008, which is endeavouring to develop a sound OA publication model for academic books in the humanities and social sciences.

The network’s latest research pinpoints what humanities and social science scholars want from OA publishing. Findings are positive, including researchers’ thoughts on how a new mode of publishing could save the monograph from a traditional, print model that is no longer sustainable.

Pinter and Hall’s experiences echo OAPEN findings. ‘We’ve been able to find first-class authors, even Nobel Prize winners,’ enthused Pinter. ‘Many potential readers simply don’t have access to academic monographs, because these books are expensive and often only get into a small number of wealthy libraries that can afford them. The authors just love the idea of their content being disseminated.’

Hall agreed, arguing that the vast majority of authors simply want people to access their work, read it, comment on it and cite it. ‘Publishers have thought that authors of books were interested in royalty fees, and wouldn’t wish to give away material for free,’ he said. ‘However, when you sign a contract with a publisher, the royalty fees are so small due to the small numbers of sales, money is not the issue, you just want your information out there and accessed by people.’

Hall is confident that with time the interested body of academics will grow. ‘In a couple of years, more and more academics are going to want to be publishing books and monographs online. They will ask their publishers’ permission to do this or take advantage of the many OA publishers that are emerging,’ he asserted.

And as he pointed out, software is already available, and more is being developed, to ensure this can be done quickly and easily. ‘You don’t yet get the credibility of publishing with a well-respected press such as Harvard or Oxford, but people will be looking for new ways to get that stamp of authority,’ he adds. ‘Why would you publish your research with a press that’s only going to bring out a few copies, charge £70 in hardback and nobody will buy it?’

The senate committee from the University of Maryland would probably cite quite a few reasons. However, as reported on The Diamondback Online, the university’s arts and humanities dean, James Harris said: ‘Libraries are slowly becoming virtual and the university will eventually have to transition with them. This is happening. The train has left the station.’