Project guides OA development in humanities and social science

Saskia C J de Vries reports on a new initiative to explore and promote open-access monographs across Europe

Book publishing in the humanities and social sciences (HSS) is in a period of change and upheaval. The sector has suffered from the reduction in overall funds and from the rise of spending in STM. The transition to digital forms of communication and publication, however, offers true potential for renewing and strengthening scholarly publishing.

As Frances Pinter explained in the last issue of Research Information, HSS researchers are more reliant than those in STM disciplines on the long-form publication of books. This, she pointed out, is 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.’

It is rather interesting to see some of the commercial STM publishers argue that ‘a book is just a collection of articles’, and treat it accordingly. Of course, conference proceedings and some collections of articles brought together simply by an introduction and conclusion are like this. However, beside the quality of the documentation and the knowledge of previous works, what counts most in HSS is the quality of the argumentative trajectory. HSS books generally aim to provide a unified, organically-structured argument. They attempt an interpretation that creates meaning, and, in most cases, that is much more than a simple exposition of facts. They are works – not simply collections of facts – and lend themselves to various, sometimes divergent, forms of reading.

A new initiative

This was clear to a group of European publishing partners, which are all predominantly active in HSS, and all experimenting with open access (OA) for ‘real’ monographs. These partners joined forces in a new project called Open Access Publishing in European Networks (OAPEN), which now consists of five European university presses (Amsterdam, Göttingen, Florence, Lyon, Manchester and Copenhagen) and two universities in the Netherlands, and is open to new partners. Jointly, the members have digital publishing programmes, conduct OA experiments, make use of digital repositories, publish in different European languages, have a worldwide distribution network (including the USA), and cooperate closely with university libraries. At the request of the European Commission (EC), these partners have developed a joint proposal in the category of ‘Targeted Projects’ in the EC’s eContentplus programme.

One of the aims of OAPEN is to develop and implement an OA publication model for HSS academic books. The project also aims to achieve a sustainable approach to improve quantity, visibility and usability of high-quality OA content. It aims to foster the creation of new content by developing future-oriented publishing solutions, including an online library dedicated to HSS that will ‘oapen’ in the summer of 2010. In order to expand the content of the online library and achieve critical mass, OAPEN is also aggregating content from other scholarly publishers that have a considerable focus on HSS and are interested in publishing high-quality monographs and open-minded towards OA. It also welcomes institutes with a publishing aspiration or scholars in charge of a series.

The model that will be developed (and which will be the first of its kind) aims to create an OA publishing platform in combination with an online library, that can be used by academic publishers and research funding institutes, based on their individual needs. In this sense OAPEN will play an integrating and marketing role for OA publishing of HSS books. It will develop and foster the visibility of this publishing model to all stakeholders. These include readers, authors, institutions, publishers, librarians and research funding organisations.

To ensure quality and trust, the OAPEN library will only accept OA publications that are thoroughly peer-reviewed, and subject to the usual publishing restrictions of each press. To cater to the scholarly community’s continuing need for printed publications for ‘thorough study’, OAPEN publications will be made available as printed books through print-on-demand partners globally.

Research into OA

The OAPEN participants also conduct research into OA and the project will soon publish its ‘Best Practices Report’. The authors, Janneke Adema, Jean Kempf and Paul Rutten, note in a pre-publication version of the report that: ‘After careful study of all the players in the field of academic publishing and thorough research on the state of HSS publishing, the OAPEN team concludes that OA publishing is the preferred road to follow in this transition as it offers benefits for all stakeholders involved in scholarly communication and publishing.’

They argue that, for authors, OA extends the reach of their work by ensuring worldwide access and retrievability. Researchers also benefit through direct access to publications, improved search mechanisms across collections and ease of use. Research funders can not only guarantee the publication of peer-reviewed research results, but also ensure free and unrestricted access, thereby improving the return on their investment in research. Libraries can improve the service to their customers. And, for academic publishers, OA publishing offers a more effective and sustainable approach to the dissemination of scholarly knowledge. ‘This means increased accessibility and dissemination leading to better research and greater benefits for society at large,’ the report authors observe.

However, the report also notes that OA raises questions and causes worries: ‘[These] have to do with the establishment of quality and hence trust in an open digital environment. There are concerns with the growing flexibility and liquidity of information as a result of the possibility to copy, re-use and adapt.

‘There is also the need to invent new publishing and business models and workflows that are more adapted to the (new) digital needs and practices and allow a sustainable development,’ say the report authors.

The report concludes that when (and perhaps only when) those issues are solved in a satisfactory enough manner, OA publishing will allow for true development of digital humanities and social sciences. However, experimenting with large amounts of data and exploring the possibilities of things like open research and liquid publications requires the free availability of information in various global settings as a necessary pre-condition. Only open information can be easily mined and reused; only open information can become truly interactive, offering the potential for new scholarly methods and analytical formats.

Through OA publishing, publishers can also better connect with their authors, by beginning to offer them services during the research phase. A shift in focus in the digital realm from product to process might be seen, in which publishers could aid scholars by setting up branded research environments. These could also offer multiple publication paths, both formal and informal.

Although the role of the publisher in the publishing chain may remain relatively stable (choice, quality assurance and coordination of production), the structural position of publishing in the economic model may change dramatically. In the medium term, we believe that academic publishing could evolve into a service sector providing services to scholars, faculties and academic consortia, taking care of specific tasks and roles in knowledge creation and distribution. In this scenario, these activities could replace the present role of the investor and risk taker in the market for academic information, yet reaffirming one of the basic principles of the chain of scholarly publishing: the great importance of quality assurance and efficient dissemination/access as essential to good research.

Saskia C J de Vries is director of Amsterdam University Press, which is coordinator of the Open Access Publishing in European Networks (OAPEN) initiative.

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