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Introducing the Open Library of Humanities
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Posted On February 11, 2013


While the open access (OA) movement has been moving at dizzying speeds for the past year, its strongest support from academia has been from the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) community. But a group of academics and OA supporters are aiming to change that through the Open Library of Humanities (OLH). Their aim is to build a “low cost, sustainable, Open Access future for the humanities.” While the initiative is still in its early stages of development, it has moved at warp speed from informal conversations to grassroots support to a more organized effort and plan. In the past few weeks, the project has added many highly respected academics and members of the OA publishing community to its growing network of advisory committees. Efforts are now focused on moving forward the group’s ambitious ideas for a new model of scholarly publishing from vision to fruition.

Co-founder Tim McCormick traces one of the seeds of its development to a series of posts in November 2012 on the blog The Disorder of Things, starting with the post, “Death to Open Access! Long Live Open Access!” by Paul Kirby.

In his post, Kirby explains the impetus for the series:

Some of us got together to talk about open access and the political economy of knowledge (re)production in our little corner of academia …. we’ll be posting those reflections here for your delectation because, some discussion notwithstanding, labourers in today’s university-factories need to get talking about these things, and fast.

The second post in the series, authored by Colin Wight, focuses on the Finch Report—“Open Access Publishing: Potential Unintended Consequences of the Finch Proposals.” Wight specifically targets the issue of “article processing charges” (APCs) and funding models for the so-called “gold” route of OA and ends with a cautionary warning:

In the final analysis we cannot know how the proposed OA system will develop, but it does seem that the "gold system," which I believe will initially dominate, is a "fudge" solution. It effectively leaves a system of journal subscription fees in place while at the same time opening up the possibility of publishers charging certain groups of authors a fee to publish. Of course, many publishers have always allowed authors to gain open access to their research output by paying a fee to effectively buy back the publishing right. The "gold system" doesn’t do this. It simply moves funding from one part of the higher education budget to another. The consequences of this move are yet to be fully understood, and hopefully not all of those detailed above will become realities. However, expect to be surprised and to use the old cliché: be careful what you wish for.

These blog posts served to engage academics from the humanities and social sciences in public conversations via Twitter and Google+ throughout December 2012. Within weeks, conversations began to explore the concept of a Public Library of Humanities, or a Public Library of Humanities and Social Science, modeled after the successful publishing venture, the Public Library of Science (PLoS). McCormick details the discussions and captured many of the specific Tweets in his blog post, “Public Library of Humanities: Envisioning a New Open Access Platform.” He explains:

While "PLOH" is basically a metaphor, for what could be various and multiple projects, it seems the concept resonates with many people in scholarly communication right now. There is a sense that some type of [Humanities and Social Science] "Great Leap Forward" may be possible now, given the gathering Open Access and the [UK Research Excellence Framework] REF mandates, the diffusion of better publishing tools and cloud computing, and the rise of altmetrics and social impact measurement.

By mid-January, the concept evolved into its current incarnation, the Open Library of Humanities. McCormick and two colleagues, Martin Paul Eve (lecturer in English at the University of Lincoln) and Caroline Edwards (lecturer in English at the University of Lincoln), officially founded the project and launched its website. Via email, McCormick explained that the group of co-founders “felt that circumstances were aligning to create a great opportunity and need for a new publishing program, to innovate and pioneer in the space of [Humanities and Social Science] Open Access.” The group is loosely using PLOS as a model to offer “high-volume, high-efficiency, high-impact leading-edge brand,” one with an international (U.S./U.K.) operation.

When asked if project plans included following a fairly standard publishing model or go in a more unstructured direction, McCormick responded:

We are quite cognizant that standards, conventions, and credibility are a key part of attracting scholars to given publishing venues—to read, cite, submit to, and use for tenure/promotion/funding purposes. So in that respect, we want to be standard. At the same time, we want to explore and stretch the limits of this, for example by building for low to zero APCs…and availability for anyone to read and use…We’re also interested in emerging areas like models for more open peer-review, bridging between journal/article and monograph structures, and designing for more social-media dissemination and public impact.

Now, the group has been growing its network of supporters and preparing for implementation. The group is getting organized into an Advocacy Forum and various operational committees: Academic Steering and Advocacy; LibTech; Finance, Sustainability and Legal; Editorial; and Internationalisation. At the same time, the founding members are focusing on fundraising. The team is seeking funding in the range of $1 million to $1.5 million from major U.S. foundations to use as seed money for at least a 1-year period to get the operation up and running.

In what is a radical departure from the glacial speed in which much of academia, the publishing industry, and the library community typically move, the OLH is using the technology industry as one of its models for operations. McCormick explains: “This would be a kind of Silicon Valley, lean startup-iteration approach.” When asked when the first publication might be released, McCormick indicated that the timeframe is still undetermined. “It’s possible we will move into it stepwise, with some exploratory or prototype projects such as curated blogging or guest articles.”

In the meantime, the founders are exploring OA business models for the long term: “We’ve done some, and will do much more, business analysis of how to create a sustainable operation with Open Access and low or preferably zero APC (sometimes called ‘Diamond’ OA, or ‘GoldZero’). We look at the many OA operations such as eLife that have funded zero-APC operations for a period or indefinitely, and [we are] considering options such as institutional members. With a goal of free to read/use and free to submit, there are many potential business structures that might support that.” 


Abby Clobridge is the managing director of Clobridge Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in knowledge management, information management, and open access. Abby has worked with a wide range of organizations throughout the world, including various United Nations agencies; colleges and research universities; nonprofit, intergovernmental, and multistakeholder organizations; the news media; and private sector companies. She can be found on Twitter @aclobridge.

Email Abby Clobridge

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