Open Access Week special edition #2: interview with the ScholarLed team

This year, we are celebrating Open Access Week by introducing fair and scholar-led Open Access publishing initiatives to the DARIAH communities. These endeavors inspire us to re-imagine the relationship between publishing, humanities disciplines and the university and scholars’ own involvement and control over publishing.

In the second episode, we spoke with Lucy Barnes and Dr. Janneke Adema from the the ScholarLed team. Lucy and Janneke tell us about price and prestige, what kind of experiences sparked the ScholarLed collective to life, why scholars’ involvement in scholarly publishing is important, and of course, how the DARIAH communities can interact with the consortium. Enjoy!

To read the first episode, click here.

Image source: Twitter

Hi Lucy and Janneke and thanks for joining us here!  Could you start off by letting us know a little bit about the ScholarLed consortium? What kind of experiences sparked the collective to life, who are its members, and how it contributes to making Open Access a reality to SSH scholars? 

ScholarLed are a group of five not-for-profit, Open Access book publishers who are developing powerful, practical ways for small-scale and scholar-led OA presses to flourish and make an impact in a changing publishing landscape.

Our members are Mattering Press, meson press, Open Book Publishers, Open Humanities Press, and punctum books. (Lucy is part of Open Book Publishers and Janneke is part of Open Humanities Press.) We have diverse publishing programmes and missions, but we all share a commitment to an academic-led, not-for-profit OA ethos and to transitioning away from the Book Processing Charge (BPC) model of funding for Open Access books.

We first came together as part of a pilot project facilitated by OpenAire funding, which looked at non-BPC [free-to-publish] business models. This was the spark that set the whole thing going — it gave us the opportunity to work on our ideas together and deepened the relationships between the presses — and we realised that an ongoing collaboration between smaller publishers had the potential to achieve a huge amount. We’ve termed this approach ‘Scaling Small’, borrowing a concept first developed by Janneke and Sam Moore of the Radical Open Access Collective.

This idea of ‘scaling small’ is particularly useful given that the sceptical response to the work of an independent, academic-led OA press is often: “this is great, but how does it scale up?” Rather than focusing on how individual presses can get bigger, we believe that if greater numbers of OA publishers were able to flourish — to be financially sustainable, without the need to charge authors to publish Open Access, and to be able to support work that they believe in — we could create a much more diverse, lively and fruitful scholarly commons. Instead of scaling *up*, we need to create a publishing system that works at *multiple scales*. Our members are of varying sizes: some publish two or three books a month, and some publish two or three books a year, but we envision a landscape in which it is possible for academic-led presses of whatever size to thrive.

To this end, we led the creation of the Community-led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs (COPIM) project, which is designed to build much-needed community-controlled, open systems and infrastructures that will develop and strengthen Open Access book publishing.

To this end, we led the creation of the Community-led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs (COPIM) project, which is designed to build much-needed community-controlled, open systems and infrastructures that will develop and strengthen Open Access book publishing. With international partners including Birkbeck, University of London; Trinity College, Cambridge; Lancaster University; University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) Library; Loughborough University Library; Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB); Jisc Collections; and the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC); and with a £2.2 million grant from the Research England Development fund as well as a grant of £800,000 from Arcadia, we will be working over the next three years to turn this vision into a reality. 

How would you position ScholarLed in the increasingly crowded Open Access publishing landscape? 

Obviously there are many players in the OA landscape, with a variety of approaches to Open Access and different concepts of what OA publishing should look like. We believe it is important for scholar-led OA to have a strong voice in the resulting debates over Open Access. Ultimately, academic publishing should serve the scholarly community — which includes para-academics, students, ECRs, independent scholars, librarians, archivists, and many more — and their readers. Presses led by academics are uniquely positioned to be able to bring together our expertise as publishers with our perspectives and ambitions as members of the academic community, in order to drive forward the public presentation and dissemination of scholarly research.

ScholarLed is a collaborative enterprise, which means that our member presses all have different approaches and aims for what we want to achieve individually, and we can therefore interact flexibly with the wider OA landscape — while still sharing objectives as ScholarLed. For example, we are all individual members of the Radical Open Access Collective, which is a larger and looser grouping of OA publishers; we have our own individual partnerships and projects with libraries, with funders and with academic institutions; our own business models; and our own ambitions for what we want to publish. We can share our different experiences with each other and bring this kaleidoscope of relationships to bear on our work as ScholarLed, which provides us with a more focused channel to work on certain projects together — be they larger-scale endeavours such as COPIM, or smaller-scale initiatives such as our Twitter feed (@scholarled), our blog (which has been publishing a number of posts during OA Week from a wide range of contributors, including DARIAH’s Erzsébet Tóth-Czifra), or our conference stand, which allows us to showcase the work of all the ScholarLed members when any of us attends an event.

As mentioned earlier, we believe it is important for academics to be directly involved in the publishing process — this is not to say that every academic should be a publisher, but that academic-led publishing should be influential in the global dissemination of research. To some extent, we see ourselves as an oppositional voice in a publishing environment that can drift too far towards blunt statistical methods of assessment, such as impact factors. (…) We are concerned that publishing should serve scholarship, and not the other way around.

Scholar-led means that the OpenAccess book publishers who form the collective are run by academics or professionals who are still closely working together with researchers and research institutions. Why is it important for you? How scholars own involvement in publishing leads us to reimagine the relationship between publishing, humanities disciplines and the university? 

As mentioned earlier, we believe it is important for academics to be directly involved in the publishing process — this is not to say that every academic should be a publisher, but that academic-led publishing should be influential in the global dissemination of research. To some extent, we see ourselves as an oppositional voice in a publishing environment that can drift too far towards blunt statistical methods of assessment, such as impact factors. We want to show that publishing can operate differently — that there can be a place for more niche or for more radical voices, and that research which might not necessarily sell a lot of books can still find a significant audience and have a meaningful impact if it is published OA. We are concerned that publishing should serve scholarship, and not the other way around.

As for the relationship between publishing and the university — it’s important to note that the ScholarLed presses are not university presses. They are all independent, although some have close ties with certain institutions; for example Open Book Publisher’s co-Directors are all members of the University of Cambridge, and punctum has a close relationship with UCSB Library. This independence is important: we are not yoked to the ‘brand’ of any particular university and we each govern ourselves, so we are free to act and speak without institutional loyalties or hierarchies being brought to bear. This allows us to be more nimble actors within the scholarly landscape and to pay attention to issues, to authors or to academic work that might not have a home within an institutional setting.

What drives authors to publish with the scholar-led born-Open Access presses constituting ScholarLed? 

Well, I guess you’d have to ask them! But according to some of the feedback we receive from authors, they value the care we take in the publishing process — we understand from direct experience what it feels like to be in their position, and what academics want from a publisher. They appreciate that our aim is always to get their work to its readership, however big or small — for example, if certain books focus on particular geographic regions, it’s exciting for authors if the readership metrics show that the work is being read there. They appreciate our non-profit ethos — there is often an ethical aspect to the enthusiasm of authors who think that research should not be locked away for profit, and who believe in Open Access as a means of achieving equitable access to the knowledge they have created. Fundamentally, we see the publication of academic research as a collaboration with scholars to get their work out into the world in the best shape it can be, and researchers respond to that.

For arts and humanities scholars, the major challenges associated with Open Access publishing have to do with price and prestige. Let’s talk a bit first about the former. How are you able to lower costs and to move away from a BPC (Book Processing Charge) business model  but still maintain rigorous, high-quality publishing services? 

Our member presses all have different business models and ways of tackling this challenge. There are two sides to the question of sustainability: costs and revenue. The ScholarLed presses see lower distribution costs than those reported by traditional publishers — Rupert Gatti, a co-Director of Open Book Publishers, has blogged about the possible reasons for this before, and the point was picked up by punctum in recent discussions online. This is also an area in which COPIM will intervene, by allowing us to pool and share our experiences in the process of developing shared infrastructure to bring down the costs of disseminating scholarly books.

The ScholarLed presses generally have hybrid revenue models, which combine some or all of the following: print sales (which are significant — and it would be interesting to ask those presses that charge high BPCs how much they see sales affected when a book is published Open Access), download sales, reader subscriptions, library subscriptions, voluntary subventions and the monetization of downstream rights. However, effective systems for sustaining diverse funding flows between large numbers of parties are difficult to establish and costly to sustain. This is a particular problem for small and new publishers with limited resources — but it is an area where there are substantial returns to scale and scope for significant cost reductions through the development of shared digital infrastructures. COPIM will also intervene here, by developing new digital infrastructures to support funding processes; by developing a collective consortial library funding program in horizontal partnerships with scholarly communication librarians internationally; and by researching and piloting alternative business models for OA presses.

It is important to emphasise that these developments — both making dissemination more cost-effective and enabling alternative forms of revenue generation — are not at the expense of the quality of the books themselves. The ScholarLed presses all have rigorous peer-review processes, and put considerable care and attention into presenting excellent research in the most engaging, high-quality and innovative ways.

It is important to emphasise that these developments — both making dissemination more cost-effective and enabling alternative forms of revenue generation — are not at the expense of the quality of the books themselves. The ScholarLed presses all have rigorous peer-review processes, and put considerable care and attention into presenting excellent research in the most engaging, high-quality and innovative ways. The expertise and labour involved in these tasks are no mean investment.

Speaking of the second challenge, the prestige economy: in the current reward system, scholars are highly motivated to publish in prestigious publication venues with long tradition. Even those who support the idea of openness show cautiousness with Open Access book publishing assuming, sometimes rightfully so, that it would potentially hinder their careers. Can you maybe share success stories for the contrary from your practice? 

We believe this cautiousness is beginning to shift because scholars can see the benefits of OA to their research in terms of readership and engagement, and because funders and research bodies are beginning to emphasise the importance of Open Access — see, for example, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK, which has indicated its intention to mandate Open Access publication for submitted monographs in the next cycle (after 2021). Many academics are also seeking alternatives to the so-called ‘prestige economy’, and questioning whether it serves their research to artificially limit their choices to a certain number of pre-sanctioned publishers. Especially since, as Deville, Sondervan, Wennström and Stone have highlighted in their recent article Rebels with a Cause? — which successfully tackles some of the assumptions that continue to exist around Open Access publishing, New University Presses (NUPs) and Academic-Led Presses (ALPs) — ‘these new presses are not just adhering to conventional publishing norms but are often innovating in order to surpass them’.

And it is not our experience that publishing Open Access has hindered anyone’s career — quite the contrary!

And it is not our experience that publishing Open Access has hindered anyone’s career — quite the contrary! A few examples from Open Book Publishers and Open Humanities Press:

Open Book Publishers (OBP): Our author, Martin Eve, has just been awarded the prestigious Philip Leverhulme Prize, which recognises the achievement of outstanding researchers at an early stage of their careers; the book he published with OBP — Literature Against Criticism: University English and Contemporary Fiction in Conflict — formed a major part of his submission portfolio for this award. Another of our authors, Andrew Hobbs, recently won the 2019 Robert and Vineta Colby Scholarly Book Prize for the best book on Victorian newspapers and periodicals for A Fleet Street in Every Town: The Provincial Press in England, 1855-1900, which was also his first academic book. DARIAH members might be interested in our translation of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, which won the British Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies’ 2015 prize for digital publication. A number of senior and high-profile scholars have published with us, including Noam Chomsky, Catriona Seth, Amartya Sen, Caroline Warman, Ariel Rubinstein, Karl S. Guthke, Hans Walter Gabler and Patrick Bateson, and our books have been submitted to the UK REF assessment and are regularly reviewed in high-profile journals.

Open Humanities Press (OHP) has a strategy of building brand awareness by publishing outstanding humanities scholarship, to actively foster and link scholarly communities, and to empower scholars to achieve their intellectual vision. Authors seem to be attracted to OHP firstly because of the calibre of the people involved, and only secondarily because we publish OA. OHP was originally set up to demonstrate that high-profile, prestigious OA is possible in order to try to combat some of the prejudices against OA. Our editorial board is made up of world-leading senior scholars who have demonstrably moved their disciplines forward. Our book series editors are drawn from this board, and they attract authors through their own networks, which are often very substantial and already well established.

We at ScholarLed celebrate and champion the successes of our authors, and welcome the recognition we receive for the rigour and quality of our publications — but we also caution against the idea that OA presses should simply be subsumed into the existing hierarchy of prestige and the metricisation of research assessment. Part of the mission of scholar-led publishing, as we see it, is to argue for an alternative to this way of doing things. The best way to measure the quality of research is to read it — and thanks to OA, this is very easy to do!

How the DARIAH communities can interact with with ScholarLed?

There are various ways the DARIAH communities can interact with ScholarLed as a group, and with our member presses individually. If you’d like to explore the possibility of publishing with members of the consortium, you can find them listed on our website (or at the beginning of this blog post!) — do contact them individually to begin a conversation. If you have thoughts about ways that ScholarLed as a group could be supporting innovative publication practices, you can get in touch with us via email at info@scholarled.org. The COPIM project has a work package dedicated to ‘Experimental Publishing, Re-Use and Impact’ — if you would like to discuss this with COPIM or to find out more, please email Janneke Adema at ademaj@uni.coventry.ac.uk in the first instance.

…the digital aspect is an essential part of OA publishing, and trying to imagine what the scholarly book looks like in the digital age should be the job of all publishers working today.

We would love to share knowledge and information, be it about infrastructures or about individual projects — the digital aspect is an essential part of OA publishing, and trying to imagine what the scholarly book looks like in the digital age should be the job of all publishers working today. We would welcome taking part in conferences and community events, writing blog posts, co-authoring papers… you name it! You can contact us on Twitter (@scholarled) or email (info@scholarled.org), and keep up to date with our activities via our website (https://scholarled.org/) and our blog (https://blog.scholarled.org/).   

If you could give one piece of advice to scholars wishing to take more control over their scholarly works and make more informed publication choices, what would it be?

Don’t just think about it — do it! Look around at the publishers available, interrogate their reach and their business models, and consider what is the best fit for your research in terms of readership, ethos, and quality of the books produced — then reach out and begin a conversation. If you want to be more involved in the actual publishing process, look at the Radical Open Access Collective and their information portal for some practical and informative resources, keep an eye on the ScholarLed website for more on our activities and about COPIM, and drop us an email if you would like to discuss anything.

Thank you for your time! It has been great to learn from your insight and experience!


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