New Theology Review goes open access with the library as publisher

Melody Layton McMahon is director of the Paul Bechtold Library at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. She is also Critical Reviews Editor for the open access journal Theological Librarianship—a publication of the American Theological Library Association. Earlier in May, Ms. McMahon posted this announcement (excerpt) to the ATLANTIS email listserv:

The Paul Bechtold Library of Catholic Theological Union is now going to be the publisher of New Theology ReviewNew Theology Review was published by Liturgical Press as a publication of both Washington Theological Union (WTU) and Catholic Theological Union (CTU), but now the Paul Bechtold Library will be publishing it as an online, open access journal. (Some of you may be subscribers to the past print version; you will be receiving a letter soon that details plans.) I am very happy to be able to act on what I have been preaching for a number of years now, and I have convinced our administration that by being open access we can spread the Word around the world, particularly in the many areas where our students and alums live and work.

I was interested to follow-up with Ms. McMahon, not only to get the story about this former subscription journal moving to open access, but also to hear more about her library assuming the role of journal publisher. McMahon is co-editor (appointed just March 8 of this year) of New Theology Review, and as library director she will also be its publisher.

The conversion to open access

Omega Alpha: Between the time of your announcement on the listserv and my actual preparation for the story Liturgical Press took down all content from the journal’s website. I wasn’t able to get any background information on New Theology Review. A page on Catholic Theological Union’s website, however, does include this blurb regarding the mission, scope, and intended audience of the journal:

New Theology Review is a peer-reviewed and current Catholic journal for ministry. It offers resources that address contemporary trends in theology and pastoral practice. It publishes essays, invited columns, and book reviews designed for clergy, religious, and laity.

The page also mentions that the final print issue was published in November 2011, and that it will begin publishing again in an online only, open access format in September 2012 by the library, under the auspices of Catholic Theological Union. This is an exciting development. What else can you tell me by way of background?

McMahon: New Theology Review has been published for 24 years. It started in 1988 as a joint publication of Catholic Theological Union and Washington Theological Union, published by Michael Glazier (which was later taken over by Liturgical Press). The journal was published quarterly. I cannot confirm the accuracy of this information, but I found something that said in 2010 NTR had 820 subscribers. We also offered it as a perk to members of the alumni organization. I do know subscription fees were only paying for the publication of the journal in print form, however, and not really earning any profits.

In speaking with the previous editor the other day, I learned that Liturgical Press had indicated to Catholic Theological Union already five years ago they wanted to stop publishing NTR. I was not involved when that decision was made, but I know they have also divested from a couple of other journals, including Liturgical Ministry.

It seems like it was a long, protracted period of negotiation and discussion about what to do. WTU was still involved for part of this time. (Regrettably, WTU is now in the processes of closing its doors. I believe that in leading up to this they decided to back away from the relationship with CTU regarding New Theology Review.) There was a discussion with Taylor & Francis. Fortunately, our editors came to the realization that T&F would jack up the price, and they did not want that. The editors suggested a guy who would create the journal on a website, and require subscriptions which he would also manage. All sorts of options were discussed. But very early-on faculty were queried, and as a unit we decided we wanted to continue, transforming into an online, peer-reviewed journal—though at that point not yet open access.

Omega Alpha: So how did the decision to shift away from the subscription model to a library published open access model come about? What was the catalyst?

McMahon: Me! I’m sure my faculty and administration get tired of hearing me talk about open access, but whenever there was a discussion of NTR at faculty meetings I made a point of standing to say we should consider it. At the time, it was thought we would not be able to live without the subscription fees. But I was fairly sure we could. I had also been invited to give a faculty seminar on publishing, and of course, I discussed open access. I think my faculty find my point of view persuasive, though some of them still have other concerns that cause them to choose not to go open access when they publish articles they have written.

Omega Alpha: Concerns such as?

McMahon: Like other faculties, a few are still of the opinion that the jury is out about whether or not online journals are as scholarly or prestigious as print journals. I think my frank discussions with the faculty as a group and individually has turned around this opinion with most. A larger concern is that some still have ties to for-profit publishers or to journals that are published by for-profit publishers. I hope this will change as time goes by. I think they are persuaded by the notion that open access is more consistent with our ‘mission’ to get our word, the Word, out there. 

Omega Alpha: These are commonly expressed concerns. Who was finally involved in the decision to go open access?

McMahon: Old and new editorial teams, and the executive council which includes the president, dean, and VP for finance. We met and talked about the realities of dealing with subscriptions, and I piped up to say that we could just do away with all that hassle!

Omega Alpha: Getting support from both faculty and administration is essential. Was it also at this point that the decision was made to have the library assume the role as publisher?

McMahon: Yes, I had read the article “Library as Journal Publishers” and combined with my experience with Theological Librarianship was convinced that the library could take this on. I piped up again and suggested this, and it proved acceptable to everyone. (Maybe they were just relieved!) This meeting was held in April of this year. We will have a live journal website any day now, and our first issue out in September.

The Library as journal publisher

Omega Alpha: Wow! That’s fast work. So tell me more about the library at Catholic Theological Union and yourself as library director assuming the role of publisher, and co-editor of New Theology Review.

McMahon: My role as a co-editor is as a faculty member and includes the editorial functions of receiving manuscripts, doing a first editorial review, sending to peer-reviewers, moving through the system to publication.

My publisher role includes applying for online ISSNs, setting up the Open Journal Systems (OJS) site (the journal platform we decided to use), making sure all the editorial staff understand how to use OJS, making sure that the server is there for the publication, and preservation of the journal. This is the side that I am figuring out as I go. I feel comfortable because of my prior knowledge of open access publishing with OJS in my editorial role at Theological Librarianship. I am convinced we can handle it.

As I said earlier, I read a recent article about libraries as journal publishers, and that was all the justification I needed. There is a continuum chart in the article ranging from “Barebones” to “Premier” which had a huge impact. It made me realize that one could offer a package that was doable somewhere in the middle of the continuum that would result in a very professional looking journal we could be proud of. It broke down the levels of service into manageable parts. What especially inspired me was the article authors saying “e-publishing activities are now among core services for libraries.” I could see how my library could be among these forward-looking libraries. I try to be a leader for open access, and I need to make my actions speak louder than words. My administration and faculty expect us to be on the cutting edge when it is fruitful.

I think that over the years I have achieved a familiarity with OJS that made me think with help I could do this. I have a great IT and marketing guy, Chris Meyer, who is helping with the technical things I don’t understand. (Let’s just say I understand the front of the platform, not so much the back-end.) I have also been able to call on folks at ATLA because of my work with TL, to answer my questions and assist me in designing our “look.”

As publisher I’ll obviously be putting more time into this than I have as Critical Reviews Editor at TL. Just let me say that I am really trying to discern how my publisher role is different, separate from my co-editor role. I do not want to get them mixed. I’m thinking it could be possible for the library to take on publication of another one or two journals that need help going online. So I want to define the roles I am playing here fairly clearly. Eventually I’ll rotate off as an editor, but continue in the role of publisher.

Omega Alpha: Who else is on your editorial team?

McMahon: My faculty colleagues, Antonio Sison, C.PP.S. and Dawn Nothwehr, O.F.M. Our colleague vanThanh Nguyen, S.V.D. will edit book reviews.

We are also in the process of putting together our advisory board. We already have agreements with 8 of the 10 we have asked. As we expect to have a global audience, we have selected people from all parts of the world. It’s very exciting to hear that these people want to be part of this venture!

Omega Alpha: Can you say anything about how this effort is being funded, and how much you anticipate it costing?

McMahon: CTU is budgeting about $5,000. I anticipate that this will cover ongoing needs. The library purchased a new server for the OJS platform. We are also going to use the server for our digital archives projects. So it is coming out of general library budget and archive budget lines. The NTR budget includes lines for small stipends for the co-editors, to pay a graphic designer to come up with logo and items needed to make the journal look professional, marketing, and for a professional proofreader.

I’m fortunate to have an in-house marketing whiz, Nancy Nickel, who recently joined CTU, and Sara Corkery, formerly at ATLA, who has done a fabulous job working on our graphics.

Looking toward the 25th Anniversary/first online open access issue launch

Omega Alpha: The website blurb indicated that the first online-only open access issue will be coming out in September. Will you be continuing the volume count where it left off, or starting a “new series” with Volume 1, Issue 1?

McMahon: We are just going on with this as the 25th volume.

Omega Alpha: What is the planned format (e.g., editorial content, articles, reviews, etc.)?

McMahon: The journal will have peer-reviewed articles, a couple of book reviews, and four columns (Word and Worship, one on Catechetics, one on current topics of interest in theology or pastoral ministry called Theology of the Cutting Edge, and one on world events and socio-cultural trends with a pastoral ministry slant called Signs of the Times).

When the journal first started it was decided that each volume would have a theme. There was a call for papers on the theme, and also people were invited to write on that theme. Now we will not necessarily have a theme, but we might occasionally. For example, we hope to have a Vatican II theme for our second issue. Our first issue will publish some recent papers given at The Lay Centre in Rome, an organization with whom we have recently formed an alliance. This decision was made prior to the new editorial board being formed, but we are quite happy with the contents.

Omega Alpha: How many issues a year will you be publishing?

McMahon: Two for now.

Omega Alpha: Do you have access to all the back issues of New Theology Review to digitize for inclusion in your OJS web archive?

McMahon: Yes, we have them, and once we get up and running it will be a task to import them into the OJS platform and make them available as well. We are hoping subscribers will consent to donating the remainder of the amount they are owed from subscriptions to help us with the project of making past issues available on the site.

Omega Alpha: I am pleased that you will have access to back issues for a digital archive. How deep are you going with metadata (TOCs, tagged articles, full-text searching)?

McMahon: I have given this no thought yet, other than feeling quite sure we will be able to put each article pdf in OJS, and create the same digital issues that the print issues were. This just has to wait until we have the first issue published.

Incidentally, the journal website is not yet live, so I don’t have a URL to share as yet. I think you will like our new look! I will let you know when it’s ready so you can add a link to NTR on your journal directory page.

Omega Alpha: Thanks. Will New Theology Review continue to be indexed in ATLA’s Catholic Periodical and Literature Index (CPLI), and will you be working to get indexing into Google Scholar and other search engines?

McMahon: I sure hope so! I will do everything I can to optimize searchability and discoverability. The OJS platform offers some help with this.

We will also have a Facebook page. Theological Librarianship has found that a valuable way to get readership.

Omega Alpha: Do you have any events or celebrations planned to mark the 25th Anniversary of New Theology Review?

McMahon: Wow! What a great idea. Thanks!

Omega Alpha: Do you have any final thoughts?

McMahon: I say this quite often, but I feel it is of tremendous import that theological publications think about their mission. Is it to make a profit on subscription fees, or is it to get their word, THE Word, out to the folks who need and want to hear it? I am obviously pro-open access for journals in all disciplines. But it seems to me that Christian journals have an even stronger reason for going open access. The open access community is very willing to help. I would love to see more journals, especially those published by churches and seminaries think through these issues. I know at Theological Librarianship we have been so surprised by our global readership. At CTU, we have students from about 35 countries, and our alums are working in about 65 countries. It is vital to get information to them and their colleagues. Finally, I am quite willing and happy to answer questions if folks are thinking about taking on a project like this! You can contact me at mmcmahon @

Omega Alpha: Thank you so much for sharing this story. Blessings and best of luck to you, and to New Theology Review as it begins its new life in open access.

Posted in Economics & Business Models, Interviews (Journals), Libraries & OA, Open Access, Peer Review, Publishing Platforms
2 comments on “New Theology Review goes open access with the library as publisher
  1. […] in June I interviewed Melody McMahon, director of the Paul Bechtold Library at the Catholic Theological Union in […]

  2. […] in my last post), and it falls in the same vein of several of my previous posts (such as here and here) covering the “library as publisher” […]

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