If the sciences can do it… PLOHSS: A PLOS-style model for the humanities and social sciences

PLOS: Public Library of ScienceThe Public Library of Science (PLOS) was founded in 2000 as an advocacy group promoting open access to scientific literature in the face of increasingly prohibitive journal costs imposed by scientific publishers. The group proposed the formation of an online public library “that would provide the full contents of the published record of research and scholarly discourse in medicine and the life sciences in a freely accessible, fully searchable, interlinked form.” In an open letter to scientific and medical publishers that was eventually signed by nearly 34,000 scientists worldwide, the group wrote:

We recognize that the publishers of our scientific journals have a legitimate right to a fair financial return for their role in scientific communication. We believe, however, that the permanent, archival record of scientific research and ideas should neither be owned nor controlled by publishers, but should belong to the public and should be freely available through an international online public library. (excerpt from the Open Letter)

The PLOS group morphed into an open access publisher in its own right with the launch of PLOS Biology in October 2003. Since then, PLOS has expanded to include seven peer reviewed open access scientific journals, many of which have become, in a very short time, highly-regarded prestigious titles in their respective fields. This is a significant achievement, considering that it traditionally takes many years, if not decades, for journals to build their reputations as sought-after publishing venues by authors, and recognized as hosts of high-quality research by scholarly communities (and tenure and promotion committees).

PLOS operates as a nonprofit publisher that sustains its operation by charging producer-side article publication fees (also known as article processing charges [APCs]) in lieu of traditional consumer-side subscriptions. This model begins to fulfill the promise of open access by removing the barriers to reading and reuse of published scientific research literature (PLOS publishes articles with a Creative Commons Attribution License). Having demonstrated the sustainability (if not the accustomed profit margins) of this business model, many commercial publishers are now adopting this approach for their own open access initiatives.

One of PLOS’s particularly interesting titles is PLOS ONE (eISSN 1932-6203), launched in December 2006 as a multi-disciplinary science “mega journal” that publishes articles continuously with rapid turn-around times from submission to publication (over 1,000 articles have already been published in the first half of January 2013), and rigorously peer-reviewed for technical soundness. Except in the broadest sense, the journal doesn’t impose subject or “brand” perimeters. It could even be said that it undermines the function conventionally played by journals in providing a “short-hand” for associating research quality and impact. “This research must be good because it was published in this top-tier journal.” Instead, PLOS ONE is more like a platform from which an article is allowed generate its own metrics for quality and impact, including various forms of post-publication peer review from the scientific research community.

What about the humanities and social sciences?

It is often observed that compared to humanities disciplines and the social sciences, departments of sciences at universities tend to be better funded and their researchers have access to larger pots of money from a greater number of granting sources. It has been argued that shifting publishing revenue to the producer-side in order to make open access sustainable is much easier to pull off in the sciences because of this relative wealth of funding. The cost of publishing research results can simply be rolled into the grant proposal. Indeed, open access is increasingly being mandated when it comes to publicly funded research (consider this example that landed yesterday in my Twitter stream). The expectation that publication charges will be covered is becoming increasingly matter-of-fact in the sciences.

If asked about their reluctance to publish in an open access journal venue, humanities and social science scholars are apt to raise first a concern about how to assure academic reputation. A close second would probably be skepticism about the sustainability of a producer-side revenue model, and concerns about a scholar’s ability to pay to have their research articles published, given current funding levels in their disciplines. Savvy skeptics might even argue that this amounts to a de facto limitation on access, because an inability to pay APCs means that research won’t get published to begin with. “How is this any better than the current model?”

The first reluctance arises out of a long history and deep tradition rooted in the limitations imposed upon scholarly communication by print. Knowledge was never really scarce. But the media of knowledge dissemination created an impression of scarcity because of the practical limits of physical space and time, and the costliness of resources and infrastructure. Scholarly reputation was built not only by producing quality research, but also by successfully navigating these limits to “get your name in print.”

The medium of electronic and network knowledge dissemination has been breaking down these limits. Yes, reputation still benefits from respected association. But the shift in medium has surfaced at least two significant realizations for scholars: 1) Academic reputation fundamentally originates with the scholar not the communication medium or the agent controlling that medium (e.g., a publisher). Reputation is portable and travels with the scholar. As such, the scholar may be freer than he or she previously assumed to publish in open access venues. 2) Reputation benefits most from the widest possible dissemination of a scholar’s work. Publishing in a top-tier journal brings a certain level of prestige. But if that research is locked behind a paywall it limits the number of eyeballs that can/will see it. Open access removes the paywall barrier and allows the wider community to weigh-in more directly on the value of a scholar’s research.

I believe the second reluctance (to a producer-side revenue model) arises from inadvertent ignorance about the costs associated with operating a journal, and lack of awareness regarding the accumulated costs the subscription-based revenue model has on institutional (library) budgets. A scholar may know about the modest price paid for an individual subscription to a cherished journal (assuming it isn’t being received automatically as a benefit of association membership). However, when someone else is paying the bill—both to produce the journal and to provide access to it—costs are abstracted and distanced from the scholarly endeavor. It is easy to become alarmed by any suggestion that the author should pay. “Only a vanity press would charge an author to publish their work! We all know that so-called scholars who patronize vanity presses simply can’t get their work published by legitimate and reputable means.”

While priced at a fraction of the average science journal, institutional subscriptions for humanities and social science journals have been rising dramatically (see my “A simmering ‘journals crisis’ in the humanities?” section in this earlier post), especially when scholarly society journals get acquired by commercial publishers. Just yesterday I received a notice from a colleague regarding yet another association journal that has been acquired by a commercial publisher. Though no pricing information was provided, this statement was included in the notice: “Institutional subscription rates will…be increasing to bring them to a level compatible with market norms and to account for more advanced features such as online access.” That’s a euphemism for “Brace yourself. This journal subscription is about to get significantly more expensive.”

Traditional society and non-profit academic journals in the humanities and social sciences are loathe to lose revenue generated by subscriptions. Many find it difficult to imagine converting to open access based upon accustomed practices. Some have run the numbers and have determined that the article processing charges that would have to be levied to make the conversion to open access possible are not sustainable (though becoming dated, see for example, this 2009 study [PDF] conducted by Mary Waltham).

My response to this situation has tended to encourage support for smaller, scholar or library published open access journals that are able to operate efficiently and at low cost, utilizing committed editorial teams, existing institutional network infrastructures, and open source journal platform software (such as Open Journal Systems). Most of these journals work with modest budgets funded by academic departments or by redirected library resources, and they do not levy APCs.

There may be another approach worth considering. Why not create a PLOS-style mega journal for the humanities and social sciences? Admittedly, this is new thinking, especially for humanities scholars whose academic traditions are deep and slow to change. But if it is correct to assert that scholars (do and should) create their own reputation, and if in this online era it is the disaggregated but fully discoverable article not the journal that is really the currency of scholarly communication and reputation, maybe a hosting platform otherwise capable of providing credible peer review would suffice for exposing research to anyone who is interested, in the scholarly community or beyond. While it may not be able to entirely avoid using APCs, it would not make ability to pay a pre-condition to publication. Soliciting institutional sponsorships from monies already in the system, and leveraging the scale of a shared multi-disciplinary online service could make operations sustainable and per article costs low.

Enter PLOHSS, the Public Library of Humanities and Social Science

Late last week I received a tweet from Dr. Martin Paul Eve, a lecturer in English Literature at University of Lincoln, United Kingdom. You may recall back in July I gave a hat tip to Martin for his excellent “Starting an Open Access Journal: a step-by-step guide.” The tweet linked to a post on his blog soliciting participants to help build a Public Library of Science model for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

For quite some time, I have been interested in/incensed by the scholarly publication system; the exclusions, iniquities and absurdities of it can be clearly seen from only a brief survey of the economic field. I have watched with despair as the sciences have made projects work while the humanities and social sciences have almost sleepwalked into a disaster. The Finch Report [PDF] published in the UK and accepted by the government will wreak havoc on our modus operandi and work to stratify an already split field.

… [I]t doesn’t have to be this way. We can eradicate much exclusion by building a system that is fit for purpose, more egalitarian and sustainable — a Public Library of Science model for the Humanities and Social Sciences. I can’t do it on my own, though. I need individuals and organizations to contact me so that I can form a mailing list, start brainstorming ideas, accrue startup funding, get the reputation and intellectual capital behind the system and generally get this massive project rolling.

The link immediately above points to the “initial ideas hub” for the PLOHSS project. Check it out and consider getting involved. Dr. Eve identifies areas of expertise he is looking for, including scholars to lend their experience and reputation, journal editors interested in open access, journalists to advocate and promote the project, librarians and techie-types, persons experienced with financial and legal matters, and any other persons simply intrigued by the project and willing to lend their interested support. Within a month he is hoping to coalesce interest and participation around an organizational structure composed of a number of key committees to enable the project to build momentum and focus.

In a subsequent blog post, Dr. Eve articulated his thinking about APCs and sustainability. This is definitely worth a read, as is an excellent interview Meredith Schwartz conducted with Martin earlier this week on the Library Journal website, which includes this excerpt:

We need a publishing venue that attracts instant respect from scholars. That can only be done by ensuring that it was built by scholars with the requisite academic capital, not imposed by publishers, who are losing the moral high-ground. The organization needs to be non-profit, but sustainable.

[I can say for sure that] there will be a rigorous but constructive peer-review process that will accept high-quality work, however niche, without bars on resubmission, and certainly no outright rejection without review or reasonable comment. I am in favour of double-blinding submissions in order to ensure fair review (and also to utterly divorce finance from editorial), but this is still under discussion. Only once something has been through the review process will any form of finance be brought up. The decisions of the finance committee on article “targets” cannot be made available, externally or internally, until the end of the year when the next set of prices and targets are revealed. In other words, if we fall short, we fall short, and will have to have backup budget to cover this rather than any form of compromise.

Finally, how do we ensure credibility: only through people. People are what will make this project work, and that’s where we’re starting. “Build it and they will come” is a fallacy. Get the right people to build it… well, that’s a different matter.

Martin Eve is a bright and energetic young scholar who is prepared to push against academic tradition with disruptive innovation, especially where open access to scholarly communication is concerned. I applaud this effort and will be watching its development closely. Again, this is new thinking. But if the sciences can do it, why not also the humanities and social sciences?

Posted in Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Open Access, Peer Review, Publishing Technology, Scholarly Journals
9 comments on “If the sciences can do it… PLOHSS: A PLOS-style model for the humanities and social sciences
  1. David Lewis says:

    An easy way to avoid the APF dilemma in the humanities and social sciences would be to offer an institutional “membership” that would be tied to the size of the institution and get libraries to pay the fee. This fee should not be tied to the number of articles published because this will be much less attractive to libraries. Note that BioMedCentral made this mistake. They started with a membership fee an then switched to a volume discount deposit arrangement and lost the support of many institutions.

    It is also important to find a way to make the scholarly monograph open access or it is going to die. Adventures like PLOHSS would be positioned to do this.

    • Gary F. Daught says:

      Thanks for your comments David. I was tempted to raise the point about the scholarly monograph because this is still an important (and expected) format for research reporting, especially in the humanities. I agree with your assessment. The limited-run, low-demand printed monograph publishing model hasn’t been sustainable for many years now. I cannot but believe Martin Eve is also thinking about this, though I suspect I understand his reasons for beginning with articles. Online publishing workflows scale much more easily and quickly for articles. But once the platform is in place, and editorial experience is built up, the ability to branch into monographs would serve a significant constituency.

  2. John Adkins says:

    I think this is a great idea and Gary did a wonderful job of laying out the issues. I wonder how much libraries could pay though. Perhaps an NEH grant could kick start the project and each library could agree to drop one or more journals from ACS or Elsevier 🙂 While I am skeptical about how much money libraries can spare now, in the long run it would certainly be cheaper than seeing the last society journals bought up by commercial publishers.

    • David Lewis says:

      An NEH grant or one from Mellon would be a good start. To seriously get the idea in play I’d get Ithaka to do a study. They have a bit of a conflict of interest with JSTOR, but are connected to everyone important. I’d also talk to CLIR. They care a lot about the humanities and social sciences. Both are also trusted by libraries. I would also not underestimate how much money libraries have and will invest in the right project. As OA becomes more dominant in science the pressure on journal budgets lessens some and would make support of a project of this sort easier. 100 research libraries each putting up $10K gets you to a million and that seems quiet reasonable to me. This wouldn’t support a PLOS sized operation, but you won’t be running something that big. I suspect the larger problem would be getting the societies to play with some enthusiasm. Get MLA and AHA on board and you might have a shot.

  3. […] It appears the space for open access journal publishing for humanities and social science scholars is (at last!) starting to heat up, especially in view of Dr. Martin Paul Eve’s recent proposal that interested parties get together to launch a non-profit PLOS-style model mega journal for the humanities and social sciences. […]

  4. […] Paul Eve and company has been moving with deliberate speed. As a follow-up to my recent post, “If the sciences can do it… PLOHSS: A PLOS-style model for the humanities and social scienc… I want to report that this initiative has a new name and new online home. […]

  5. […] other day I checked-in on developments over at Open Library of Humanities. As I reported earlier here and here, the idea for this very interesting project sprang from a number of often asked questions: […]

  6. […] Humanities. (I have written about the development of OLH and the work of Dr. Eve on the blog here, here, here, here, and here. [Hover on links for post title and […]

  7. […] for the Humanities and Social Sciences.” (I covered and commented on Dr. Eve’s call here.) A broad and deep response to this call from the humanities community internationally set this […]

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