Blog hand-off: Some reflections before shifting to occasional contributor mode

Photo on 6-12-15 at 1.23 PM

Gary as viewed by his computer

I started Omega Alpha | Open Access late in 2011 in response to a troublesome trend I was witnessing in my library—an increasing number of longstanding, highly regarded, and reasonably priced not-for-profit society and institution theological and religious studies journals were being acquired by commercial publishers through partnership deals or outright acquisition. The often immediate consequence of this trend, which especially got my attention as a library administrator, was the dramatic increases in subscription pricing.

When I inquired with the new publishers about the price increases, I received replies such as:

  • The old subscription price did not reflect the true value of the journal.
  • The old subscription price did not cover the true costs of publication.
  • Society journals frequently rely on volunteer labor, which obscures many of the costs of publication. We obviously cannot run our business without accounting for all costs.
  • We add value to the journal by providing full-text searchability and the option of backfile archival access on our online publishing platform. This platform requires a significant investment in technical infrastructure, expertise, and ongoing maintenance.
  • Subscriptions to humanities journals, including these journals in theology and religious studies, are really very reasonable when compared to the cost of journals in other disciplines.

When I inquired with journal editors about their decision to enter into a partnership with a commercial publisher, I received replies such as:

  • This partnership gives us access to professional publisher services (proofreading, layout and typesetting, marketing, reviewer management, and subscription management), enhanced/global visibility, and the ability to leverage publisher name recognition.
  • The partnership brings in added revenues to support other society programming.
  • Publication (printing) and distribution (mailing) costs are always rising and we were finding it hard to keep up.
  • We lacked the technical expertise and/or infrastructure to take our journal online.
  • We could no longer afford our office staff, and it is difficult to attract the needed volunteer labor to sustain publication in-house.

It was hard to argue with the logic of this decision, at least from a business and operational perspective for journal and publisher. Still, that very pragmatism seemed to me to be at odds with the oft-stated and primary mission of a society or academic institution to support knowledge creation and dissemination through its journal. What of the relationship the journal was intended to facilitate with scholarly authors and readers for the advancement of ideas and productive conversations? Curiously, that relationship was not explicitly included in the lists above (though I am sure both publisher and editor would insist it was implied).

I always appreciated that there were costs associated with journal publication so I never begrudged paying reasonable subscription fees to help with cost recovery and journal sustainability. That I often had a physical artifact to place on the shelf was simply a consequence of scholarly communication in the print era. But for me a journal was always primarily a medium of communication, not a commodity in its own right. While not unsympathetic to the struggles of society and institution journal editors expressed above, the dramatic increases in subscription prices now in the hands of commercial publishers provoked a jarring realization that something wasn’t right.

I cannot recall when I was first introduced to the concept of open access as an alternative publishing/dissemination model for scholarly journals. (I believe my first systematic exposure was gained by reading John Willinsky’s The Access Principle (MIT Press, 2006).) But I do recall the moment when I began to really think about the viability of open access for the disciplines of theology and religious studies. It was after reading an article written by Kevin L. Smith in a 2009 issue of Theological Librarianship, an open access journal published by the American Theological Library Association (for which, incidentally, I currently serve as Columns Editor). The article is entitled “Open Access and Authors’ Rights Management: A Possibility for Theology?” (link to PDF). I engaged with that article in an early post on the blog. I would invite you to read that original post from December 2011.

One of the most significant take-aways from Smith’s article became formative in the life of this blog. He talked about “the task of building an open access culture” in theological and religious studies. This struck me as a profound idea, and this was my response in the post:

When I first read that phrase “open access culture,” I was instantly captivated by its significance. I want to thank Kevin Smith for giving me something powerful to hang the mission (the “task”) of this site upon. Embracing or promoting open access isn’t just a matter of pragmatics, techniques, or technologies. Open access is a way of approaching the creation and dissemination of information that involves certain attitudes and behavioral characteristics. As such, it truly is a culture, and one that takes further unique shape within the scholarly discipline where it manifests itself. Open access culture within the study of religion or theology may share certain applications and outcomes with chemistry, physics, or economics, but … it also integrates each discipline’s unique research traditions and values/commitments.

Most of Smith’s ideas are yet to be significantly realized now two and a half years since his article was published. But true and enduring cultural change takes time, even in the digital age. The accretions of print culture weigh especially heavy on the sensibilities of scholarship in the humanities and theology. It is a big job to build an alternative infrastructure to support a cultural shift like open access. But I’m optimistic, and through Omega Alpha, I’m here to help with the task.

If nothing else, the blog provided me with a conduit to learn more about open access and to try to stay abreast of developments in the larger field. It was particularly gratifying for me to speak with editors of new journals (like Religion & Gender, which launched at just about the time I was getting the blog started) and existing journals (sometimes for many years existing—like the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, which celebrated 20 years of publication in early 2014!) in theology and religious studies, and to make these efforts better known through the blog.

But although I enjoy writing, it is a hard process for me and takes a lot of time. I have a propensity for long-form writing and editing as I go. The pressure of the blogging environment while trying to build and sustain a reading community, staying on top of news, developments, etc. was taking some of the joy out of the process for me. More positively, I also saw the potential and relevance of expanding coverage of open access beyond just journals to include monographs, open access tools, digital collections, open scholarship, etc., but quickly felt overwhelmed addressing these topics as a solo exercise. At the beginning of this year, I enlisted the interest and aid of Dr. Peter Webster, an independent scholar of modern British Church History and a digital assets consultant from the UK, to join me as a partner. I first met and interviewed Peter a couple years ago in association with the Open Library of Humanities project.

I have very much appreciated having Peter on the team. But as it happens, at about the time Peter got started with the blog I was getting increasingly preoccupied with another project of a more personal nature to which I wanted to dedicate more time. I asked him if he would be willing to takeover the blog, and I would step back as an occasional contributor. Peter agreed.

Given his expertise and well-developed network, I look forward to the developments in open scholarship and communication that Peter will bring to the blog. Despite this change in leadership, I anticipate that Omega Alpha | Open Access will continue its commitment to participate in the task of building an open access culture in theology and religious studies.

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Posted in Commercial Publishing, Open Access, Scholarly Associations, Scholarly Journals
One comment on “Blog hand-off: Some reflections before shifting to occasional contributor mode
  1. eppstutzman says:

    Gary,
    Thanks for your leadership in putting out this blog and moving the conversation forward. I have learned a lot from this forum and developed a passion for open access as an important vehicle for sustainable scholarly communication. I am really grateful that Peter Webster will continue the blog. You are right that cultural change takes time even in the digital age, but I trust that the seeds of this change are shown in good soil. I intend to nurture then as much as I can in my library work.
    Best wishes,
    Karl

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