Readers of the Scholarly Kitchen are likely to have heard, by now, about an exciting new initiative called Lever Press. A collaborative effort of Amherst College, the University of Michigan, and members of the Oberlin Group of liberal-arts colleges, the Press promises to “create a new, peer-reviewed, open access, digital-first pathway for scholarship in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.” I was intrigued by this announcement and invited Michael Roy (MR, Dean of the Library at Middlebury College), Mark Edington (ME, Director of the Amherst College Press), and Charles Watkinson (CW, Associate University Librarian at the University of Michigan Library and Director of the University of Michigan Press), to respond to some questions about Lever Press. Additional questions and follow-ups are welcome via the Comments section below.
How was the name “Lever Press” chosen?
ME: The Oberlin Group task force was inspired by Archimedes’ lever. See https://www.math.nyu.edu/~crorres/Archimedes/Lever/LeverLaw.html
MR: We also wanted to capture the notion that a group of small schools could do something big through joining forces and creating leverage.
CW: It was chosen to torment me, because of the different pronunciations of “Lever” in American and British English. Melinda Kenneway, the consultant who helped identify the opportunities here, shares my pain.
One of the things that strikes me about this project is that it gives a large number of small colleges that do not have presses of their own the opportunity to publish scholarly monographs, in many cases for the first time. Can you comment on that aspect of this initiative? Do you see Lever Press as a potential template for future projects?
ME: This has been one of the most interesting aspects of our conversations with stakeholders and their faculty members. It is not the case that there is a special category called “liberal arts scholarship,” nor is it the case that faculty in the liberal arts college sector have particular difficulty finding publishers. It is the case, however, that the vast majority of scholarly publishers are situated at large research universities; and it seems beyond question that this affiliation shapes how “scholarship” is identified and evaluated in the scholarly communication system. Our participating institutions are renowned for excellence in pedagogy and for an exclusive — or near-exclusive — focus on undergraduate education. Our task, then, is to translate that unique, and distinctive, ethos into both the substance and the evaluative standards of an editorial program. By doing this we feel certain we’ll generate work that has high impact — particularly in meeting the needs of undergraduates — and is distinct from other presses.
MR: We do think that there may be other opportunities outside the domain of scholarly publishing that we could pursue via this model of collaboration. We have for example been thinking about how we might fund and crowdsource open access textbooks that could help address issues both of quality and cost in that area.
CW: I think it would be wrong to characterize Lever as just a publisher of scholarly monographs. We expect the Press’s products to appear in a range of forms, optimized to serve the particular ambitions of the authors. Like most university presses, University of Michigan Press receives a large number of monograph submissions from liberal arts college authors and these are often some of our best books, perhaps because of the clarity of expression that teaching small classes of bright undergraduates encourages. Lever is focused on the sorts of project that for various reasons faculty members don’t feel fit the university press model. Perhaps they will be projects with digital components that can’t easily be represented between two covers; maybe they will involve deep collaborations with student authors. I’m excited by the wealth of untapped publishing creativity we’re finding within the liberal arts college community.
The total number of collaborators in this initiative is quite large, and oversight will be widely distributed among them. What logistical challenges do you anticipate for managing the Press’s projects?
ME: Lever Press will not only have a distinctive editorial program; it will be a very different kind of scholarly publishing organization. In essence, it will be a collaborative, rather than a firm. Participating libraries are stakeholders in the effort, and they in turn elect some of their number to serve on an Oversight Committee which sits as a governing board of the effort. The role of this group is not to function as an editorial board — that is a separate group, comprised of faculty — but rather to assure the voices of all stakeholders are being heard, and that in all aspects of our work we are holding fast to our three commitments: open access, digitally native, and aligned with the ethos and mission of liberal arts colleges.
MR: The governance structure that we’ve devised we believe will strike the right balance between the desire to be inclusive, and the reality of the nature of work, which is that large committees rarely can be nimble.
These books will be “digital-native,” but I notice that the press release does not say that they’ll be “digital-only.” Will print versions be made available, and if so, by what mechanism(s)?
ME: Yes. Chiefly through print-on-demand channels, although on a case-by-case basis a print run may be determined to be appropriate.
CW: We’re also anticipating increasing numbers of submissions that can’t adequately be represented in print form. For such projects we may still do ancillary print editions (with appropriate health warnings about the print not being the “best” version) but the reality is that these will mainly be designed to ensure discoverability through conventional distribution channels. Until the library and vendor communities can join together to take discoverability of open access resources seriously, supplementary print is a necessary evil for rich digital scholarship.
For those not familiar with the term, can you explain the “platinum” model of open access publising?
ME: “Platinum” is distinct from “green” and “gold” in the sense that it reflects a reclaiming of ownership of the mission of scholarly communication by the colleges through whose libraries Lever is being supported. In specific terms, it means that our model will not charge author fees as a means of providing the revenue for creating open access outcomes. Given (as Jill Tiefenthaler, the president of the Colorado College, noted at the most recent AAUP convention) the growth in resource inequality among institutions of higher education, we feel that reliance on author fees may simply perpetuate the basic problem of a system of scholarly communication that significantly favors well-resourced institutions and significantly disadvantages poorly resourced ones (whether as consumers — those who provide revenue by buying books — or as producers, faculty at institutions sufficiently wealthy to provide author-specific subsidies). So, a “platinum” model allows us, by pooling funds, to focus entirely on scholarly merit, and not on the ability of authors’ institutions to subvent publishing costs.
CW: The term “platinum open access” may be a bit of a gimmick, but as Mark points out the potential to disenfranchise a whole new group of scholars through producer-pays model is a real concern that needs to be addressed. For unaffiliated scholars or for those whose parent institutions can’t or won’t pay, the generosity of the pledging institutions behind Lever removes the barriers to taking full advantage of the additional impact open access publishing promises. And perhaps that’s worth coining a new term for.
In publishing these books, Lever Press will implement “digitally native production processes designed to support innovative projects that ‘go beyond the book’.” That’s an intriguing phrase — what will it mean in practice?
ME: Scholars are increasingly relying on digital technologies not only to conduct their research but to express their ideas. In the same way that standard printed monographs have long incorporated the use of illustrative figures to allow scholars to strengthen their arguments, we see scholarly publishing increasingly moving to explore and optimize the use of other media formats to help scholars communicate their ideas. We want to take on a manageable number of what we’re calling “innovative” works, in which we look for scholars weaving together a clear and cogent argument in ways that encompass digital technologies in new and purposeful ways.
CW: Michigan Publishing, which will provide the back-end for Lever, has been an innovator in publishing technology for a while now. Initially we’ll be using the same workflow and homegrown DLXS platform that lie behind imprints like Digital Culture Books. But Lever will also be one of the first clients for our new publishing platform for multimodal scholarship that is currently being built on the Hydra/Fedora software framework in collaboration with several other presses and with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
MR: In particular, we believe that Lever Press can be a leader in supporting this new generation of scholarship that is written to take advantage of the affordances of the internet and the interactivity of the computer. To that end, in addition to providing a cutting-edge platform upon which to publish this new form of scholarship, we’ll also be tackling the challenges of how to provide peer-review for these sorts of works.
The books published by Lever Press will be “(editorially aligned) with the mission and ethos of liberal arts colleges.” What will this mean for acquisitions decisions?
ME: One of the most fascinating conversations we’ve been part of as we move Lever Press from a vision toward existence as a publisher with an editorial program has been engaging our stakeholders on exactly this question. Editorial alignment is currently expressed through three pillars; a deep commitment to interdisciplinarity, engagement with social issues, and a blurring of the traditional lines between teaching and research. Although our Editorial Board (a cross-institutional group of senior and distinguished faculty) will continue to shape the vision, we expect these three aspects to be expressed both in the fields we’ll choose to publish in and the characteristics we’ll look for in each work. We also plan shortly to convene a small gathering of “chief vision officers” of liberal arts colleges to expand on such distinctive qualities of the liberal arts college community.
MR: At a practical level, it means that we are likely to publish in subject areas that are taught at liberal arts colleges, and to create work that can be used within our curricula and integrated into the research of our scholars, including students. At a more theoretical level, we will work with our editorial board and our campus leadership to more fully articulate what this means, understanding all the while that the scholarship produced on our campuses is not in fact necessarily distinct from the general scholarship produced within the disciplines of which it is part.
The plan is for Lever Press to publish 60 titles by 2020. Assuming you achieve that goal, how will you measure the success of the books published?
CW: One of the motivations for the visionary group of library directors that developed the Lever concept lay in the low circulation numbers they saw for books in their collections. Usage is the currency of open access publishing but we are eager to move beyond downloads and views to a more intentional understanding of what is useful to measure and how it might reflect the behavior of real users. We’re excited by work that Knowledge Unlatched, Open Book Publishers, and Altmetric.com in particular are doing in this area, especially to explore whether open access book publishers are truly reaching new audiences beyond the academy. We anticipate having some persuasive evidence of the impact of Lever Press publications building on such work.
MR: As mentioned above, one of the measures of success for our ‘innovation titles’ will be to have created a process for providing peer review for born-digital publications, which in turn will contribute to broader efforts to create a level playing field for faculty wishing to publish their scholarship in new formats.
The press release indicates that “nearly 40 liberal arts colleges… have committed more than $1 million to the work of Lever Press over the next five years.” At the end of that period, what criteria do you believe you’ll be examining in order to determine what should happen next?
ME: We’ll be interested in assessing the efficiencies we hope to have achieved. While our projections indicate that our direct per-title costs will be roughly equivalent to the cost of producing books in traditional scholarly presses, the post-publishing costs of our titles will be significantly lower given that — as open-access works — librarians, faculty members, and readers won’t have to expend resources and time negotiating payment hurdles, monitoring secondary copying, and so forth. We also believe that a system in which scholars retain copyright to their work, are paid a one-time honorarium to acknowledge the value of their work, but license the work to be released by the publisher as an open-access work represents a fairer and more efficient way to treat authors.
CW: The funding model for Lever Press relies on a group of pioneering libraries refocusing a small portion of their materials budgets on content creation in support of their colleges’ interests, rather than just purchasing or leasing prepackaged materials. Our sustainability and growth model is based on the hope that more and more libraries, of all sizes, will rethink how they spend the funds with which they are entrusted to effect change rather than being victims of an unsustainable price war over which they have little control.
MR: There are a couple of directions we can go. We are already being approached by other libraries hoping to contribute to this effort. Assuming that we increase the number of participating libraries, we can either keep our membership costs the same and increase the number of titles we can produce each year, keep the number of titles the same and lower the cost of membership, or some combination of the two. As Mark and Charles note, we’ll want to understand impact and use. It would also be a safe bet to assume that in five years the landscape will be very different than it is today, which in turn will impact how we choose to proceed. All that said, long-term sustainability is central to our thinking. One of the real innovations here is that we are doing all of this without relying on grant funding, which means that we don’t have to grapple with what happens when the grant is over!