Any Open Access (OA) publication plan must contend with three basic issues: costs, licensing, and scalability. There are plenty of other issues to consider of course, such as the way such a publication program would fit within or require an entirely new ecosystem of financing and scholarly career progression, but these first three are the most challenging and the most fraught. They may also be the most directly comparable. A new OA monograph series announced last week by the Royal Historical Society offers a very different approach to initiatives such as Knowledge Unlatched, Luminos, or Lever. Rooted in a scholarly society, their program offers an OA model more attuned to the needs of a specific discipline that also answers these basic questions about financial sustainability, licenses, and scale more decisively than speculatively.
The RHS New Historical Perspectives series will offer many of the same features as other much larger initiatives, including both digital Open Access and print editions and Creative Commons licensing. But it claims a very different approach to financing and to editorial support. The website announcement of the series explains that while “commercial and university presses can offer Open Access publication either in a fairly primitive form, or in higher quality format at a relatively high cost to the author . . . . New Historical Perspectives will offer high quality Open Access publication at no cost to authors . . . whose work is accepted for publication. Indeed, the RHS will invest in supporting contributors in producing works of the highest quality.”
I spoke this week with Simon Newman of the University of Glasgow, the Royal Historical Society’s Vice President and Chair of the Publications Committee about this new entry into OA monograph publishing. Newman explained a bit more about the program than is sketched on the RHS website. Three key features stand out.
First, how will this OA publishing program be funded? As just one of the insights in Ithaka’s important Mellon-funded report on OA monographs reveals, the range of costs for monograph production is wide — from just under $30,000 to almost $130,000 per book for the presses and the fields in their study. Other programs seem to be coalescing around a combination of consortium pay-it-forward and author pay models. RHS will require no funds from authors at all.
The RHS series will leverage existing institutional resources and relationships rather than create or require new ones. New Historical Perspectives is undertaken in partnership with the Institute of Historical Research. The RHS is a venerable membership institution (founded in 1868) representing historians and historical scholarship in the United Kingdom. The IHR is a government-funded organization, part of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London “the UK’s national centre for the support of researchers and the promotion of research in the humanities.” The two organizations have worked together on a variety of programs and, given IHR’s commitment to OA, the partnership on this series makes sense.
Second, the RHS will encourage a CC BY-NC-ND license, though offer a full suite of options. Unlike, for example, Luminos, which encourages a straight CC BY for monographs and requires it for their sister journal effort, Collabra, the RHS sees the CC BY-NC-ND as, in most cases, the most appropriate license for historical scholarship.
Third, the scale is intentionally small, perhaps six books a year once the program is up and running. That volume is comparable, however, to much bigger projects in their initial stages such as Knowledge Unlatched, Luminos, or Lever Press. The ambition, however, is not to scale to many times that number of books per year, but rather to hope for gradual expansion.
Last, and perhaps most important, the RHS series emphasizes early career scholars and extensive and intensive editorial support for their work. Editorial input will come from three sources: an assigned mentor for each project, usually from among the editorial board, a roundtable of peer reviewers assembled to provide feedback on the manuscript, and then copyediting. The first two, very time and skill intensive in humanities publishing, will take place at the RHS. The kind of mentoring and advising work that RHS imagines already takes place at a number of society publishers and is, even in less formally associated with publication venues such as seminars, a regular but often unsung feature of scholarly communication. Since 1975 the RHS has published a highly regarded first book series, Studies in History, that employs this model of mentoring and review. Copyediting and production will be handled by the IHR.
This is an important moment for OA publishing. A movement pushed in large measure to address the aggressive pricing of STEM journals, OA has had a much rockier relationship with the humanities. The RHS series preserves some of the most valued aspects of historical scholarship, particularly intensive substantive and manuscript editing. Newman emphasized that “The RHS has played a leading role in the debates over OA, firstly with regard to journal publishing, and now with regard to monographs. As governmental decisions are implemented, the RHS seeks to raise knowledge and awareness within our subject community, and to provide examples of how OA can work in ways that are beneficial to historians and which meet their standards and expectations.”
Can the RHS series pass what Rick Anderson has called proof of concept as well as “proof of program and proof of scale” for OA experiments? They seem to have designed the program to meet all three in fairly short order by carefully defining their target scholarly audience. As OA moves into monographs and particularly into the monograph-heavy HSS disciplines, we may see more such efforts to get discipline-specific values represented in new publication models.