Books, Business Models, Experimentation, Open Access

Royal Historical Society Moves into Open Access Monographs


Royal-Historical-LogoAny 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.

About Karin Wulf

Director, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; Professor of History at the College of William & Mary; Co-Chair, W&M Neurodiversity Working Group; scholar of women, family, and gender in the early modern British Atlantic.


19 thoughts on “Royal Historical Society Moves into Open Access Monographs

  1. This is indeed an interesting initiative and the focus on a particular discipline is distinctive. However, I am not sure how much of a new funding model it represents since it builds on a tradition of institutions supporting OA publishing through a combination of their own funds and print-on-demand sales that is familiar in the library publishing world. Sustainability in such cases relies on the commitment of the parent institution (and indeed often the specific agenda of the person who heads it). That is less robust than models that spread the burden of funding across a consortium (such as Lever Press which also will never charge fees to authors). One also wonders whether such a program could happen outside the UK, where government commitment to gold OA and leadership from prominent historians such as Geoff Crossick seem to be creating a safer environment for such initiatives. With these caveats, great work by RHS and IHR!

    Posted by Charles Watkinson (@charleswatkinso) | Feb 17, 2016, 5:59 am
    • Thanks for your comment, Charles! I think what’s compelling here isn’t the potential for solving the everything/ everywhere, but a scholar-driven initiative to have what’s most important to their discipline (in this case intensive editorial, CCBY NCND) represented.

      I’m not sure that the spread the burden models of various kinds will be more robust ultimately in that they’ll rely on a lot of continued buy in, but for sure it will be interesting to see.

      As for the UK, there are aspects of this that strike me as friendly to replication by other society publishers (as above), but features that are quite UK specific. Into the nitty gritty, convening seminars for manuscript feedback is a lot less expensive when your travel is confined within train distance. But in terms of policy and culture, as you know some of the sharpest criticisms of monolithic OA policies have come out of places like the RHS.

      Posted by Karin Wulf | Feb 17, 2016, 6:24 am
      • Charles is right: this is not nearly so innovative a model as you (and Simon) make it out to be. Peter Potter should remember that the Gutenberg-e and ACLS Humanities E-Book projects arose out of a scholarly association (the AHA) led by its then president Robert Darnton, which provided intensive editorial support for young scholars (in the Gutenberg-e project) and did not charge the authors anything. (Both projects were supported by the Mellon Foundation.) Even earlier, as I document in my article in the April 2015 issue of the Journal of Scholarly Publishing, the CIC came up with just such a model of OA monograph publishing which, when it failed to be funded, nevertheless was followed up by some CIC member presses in their own way. though the Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing at Penn State (headed by Peter Potter!) and at the University of Michigan where the press and library similarly cooperated. The Amherst College Press has launched a similar type of operation more recently. It is an insult to these presses to have their publications described as of inferior quality on the digital side and as very high priced on the print side, neither of which is true of these OA monograph operations. Also the idea of the CC BY-NC-ND license as best suited for OA monographs in the humanities is an idea I have long advocated, as anyone who checks my writings on OA will discover. There is a sad lack of historical memory when it comes to understanding how the OA movement has evolved. This is not to say that I think there is anything wrong with the RHS initiative: the more such projects, the better. Only they shouldn’t be taking credit for originality where such credit is not due.

        Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Feb 17, 2016, 12:51 pm
        • Sandy, I’d be the last person to suggest we discard history. And actually one of my PhD students was the first to win the e-Guttenburg prize and be published there.

          On just one of the many issues you raised, of course I can’t speak for the RHS, but I think their aim is at younger scholars who don’t know this background. They are looking at the options that these scholars might see now and advocating for theirs.

          Posted by Karin Wulf | Feb 17, 2016, 2:33 pm
  2. In days of yore each village had a well from which one drew water. This concept has spread to publishing. The difference is that everyone in the village knew where the well was. I wonder how one will find out about the books published. That $30 to $130 K of course does not take into account marketing. I guess the village will have to dig a second well!

    Posted by Harvey Kane | Feb 17, 2016, 8:59 am
  3. Whether or not the funding model is all that new, it is encouraging to see a scholar-driven initiative like this one. And therein lies the answer to Harvey’s question as to how people will find out about the books published. As a learned society that serves professional historians, the RHS is well positioned to reach the natural audience for these books. One only hopes that a few more scholarly associations will follow suit and show the path forward.

    Posted by Peter Potter | Feb 17, 2016, 10:31 am
  4. I have no problem with august assemblies of the learned blowing their cash on schemes that are likely to have as much impact as a new comb and a bottle of Rogaine on the head of Donald Trump. Open Access publishing is quite possibly less destructive of the social fabric than crystal meth, though I look forward to the day when data-driven, evidence-based, and longitudinal studies can settle the issue definitively. But since I have a vested interest in seeing that the fundamental problem of academic publishing is actually solved in my lifetime, I do find myself frustrated with the persistent failure to recognize what the root of the problem is. In the year 2016, it is not primarily the price of STEM journals. The fundamental problem is that institutions of higher learning think that the value of the library is nowhere near that of a food court or a splash pool.

    The admirable Phil Davis has cited in these pages data from ARL showing that the percentage of university funds spent on libraries decreased from the unimpressive high of 3.7% in 1984 to a shameful 1.8% in 2011. I shudder to think what that number is now. Among all the divergent opinions that are held on academic publishing, I would like to think that the one point that everyone can agree on is that libraries should be funded well in excess of 1% of their institution’s total budget.

    Since anything that publishers say is likely to be suspect, and since librarians have for whatever reason not been successful in making a case for themselves to university administrators, the only option seems to be for faculty to unite and petition that their libraries be funded to keep pace with the growth of research. This is almost certainly likely to be more beneficial than meager and obscurely funded initiatives like the one above. Six books! Really?? Mission accomplished.

    OA is getting pretty long in the tooth by now without any problems having been solved. Since trying the same experiment over and over again is not yielding much, it’s high time that all the parties involved in the enterprise of scholarly publishing try something different.

    Michael Magoulias
    University of Chicago Press

    Posted by Michael Magoulias | Feb 17, 2016, 2:20 pm
    • No, Michael, tell us how you really feel. : )

      A few responses. First, some fields aren’t gigantic. Six books can make an important contribution.

      Second, I agree with you that libraries need more and better support. I’m happy to be housed (office?) in ours. But in this moment where the budgets are where they are libraries cite two things– the high cost of apparently necessary STEM journals, and their disinclination to house things for which there isn’t strong evidence of regular use. That collision is then offered as explanation for the declining library sales for monographs.

      There’s a lot to say about an awfully complex ecosystem here including as I’ve discussed elsewhere the increasing requirements for tenure and at the same time a decline in TT jobs.

      Posted by Karin Wulf | Feb 17, 2016, 3:38 pm
    • Among the various OA monograph experiments that have been tried, the one launched by the National Academies Press in the mid-1990s has so far been the most successful, and it was fairly large-scale since all of NACS books were eventually made available OA. But of course that was in the sciences. We borrowed the basic model at Penn State, but we only published one OA book series, in Romance studies. The idea for the CIC program in the humanities involved three different disciplines and of course would have had the support of twelve universities. That was a definitely scalable project; alas, Mellon decided not to fund it.

      I think the problem basically is lack of control. Up until the immediate post-WWII period scholarly publishing was predominately done by university presses and professional societies. Once entrepreneurs like Robert Maxwell smelled a potential gold mine, however, and started investing heavily in STEM publishing, the game was over. Universities could have invested more in their own presses, but chose not to do so, and eventually control of STEM publishing came to reside in the commercial sector and pricing began its steep climb.

      Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Feb 17, 2016, 5:46 pm
    • Michael M I have to agree with you. What we have is a funding problem not an accessibility or cost problem.

      Posted by Harvey Kane | Feb 17, 2016, 6:00 pm
    • Crystal meth? Dude, seriously?

      Posted by Rick Anderson | Feb 18, 2016, 9:12 pm
  5. Like others I think this is an initiative to be welcomed – especially from a field that has so far been one of the most resistant to change. Whether it is unique or not, it is still going to face the same challenges as the rest of us – primarily around scalability, especially given their commitment to a high-overhead (i.e. cost!) program. A handful of books per year is one thing, but if, as seems likely, HEFCE ultimately adopts a mandate for books both the funding model and editorial process may quickly come under strain. It’s an important step to see a scholarly society taking this kind of leadership role, but like Charles, I tend to think that the future for monographs relies on sharing rather than concentrating the cost burden.

    Posted by Alison Mudditt | Feb 17, 2016, 2:35 pm
    • Thanks for your comments, Alison!

      On cost-sharing– a clear advantage that Luminos has and that’s somewhat akin to the UK is a centralized system– UC faculty can be pretty sure that their administrations will look more kindly on the subsidy they pay to UC not only because it’s lower than for non-UC faculty but also because it’s their own press! But I wonder how the $7500 per title will be greeted elsewhere– and more importantly, how either NTE faculty or authors who don’t have institutional sources to ask for support will fare.

      But on the issue of scholarly society’s taking on these projects. It’s such a challenge to get faculty to engage with these issues in any detail (as even the report from Indiana and Michigan related) that a scholar-led publishing initiative combined with an educational initiative (also part of what they describe on the website) is a strong step.

      Posted by Karin Wulf | Feb 17, 2016, 4:22 pm
      • As we know, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Free to the author means someone else pays; free to the reader means someone else pays. If neither author or reader is paying, that means that someone else pays. What OA does is to take the distributed payment method of traditional publishing, where readers and their proxies pay, and substitutes an author-side payment. If institutions pick up the tab, as is being proposed here, then institutions will have to absorb the costs into overhead, paid for by students, state governments, philanthropies, alumni, etc. The more research output for an institution, the greater the cost. Thus high output institutions (Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago) subsidize low output institutions. This is a system that is susceptible to free-riders. I wonder as well if the stakeholders of the high-output institutions have been consulted about this policy and whether anyone thinks they should be.

        Posted by Joseph Esposito | Feb 17, 2016, 5:28 pm
        • Joe, you reiterate an important issue regarding costs, and we at least have always been clear that our Luminos program is, at heart, simply a different way of covering the costs of publication. And while it certainly isn’t appropriate for all publications or even all scholarly books, I think that OA is an important part of the answer to the future of scholarly monographs, precisely because of the free rider issue. Under the current system, faculty from across hundreds of institutions each year seek to publish monographs that enable them to obtain tenure, but only a tiny percentage of those institutions are paying for this process through support of a university press. The decline in library purchasing of monographs means that the financial burden of publishing and disseminating this scholarship is no longer distributed adequately, and is often not borne by those who benefit most from it. Thus the institutions themselves have a very real interest in supporting this scholarship, and the fact that the current AAU/ARL task force on scholarly communication – which is addressing this issue directly – is led by provosts and librarians from campuses such as UCLA, Vanderbilt, Michigan and Johns Hopkins suggests that they understand this.

          Posted by Alison Mudditt | Feb 17, 2016, 6:14 pm
          • There is a mission/ investment disconnect if the purpose of a university is to finance the published scholarship of its own faculty and it is instead financing scholarship by faculty from other institutions– and even scholars outside of institutions altogether. But if the purpose of a university is to increase its intellectual capital then its $ investment in high quality scholarship from whatever source, via a university press, can be a very good one.

            What’s important here is that the stated mission of the instituion is to support scholars and scholarship– and that’s what they’re doing. Here you have a straightforward mission-program alignment. It happens to include OA because that’s the particular challenge to UK scholars right now.

            Posted by Karin Wulf | Feb 17, 2016, 6:47 pm
  6. I’d also just like to add that we’re missing the point if we think that every new initiative that comes along has to be new, unique, or even scalable to some longed-for “system” that is somehow going to replace the old scholarly publishing paradigm (a term that itself has to be taken with a grain of salt). I dare say that few would accuse scholarly publishing of ever having been on the cutting edge; indeed, what has always made it a fascinating enterprise to observe (as opposed to, say, NY trade publishing) is its remarkable capacity to sustain a fairly diverse range of publishing operations–from scholarly societies and university presses of varying sizes to shoestring operations that somehow manage to survive inside a departmental office on campus. Looking to the future, I doubt very much that we’re going to find one “model” that can contain all of scholarly publishing. Maybe cost sharing across multiple institutions will be the most scalable model but there will always be scholars who believe that their area of academic inquiry is not being well served by the dominant publishing model–and they’ll find another way to get the word out.

    Posted by peterjpotter | Feb 17, 2016, 7:00 pm


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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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