Some Thoughts about Impact (and Open Access) for Humanities and Social Science Publishing

My background is in Humanities and Social Science publishing, and that’s the key area of focus for the majority of university presses. Attending a couple of sessions on Open Access and Open Science at the London Book Fair last week reminded me just how different things look from the perspective of the STEM subjects and the major journal publishers. A session on crossover academic books, and an inspiring talk from the founders of the new Goldsmiths Press brought some other thoughts into play too. A common theme was impact.

For academics, the measure of success is prestige. Have you changed the conversation? Have you changed the world? This idea came up in the session on the crossover book (the academic book that crosses over into a wider market). Penguin Press has published serious books by academic authors which have sold more than 100,000 copies. The question was posed in the session: as an academic why wouldn’t you want to reach 100,000 readers? If you want your work to have real impact in the world make sure you write well and concentrate on communicating your message. Penguin is highly selective in its commissioning, but then really gets behind the marketing for each of its books. Its academic authors include Daniel Kahneman and Paul Dolan. These authors have genuinely made an impact, and the huge success of their books must bring fantastic prestige to their institutions. I was left pondering the contrast with Open Access publishing, through which as much research as possible (rather than selected research) is made available (rather than actively promoted).

With the rise of Open Access, there is a commercial imperative to issue as much OA material as possible. This was from the “What is a Publisher Now? It’s Open, but where on earth is it?” session. Funders are providing money for Open Access publishing, and publishers seem very happy to take the money. A lot of money is being poured into the development of new platforms, and the big publishers are becoming content providers rather than book and journal publishers. With more and more research being published, discoverability is becoming a key issue. Metadata and semantic search are buzzwords. Is there an element of re-inventing the wheel here? Google is the expert in semantic search, and Google is widely used by academics for search purposes. In the future, will scholars search within several different platforms to find what they’re looking for, or will a single search portal (like Google) become dominant?

In STEM subjects, articles rather than books are the dominant form. Article Processing Charges for OA mean that there is a shift in where the value is perceived to lie, away from the journal (the publisher) and towards the article (the author). Articles can be published before the journal publication date. There is a move towards article-level metrics, which would mean that prestige (the academic’s measure of success) is tied in with the impact factor of the article, rather than the journal as a whole. In this scenario, what is the purpose of the journal? What is the purpose of the publisher? Are they now simply platform developers?

The fact that for STEM subjects OA is moving towards content held on platforms provides challenges for research that does not fit into the journal article mould (aka books!). Rupert Gatti (Open Book Publishers) and Lara Speicher (UCL Press) both spoke of the difficulties of finding the right business model and of getting Open Access books to the reader. Open Access books typically have free versions and also paid-for versions (for example you can access the pdf free online, but you can also pay to buy a print edition). Retailers (such as Amazon) and library suppliers are happy to list information about the books on their systems, but they don’t label them as being Open Access. So how does the reader know that a free version is available? Open Access book publishers need to find new channels. Publisher platforms, websites, OAPEN, DOAB and social media were all mentioned. For smaller publishers, without the scale and finance to develop sophisticated platforms like the mega-publishers, and without the routes to market provided by established commercial distributors, this seems very challenging. It’s often repeated that making books available as Open Access does not have a detrimental impact on sales of the print or ebook versions. I’m now wondering whether this is significantly influenced by the fact that distributors who sell the book do not mention the OA version. Are buyers ordering books through their usual channels not even aware that they’re paying for books that are OA? As OA becomes more widespread, surely this will change?

The newly launched Press at Goldsmiths is format agnostic. They are taking a critical attitude to Open Access, not saying yes, not saying no. For co-founder Adrian Driscoll, a key issue is sustainability. Open Access is very reliant on continued funding, which seems risky for a university (and therefore a press) which has a liberal arts focus. Sarah Kember, the Publishing Director, wants to think about different communication formats that are suited to subject specialisms which include arts and performance. She thinks Open Access does not work for the liberal arts. OA belongs to the STEM subjects, and publishers’ systems are being developed for those subject areas where the article is the main communication vehicle.  Goldsmiths Press wants to push the barrier between academic and trade, to focus on the needs of authors and scholars and on supporting the aims of their institution. They are asking whether impact can be measured in new ways.

Advocates of Open Access talk about increasing the impact of research, getting it read by more people. The speakers in the crossover books session were talking about that too. Mathew Lyons spoke about it being important that academic humanities should be a vital contributor to the national conversation and be part of the wider political and cultural debate. Sarah Kember from Goldsmiths spoke about finding the best way to maximise impact for different areas of research. There seems to be wide agreement about the importance of impact, of changing the conversation.

At the University Press Redux conference In Liverpool in March, Mandy Hill from Cambridge University Press expressed a worry that Open Access might mean that some research might not be able to be published. I read a tweet from a librarian who was in the room, reacting to this idea with astonishment, and thinking that he must have misheard. But there are costs associated with publishing research, whether those costs are paid by the publisher, by institutions or by external funders, either through processing charges or through funding a university (or library) press. If institutions and funders are paying article and book processing charges, and the publisher is supplying a content platform instead of making commercial decisions about what to publish and what not to publish, where will this lead? For research which may not have an immediately apparent commercial value (STEM research receives a lot of commercial funding, humanities and social science research does not) will there be a limit to how much will receive OA funding for publication?

Liz Allen from F1000Research spoke about the outbreak of the Ebola virus providing a strong impetus to get the latest research published fast. Open Science is ideal for this kind of research and information sharing. But maybe a different approach is more suitable for the communication of humanities and social science research, one that is more focused on proactively engaging with the national conversation, communicating ideas and research in ways that will advance culture and policy.