The challenges facing our society today can only be solved through global cooperation, collaboration and openness. The University of Leeds Libraries will foster the open culture that is needed to make a meaningful difference in this world, and support learning and research that is able to address challenges on a local, national and global scale.

Knowledge for all: University of Leeds Libraries Vision for 2030

Introducing Martin Eve, co-founder of the Open Library of the Humanities and our final open lunch guest of the year, Jane Saunders, Associate Director, Content and Discovery, highlighted the new Library vision “Knowledge for all” and that Leeds University Library is firmly committed to partnering with others to make our research assets and collections available for global discovery, reuse and innovation.

Our previous event with cOAlition S highlighted some of the challenges to this vision, in terms of the expensive publishing fees charged by commercial publishers and the difficulty retaining copyright. Martin was here to explain that there is another way…

The Open Library of Humanities is a non-profit initiative funded by an international consortium of libraries. It was launched in September 2015 with seven journals and a mission to publish humanities research in an open-access form without author-facing charges. Today it runs 28 journals and is one of the most successful examples of what has become known as “diamond” open access.

The University of Leeds is a member the Open Library of the Humanities Library Partnership.

A matter of perspective

Martin is a Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London who has published extensively in open forms. With OLH, he is also the founder of a publishing organisation in the academic journal publishing space as well as an executive board member of an organization called Punctum books, an open access book publisher. So his various perspectives range from on the ground, hands on, experience of being a humanities researcher trying to get his work published openly, running an organisation that works to implement new economic models for open access and as a governor of other open access presses.

Martin’s PhD was on the novels of Thomas Pynchon and he has written nine books, about literary studies but also about academic culture and describes “a sort of metastrand” that goes through his research looking at the way that academics behave, particularly during the peer review process.

Martin has reached a significant milestone recently and managed to make all nine of his published books open access and to ensure that his tenth will also be openly accessible. However, he could only afford to do so through a substantial prize from the Leverhulme Trust and acknowledges the economic challenge of open access in humanities disciplines.

Watch a full recording of Martin’s talk on YouTube:

Counting the cost of open access

Martin suggests that humanities scholars are certainly in favour of the principles of open access to increase access to their work. The barriers are economic. Project funding in humanities disciplines is difficult to come by, so the pay-to-publish model of OA means humanities researchers are asked to pay a fee they cannot afford. In the days of subscription access, they were not exposed to the costs in the same way, which were also more evenly distributed rather than being levied against the researcher themselves at a single point in research lifecycle.

The economic situation of libraries, and HE more broadly, is a significant argument for sustainable open access. Approximately 50% of the population of the UK go on to higher education where they have access to research through their library subscription, but they lose much of that access the moment they graduate. Martin suggests that enabling open access to humanities research is one way we can start to rectify this, so a broader set of people to have access.

Since1986 the cost of subscribing to the serials and journals that an academic library might need for their researchers has risen by approximately 380 percent above inflation while library budgets have stayed flat. At the same time we’ve seen the growth and consolidation of several major publishers who make huge profits. Elsevier’s profit margin, for example, is around the 37 percent year-on-year.

As an industry, academic publishing is more profitable than oil or big pharma while libraries cannot afford to provide access to their own researchers, let alone those outside the ivory tower.

Us and them?

Martin challenges the rhetoric of “bad” publishers vs “good” open access advocates. Publishers clearly perform labour that is required in the academy. Academics do not have the time or skills to carry out all the minutae of publishing, and these necessary publisher activities need to be remunerated, though not necessarily at a 37 percent profit margin! Academics do already perform considerable unpaid labour in the form of peer review, however, which is done for the greater good of science and scholarship, and which can arguably be seen as a form of exploitation through the commercial publishing model. Many libraries are now taking on a publishing role, like Leeds, Sheffield and York through the White Rose University Press, which gives the academy a degree of control in the system

Historically there have been high profile protests, against Elsevier in particular, with Cambridge professor Tim Gowers declaring on his blog a decade ago that he would no longer submit to or review papers for any journal published by them. Such protests have limited impact however. In case of point, almost exactly 10 years later, and after extensive negotiations, UK Universities are on the verge of agreeing an open access deal with Elsevier after they agreed to cut the cost of its previous £50 million-a-year agreement. So while this is ‘affordable’ it really still represents ‘business as usual’ and has been challenged by another Cambridge professor, Stephen Eglen, with an open letter recommending that the proposal be rejected.

The economics of open access – green, gold and diamond

Accepting the need to (fairly) remunerate the labour of publishing, then how does a publisher cover its labour costs if it is giving work away for free?

Green OA refers to an author self-archiving their accepted manuscript in an institutional repository like White Rose Research Online and has the benefit over gold in that it is ‘free’…at least it doesn’t incur an APC, though does rely on the subscription model.

So called ‘gold’ open access in particular implies a new business model for scholarship in the form of the article or book processing charge, while others, like the Open Library of the Humanities, use a model more of akin to membership. Strictly this is still a form of ‘gold’ OA though sometimes the term ‘diamond’ is used where an author is not themselves asked to pay to publish.

The Open Library is born

As a PhD student in the digital era, Martin couldn’t understand the model of research dissemination in the humanities and why it didn’t use the open power of the internet more effectively. So he set up his own postgraduate student journal, which turned out to be a lot of work…

Going on to establish a journal in the field of American Studies, Martin found that ever more of his time was being devoted to publishing activities and decided to build an organisation that was formally incorporated, to properly employ people and give him back the time to be an academic.

The response to a post on a mailing list asking if anyone was interested in building something like the Public Library of Science for the humanities was immediate and overwhelming. However, a model based on pay to publish was not seen as viable. An alternative was required.

The library partnership subsidy system is a model that, rather than lots of libraries paying small to medium amounts to publishers for closed content, takes the benefits of the subscription system and simply applies it to open access. The ambition was for 300 or so libraries to pay a relatively small annual membership fee so they could publish everything openly.

Of course, whether they pay for membership or not, everyone benefits from this model but it turns out that libraries want open access, and if it’s affordable they will provide support. Today OLH is supported by around 320 libraries around the world who pay an annual membership fee to sustain this system which has been fully operational for six years after an initial run-in period.

A global collection

“Initiatives like ours, set up and run by scholars, funded by libraries that share our mission, and scaled to be affordable for each of those institutions really to me feels like the balancing act that’s needed”

Historically libraries bought books, or subscribed to digital resources, to curate a local collection accessible to their readership, whereas this model of open access can be thought of as libraries collaborating to build a globally shared collection where every library has access to that collection. This only works if there is financial support, and while harbingers of doom have expected OLH to be the first thing cut with budget strictures, or that many would take a free ride and not contribute, this hasn’t been the case. The model is so affordable that libraries are quite happy to support it, collaborating to open humanities scholarship instead of putting more money into the pockets of Elsevier’s shareholders.

Supporting organisations range in size from large research intensive institutions, down to small theological colleges and a banding system means libraries of any size can participate. This emphasises one of the problems with transformative agreements whereby big libraries pay huge amounts of money every year but small libraries have no way of participating, creating an exlusionary culture.

Journal flipping programme – the case of Glossa

Subscription journals can apply to switch to using the OLH model.

The best known example of this is a journal called Glossa. Essentially the editors of the journal Lingua – the flagship journal in linguistics – at Elsevier, became frustrated that there was no open access option for their title…so they left to set up a new journal with OLH which now has publication volumes equal to what they used to have at Lingua. Elsevier continue to run the old journal, just without the editorial team now at Glossa, the new defacto flagship journal of linguistics?

OLH welcome inquiries from any journal that wants to transition from a legacy publisher and provide a professional publishing service. The only thing they don’t do is pay editors to keep costs down for libraries.

New models and the future of humanities scholarship

Given the challenges of running an OA publisher with a new business model, OLH has remained quite traditional in its approach. In many STEM disciplines, scientists increasingly make their work openly available before formal publicatione on a pre-print server, where they can get informal feedback from the community before revising and submitting to a journal. Martin does not see why a similar approach wouldn’t work in the humanities. Disciplines like philosophy have a long history of working papers. Derek Parfit’s book On What Matters, for example, circulated online for years among philosophers before it was ever published.

Humanities commons represents an attempt at building a subject repository for the humanities. In the future, overlay peer review processes might enable open and post publication peer review of artifacts that are openly available online. As in the sciences, these approaches aren’t without their challenges. Reduced anonymity might disproportionality impact scholars depending on their age or gender for example. Nevertheless it’s an important area for experimentation.

Dissatisfied by available software, OLH developed their own open scholarly communications platform Janeway, now in use by about 20 university presses worldwide, which enables experimentation with workflows. They would also like to explore remixing, reuse and versioning which has often been discussed as a potential of open access but yet to be fully realised…to perhaps reproduce an article with line by line critical commentary in a way that could lead to a more sophisticated scholarly dialogue.

Online and open also means that OLH can experiment with article length. Most journal articles in Martin’s discipline are between eight and twelve thousand words which is enough space to develop an argument while constraining the author to think about how they’re communicating that argument. A trilogy on the novels of William Gaddis and the Gaddis archive were much much longer than a ‘conventional’ article. No longer constrained by a page budget, scholarship just needs to be readable and interesting and make best use of the format. This is another area for experimentation and Martin and OLH encourage people to to pitch why they might challenge the ‘normal’ length to advance a better argument.


Before taking questions, Martin closed his talk by acknowledging that he had not discussed open access books which is crucial to the humanities and where the economic barriers are even more severe than journal articles. Much of the following discussion focussed on the potential pitfalls – real and perceived -of Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) and the concerns from humanists around the potential misuse of their work. The discussion is worth listening to in full (direct link to YouTube timecode) or Martin has addressed the issue briefly on his blog here: On informed consent and open licensing.