Welcome the Open Library of Humanities

Open access isn’t just for scientists. Opening up research is an idea that appeals to more and more humanists and social scientists, including many at UCSD. The challenge has been how those fields can support the open sharing of research, since publication in the humahities usually does not have the kind of grant funding to cover publication costs that is common in scientific publication, or the potential commercial application (and remuneration) of so much published research in the science and technology fields.

Now, a new nonprofit organization, called the Open Library of Humanities, aims to create a humanities-and-social-sciences version of the successful Public Library of Science, or PLoS, which in the past decade has established itself as a major presence in open-access, peer-reviewed scientific publishing. Like PLoS, the Open Library of Humanities, or OLH, will be peer-reviewed.

“For me, there was an itch, a frustration: Why are we always talking about science?” says Tim McCormick, one of the three founders of the new venture. “I’m sure that it has probably crossed the minds of many people, and a number of people have said to me, ‘I’ve always thought there should be a PLoS for humanities.'”

McCormick is a veteran of the publishing-and-technology worlds. Formerly a senior product manager for Stanford University’s HighWirePress, he is now a consultant with Stanford’s MediaX, which encourages tech collaborations between researchers and the business world. McCormick’s OLH co-visionaries are academics: Caroline Edwards, a lecturer in English at the University of Lincoln, in England, and Martin Paul Eve, also a lecturer in English at Lincoln who’s also a computer programmer. Both Edwards and Eve have experience editing open-access journals in their fields.

As McCormick points out, the humanities and social sciences have a sometimes underappreciated history with open access. Some of the movement’s most visible leaders come from nonscience backgrounds: Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project, is a philosopher by training, for instance. But the sciences have the most robust mechanisms in place to encourage the open sharing of work; PLoS is an especially visible publishing option, and the now-venerable preprint repository arXiv has long been the place physicists, computer scientists, and others to go for the latest research. The cause of openness has gotten a big boost from the National Institutes of Health’s public-access policy, which requires that research supported the agency be made freely accessible via the PubMed Central repository within 12 months of publication. Researchers have petitioned the government to expand the policy to all federally backed research.

Right now, OLH is mostly a vision and a Web site, which went live only a week ago. “At this moment, we’re a project,” Edwards says. “We’ve got a loose organizational structure.” But an advisory committees has filled up quickly with an impressive roster of well-established academics. For instance, Michael Eisen, an associate professor of biology at Berkeley and a co-founder of PLoS, is on the Academic Steering & Advocacy Committee, along with David Armitage, chairman of Harvard’s history department.

The group is in serious talks with foundations to line up money—somewhere in the neighborhood of $1-to-$1.5-million to build and sustain the Web platform they’ll need, hire a staff, and work out the details, starting this summer. How will the venture be organized so that it works for different disciplines? Will it draw on existing open-access journals now sequestered in hard-to-spot niches? A robust peer-review system will be essential in order to help humanists deal with lingering uncertainty about whether open-access publishing is a good career move. As for how the platform might function, he points out that there’s an accumulated wealth of open-access publishing precedent to learn from. The OLH team has been talking informally with PLoS, drawing on its knowledge and experience.

McCormick wants to seize the moment. “I don’t really like the term ‘cognitive surplus,’ but I have the sense there’s a lot of unfulfilled idealism out there, a lot of academics living in fear,” he says. “One thing we want to do is to tap into the wish people have to do something new and better, not just fix a problem.”

–Abridged and adapted from an article by Jennifer Howard in the online Chronicle of Higher Education (1/29/13).