This post is one of a series from participants in the Innovation in Digital Publishing in the Humanities session at the American Historical Association 2015 Annual Meeting in New York, co-presented by the Wellcome Trust and The New York Academy of Medicine’s Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health.
By Lisa Norberg, Dean, Barnard Library and Academic Information Services
Open Access (OA), despite all the questions, issues, and anxieties it evokes, presents the biggest opportunity for innovation in digital publishing. OA offers scholars the opportunity to leverage digital networked technologies in ways that expand the distribution of their scholarship, generate new ideas, build knowledge, and enrich society. It has the potential to foster and deepen the connections between the academy and the wider public, support new forms of education delivery, and help address in part some of higher education’s current funding crises.
How OA provides opportunities for innovation may be less obvious. Typically, we rely on market forces to drive innovation, but let’s look at how at least one segment of the market is working for us these days. Commercial journal publishers are reaping some pretty healthy profits, but aside from the competition to develop an overly complicated user-interface (often in response to pressure from librarians), I haven’t seen a great deal of innovation. Nor am I seeing a lot of innovation coming out of the average university press. As Mark Edington of Amherst College Press points out, “What was never intended to be a system left to the vicissitudes of the market has become exactly that.”
I might even go so far as to suggest that, in the case of scholarly publishing, the market has inhibited innovation. In the same way most people prefer to buy a song or two rather than an entire album, most researchers really only care about one or two articles in any given journal issue or a chapter or two of any given book. At a time when the customer is demanding unbundling, publishers have continued to push collections of journals, the so-called “big deal”—innovative, yes, but not in a good way. Even in the broader economy, the “firm-based” or “closed innovation” model (i.e., one reliant on internal R&D) is giving way to models of “open innovation” where firms partner with other firms, institutions, and individuals to generate new ideas and fuel innovation.
If OA presents an opportunity for digital innovation, perhaps the answer to the second half of this question—“what is the biggest challenge to digital publishing?”—is how we make OA-driven innovation sustainable. We could start by looking at Silicon Valley, a region synonymous with sustained innovation, having survived numerous cycles of boom and bust. According to Henton and Held, the secret sauce is serious investments in the broader social, educational, and network infrastructure needed to support technological innovation. One could argue this is just the kind of investment that digital publishing could use. Instead, the majority of the funding for scholarly communication currently comes from academic and research library subscriptions (see Figure 1).
What if academic publishing adopted a new model of funding built on collaborative alliances across a wide variety of institutions and a range of stakeholders? What if those funds were raised to invest in the infrastructure needed to sustain digital publishing innovation over time? My colleague Rebecca Kennison and I describe just such a model in a white paper we authored in 2014. Our idea is to take a “social innovation” approach to developing a sustainable digital publishing infrastructure that supports innovation. We call it the Open Access Network (OAN). It encourages partnerships among scholarly societies, research libraries, and other institutional partners (e.g., collaborative e-archives and university presses) that share a common mission to support the creation, distribution, and preservation of research and scholarship. The OAN acts as an incubator of sorts to fund collaborative projects that enable scholarly societies and university presses to make their publications open and ideally reusable. These funds would provide a steady and reliable source of income so stakeholders can innovate and begin to develop the social, educational, and network infrastructure needed to sustain a vibrant, innovative and open digital publishing enterprise. It is a bold plan—some say audacious—but at the same time is incremental, even conservative. Just like the academy.
So I end where I began. OA does offer enormous opportunities for innovation in digital publishing—if we have the resolve to tackle the challenge of developing the infrastructure needed to sustain it.