Opening the Open Library of Humanities

This post was co-written by Dr Martin Eve, senior lecturer in Literature, Technology and Publishing and Dr Caroline Edwards, lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. It was originally posted on the Open Library of Humanities blog on Monday 28 September.
In 1987, the late Terence Hawkes wrote, in the inaugural issue of Textual Practice, that

It is never a good time to start a new journal. Even so, 1987 seems unpropitious to a remarkable degree. The academic world in general feels itself to be under attack. The Humanities in particular feel marginalized and underfunded. Outwardly querulous, inwardly riven, they sense themselves to be hopelessly at odds with a culture which has long abandoned any recognition of the value of their role. Connoisseurs of the Unripe Time could be forgiven for regarding the present year as a vintage one, with the project represented by Textual Practice self-evidently foredoomed.1

Open Library of Humanities - CopyHawkes’s major contentions about 1987 still ring true for most in the academic humanities. Remaining on the front-line of budget cuts and continually resorting to liberal humanist defences of critical thought in a democracy, our times remain unripe and feel precarious.

In some ways, however, 2015 is worse than 1987 for those seeking to “start a new journal”. The traditional foundations of the research-publication economy are unravelling in the face of unprecedented digital capability and concomitant social expectations. Ironically, in the age of digital reproduction the circulation of our academic humanities journals is decreasing (because our libraries cannot afford to subscribe in the face of an increasing volume of published material and hyper-inflationary journal price increases), even while we have the technological capacity to disseminate and preserve our work online. Meanwhile, the benefits of open access to the humanities disciplines are clear. Unless we extend access to our work to broader publics, our claims to engender critical thinking in the demos are ill founded.

As with most dreams of universal education, though, there has often been staunch resistance in the humanities to open access. One of the principle reasons for this is that the economic models that are being implemented by traditional publishers are uniquely unsuited to our disciplinary areas. Article processing charges (APCs), in which authors or their institutions are asked to bear the entire labour costs (and any profit/surplus) of a publisher, become unaffordable in the humanities disciplines, as opposed to in our counterpart fields in the natural sciences where the model may work. The diversion of scant humanities funding to compensate lost profits for journal publishers undermines the claimed meritocratic nature of academic publishing as well as damaging the career prospects of those without recourse to such funding.

It was within this context that the Open Library of Humanities was born. It has taken two and a half years of planning; a great deal of consultation with academics, libraries and funders; the willing support of almost 100 libraries; many talks and publications; and a great deal of hard work. What we have so far is the seed of a scalable model for journal transition to open access in the humanities that does not rely on payment from authors or readers.

For this initial launch, six journals have moved from their existing homes to our new model: 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long-Nineteenth Century; The Comics Grid; Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon; ASIANetwork Exchange; Studies in the Maternal; and The Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry. These publications span the range of journal types that the platform can support: those publications that are already open access but that rely on unsustainable volunteerist labour; those that are open access but that rely on unsustainable article process charges; and those that are currently subscription-based but that want to achieve open access. Applications are now open for other journals that wish to join the platform.

None of this would be possible without the support of the institutions that have already signed up to support the OLH. Indeed, the model that underpins the platform is novel for humanities journals: many libraries all paying relatively small sums into a central fund that we then use, across our journal base, to cover the labour costs of publication once material has passed peer review. Libraries that participate are given a governance stake in the admission of new journals. While this model is strange in many ways (as libraries are not really buying a subscription since the material is open access), it works out to be extremely cost effective for participants. In our first year, across the platform, we look set to publish around 150 articles. For our bigger supporting institutions, this is a cost of merely $6.50 per article. For our smallest partners, it comes to $3.33. This economy of charitable, not-for-profit publishing works well at 100 institutions. It should work even better with the 350 libraries that we are aiming to recruit to our subsidy scheme in the first 3 years after launch.

There are countless individuals whom we should thank for helping us to get this far but to do so would mean that we would inevitably offend by omission. We will, therefore, limit our thanks to four broad groups: to the trustees of our charitable organization for helping us to steer the project; to the staff at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their advice and financial assistance in the form of a planning (2014) and then scaling (2015) grant; to the editors of the journals that have already joined us; and to the libraries who have made this possible through their financial support.

What is before you today is not, of course, the end product; it is just the start. While we have come a long way to create a new platform and economic model, challenges remain. Naysayers will doubtless continue to spill words from the sidelines. However, we are more interested in, and draw more inspiration from, the words of an arts and humanities charity in the United Kingdom. Arts Emergency’s mission is to ensure that those from disadvantaged backgrounds can also receive the benefits of an arts and humanities education; disciplines to which open access can make a substantial difference. The badge that Arts Emergency sends to their supporting members is emblazoned with the following text: “sometimes if you want something to exist you have to make it yourself”. No matter how unripe the time, these are words to remember.

Competing Interests
This is an editorial written by the directors of the Open Library of Humanities.


1Terence Hawkes, ‘Editorial’, Textual Practice, 1 (1987), 1–2 <>.


  1. ^ Hawkes, T . (1987). Editorial. Textual Practice 1: 1–2, DOI:

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Why researchers can’t afford to ignore Open Access any more

Paul Rigg, Senior Assistant Librarian for Repositories and Digital Media explains the forthcoming changes to Open Access.

An increasing number of academic authors will recognise the term Open Access, or OA, but given the busy life of the modern academic, many have not had the time to actively pursue a deeper understanding of just what it means, and the benefits it can deliver.  This situation needs to change; researchers who fail to keep up with impending upheavals to the academic landscape risk being left behind.  Allow this blog post to function as your cheat-sheet.

A (brief) history of OA

Although the roots of Open Access stretch further back, the Budapest Open Access Initiative of February 2002 has traditionally been regarded as a watershed, defining OA for the first time as:

“Immediate, permanent, free online access to the full text of all refereed research journal articles.” 

The principle being that if public funds pay for research, the public should be able to read the research output without paying again through journal subscriptions or pay-walls. 

The status quo

Open Access currently exists in two distinct but occasionally intertwining forms.

Green OA:  Authors archive their newly accepted work in a repository (usually institutional or subject-based, like our own BIROn or the Physics repository Arxiv).  Which version of the work is allowed depends on the publisher’s OA policy.

Gold OA:  Authors, institutions or funders pay the publisher an Article Processing Charge to make the final version openly available on their web site.  Pure Gold journals subsist on APCs alone, whilst Hybrid journals are a mix of APCs and traditional subscription models.

The future

Open Access in the UK is about to undergo rapid change.  In July, Dame Janet Finch submitted her working group’s report on expanding access to public research findings.  The Government accepted most of the recommendations with minor ammendments.  Shortly afterwards, RCUK and its affiliated bodies announced that from 1st April 2013, it would closely align its own policies with Finch’s recommendations.

Changes in a nutshell

RCUK will no longer provide funding on a per-project basis for Gold OA.  Instead, institutions will be allocated a block-budget from which Article Processing Charges must be paid.  RCUK will closely monitor compliance with their requirements by both authors and publishers.  To publish RCUK-funded research, journals must either provide a Gold Open Access option, or allow authors to archive their own drafts in repositories, with minimal embargoes.  Where journals allow both options, the author and their institution should decide whether Gold or Green is more suitable.

Non-RCUK funding

RCUK accounts for around 45% of the College’s externally-funded research.  If your funding comes from RCUK, it’s important to keep up to speed with how these changes will affect you.  If your research isn’t funded by RCUK, their policies won’t apply, though whether other funders will follow suit in aligning with Finch is not yet clear.

Where BIROn fits in

The basic framework upon which the college’s Open Access policy is laid remains the mandate to deposit, a Green OA initiative which encourages staff to deposit publications in BIROn immediately, but enables delayed access to the full-text in order to comply with publisher’s copyright requirements.  BIROn will continue to host records and full-text (where copyright allows) of staff publications.  From April 1st 2013, Gold articles paid for by RCUK will be reusable under a Creative Commons licence.  This means that for the first time, BIROn will be able to host final drafts of newly published work by Birkbeck authors.

Learn more

To mark Open Access week, Birkbeck, together with LSE, SOAS, LSHTM and City University, will host a free event aimed at dispelling the confusion around the past, present and future of Open Access. 

Entitled Opening Research and Data, it will feature talks on the state of the movement, issues for researchers, open data, and funder policies.

The event will take place on October 22nd, 1.00-5.00pm, in room B01 of Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus Clore Building.  The original ticket allocation has been extended due to popular demand.

Enquiries about Open Access at Birkbeck can be directed to Paul Rigg, Senior Assistant Librarian for Repositories and Digital Media.

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