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Access All Areas: Launch of The Open Library of Humanities

Access All Areas

On the Launch of The Open Library of Humanities

By Mark P. Williams

Everywhere we go we create or share knowledge via our networks of communication; the internet has helped us all see its concrete effects on our everyday lives. The next issue is to decide how open access to knowledge ought to be — it's a pressing concern for Higher Education institutions with far wider social implications for us all.

Open Library, Open Access

The Open Library of Humanities is a new project set up to enable open access to research in Higher Education in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Directed by UK academics Dr Martin Paul Eve and Dr Caroline Edwards, the Open Library of Humanities is non-profit and open in both monetary and permission terms. It gives free access under a creative commons licence and sets out to provide a resource for scholars and librarians to digitally preserve and archive work permanently and for everyone. It is one of several new publications set up to engage with the issue of open access to scholarly research; The Guardian recently featured an interesting comparison between the OLH and two other new open access journals which publish scientific research, eLIFE and PeerJ. The OLH was initiated out of Dr Eve and Dr Edwards' concern about the prohibitive increases of cost in maintaining up-to-date access to research in the university libraries, and the desire to see new solutions developed as a response.

University libraries maintain subscription purchases of newly published academic journals and collections in research fields in order that they can keep up with up-to-date developments in current scholarship across their undergraduate teaching and postgraduate and faculty research. There are around 25,000 peer reviewed journals published and the cost of those journals has been rising consistently far higher than current inflation, year on year, since 1986; George Monbiot has described this situation as a 'knowledge monopoly'.

Subscription costs serve to accentuate existing economic divides, they make it significantly harder for some university libraries to sustain their collections. In turn, this unfairly disadvantages scholars and students at institutions which already face the impact of funding cuts. In the words of some commentators it is a crisis which actually threatens the existence of the libraries themselves. The Economist writes that in 2011, in Britain, subscription journals accounted for 65% of what university libraries spent on their content.

In 2012, even Harvard university library sent a memo which instructed its faculty to publish only through open access as a reaction to the steadily increasing costs of subscription publications. Access to scholarly research in 'the global south' places a still more urgent demand, where access to knowledge is linked directly to development goals. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights lists the right of everyone to 'share in scientific advancement and its benefits', and UNESCO has been developing a policy of promoting open access. Open access libraries of current scholarship are a logical counter to the pressures towards further knowledge impoverishment and monopolisation in the face of economic strain.

Open access also makes sense in terms of maximising the significance or impact of academic research. Academics depend upon being able to consistently demonstrate the value of their research through institutionally and nationally determined criteria such as the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF). Such criteria also affect international ranking guides such as the Times Higher Education or QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) World University Rankings. A measure of the impact of academic research is the frequency with which it is cited in other research articles. Since the presence of pay walls and other monetary restrictions on access has been shown to decrease the frequency of citation we can say plainly that restricted access decreases scholarly impact. The UK's Finch Report has outlined similar reasons for supporting open access in principle.

There are several current schools of thought on how open access should be handled based on the existing models of 'Green' or 'Gold' open access.

Golden Age or Green Age?

Much of the debate about open access (OA) adopts a fairly utilitarian view by necessity. Governmental responses are driven by the political logic of preferring technical and scientific innovation to be open because of the economic dividends for a nation of having a technically-skilled workforce and an environment where technological innovation can be used to generate wealth more broadly across industrial sectors. 'Green OA' means that the authors of research are free to publish in a journal and then self-archive a version for free public use in a repository (typically linked to their university library — the sciences have been far ahead of the humanities in this practice). Whereas 'Gold OA' means that the journal where research is published provides immediate open access via their website.

The Wikipedia page dealing with open access has a particularly instructive graph for considering the immediate public benefits of open access. Comparing Green and Gold OA in the sciences it shows that 'Medicine', 'Biochemistry, Genetics And Molecular Biology', along with 'Other Areas Related to Medicine' are the widest adopters of Gold open access. In other words, we might reasonably say that the areas where knowledge has most direct application to people's lives and most obvious benefit for the general social good, take up Gold open access.

As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri observe in Commonwealth, in a variety of social and cultural spheres private businesses actively extract economic benefits from things which are outside the direct influence of those private business, such as proximity to transport links, an educated workforce or a safe and non-polluted environment. Hardt and Negri argue that 'the common' is often the primary source of both public and private benefits (which produce profits). Although some have offered strong critiques of Hardt and Negri's philosophical project in Commonwealth (see here and here, for example), we can safely say that their conception of 'the common' is a strong parallel to open access. Having open access to knowledge is one more way of affirming the idea of a common good or a measurable benefit of shared public knowledge.

In May 2012 a group comprising concerned scholars, scientists and librarians and other professionals put together an Open Data Manifesto called 'The Denton Declaration' which stated in uncompromising terms: 'open access to research data is critical for advancing science, scholarship and society'. They assert that other measurable benefits follow on from free access to knowledge: researchers working more efficiently, avoiding the redundancy of replicating the same research; increasing the affordability of training people with expert, current knowledge in all fields no matter where or who they are, and so on.

To borrow a quotation found via one very prominent open store of collective knowledge (if we excuse Mark Twain the gender-bias of the formulation):

"It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others." (Mark Twain, via Wikiquote).

Opening the Gates

The concept of an Open Library of Humanities follows on from the principles of common good and public knowledge; it asserts that publically-funded research should be free to access for the user and open to all to view, search and examine.

From this perspective, knowledge is made as a common social resource because it has been produced within, and will be preserved by, institutions which are maintained as investments in the future of society by the public. In that sense, a 'Gold' open access repository for Humanities scholarship is a natural complement to Gold OA journals in the Sciences, which, as a network, benefit not only every Higher Education institution but the general public which supports all those institutions.

What the OLH aims to do is produce an economically sustainable model for maintaining a thoroughly supported and internationally recognised database of current scholarship based on an equitable system of fees. The OLH proposes to set an article processing charge (APC); being run by academics, the OLH has clearly established that they will waive fees to those unable to pay or independent researchers not supported by such institutions. The APC is based on the model used by the Public Library of Science (PLOS), which itself is a response to the pressures caused by limiting access to scientific knowledge and increasing the costs of subscriptions to academic publications.

As yet, the full system for the Open Library of Humanities is a work in progress. How its subscriptions and subscription waivers will work and the precise approach to peer reviewing contributions have yet to be decided, but committees have been formed and discussions are underway. The statements of intent made on the website are clear: it will publish and preserve valuable academic work in a publically accessible way.

There's a lot of exciting potential here and the questions are being addressed by those who are most affected by the decisions.


I've signed the pledge to contribute to the OLH within their first year as an independent researcher. My personal view on the importance of open access to research is very similar to that I've stated in respect to public broadcasting — some things have intrinsic value because they add to the common good. Knowledge which is shared grows and develops; anything which promotes sharing knowledge as widely as possible will have positive effects.

So, is the Open Library of Humanities the answer? Perhaps—but not on its own. It certainly gives us a space for new ways of comprehending the nature of the question. Let's try it and see how we can develop it.

The Open Library of Humanities website:


Mark P. Williams

Journalist and Independent Academic Researcher

Research Profile:


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