Open Access Week Q&A with Director Steve Cohn

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Today our Director Steve Cohn answers questions in honor of Open Access Week, a global event dedicated to discussion and education about Open Access within the scholarly and research community and to the expansion of access to research and information across disciplines. Steve Cohn got his start in publishing as the managing editor of the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, which he brought with him to the Press in 1984 as the Press’s eighth journal (we now publish over fifty), and which the Press continues to publish today. He came to the Press as the Journals Manager, and after building and strengthening that program he became Director in 1993. Steve led the Press back from a period of financial insecurity in the nineties, through the transition from print to digital formats, and through significant growth and expansion of its publishing program.

Why is it important that Duke University Press experiment with Open Access?

Given the way our world is changing—with many librarians, funding agencies, and governments pushing towards a fully open-access publishing environment—we feel it is imperative that we begin experimenting with open-access publishing, even though we see no way for open-access publishing to be feasible (or desirable) on a broad scale for the sort of publishing we are now doing.

Mainly for that reason, but also because we believe that demonstrating ways to publish open-access projects successfully can allow us to attract some excellent projects that we could not otherwise have attracted, we have begun publishing both journals and books in open-access arrangements, in each case insisting that the OA arrangement must be financially sustainable over the long term.

What was the Press’s first venture into OA publishing?

Our longest-running OA project by far is the Carlyle Letters Online (CLO), the electronic database that has mainly superseded the long series of printed volumes (now nearing fifty) that began in 1970 and will continue to be published steadily at the pace one volume per year, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, until we reach the end of this voluminous set of letters from Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle in a few more years.

The CLO is widely considered to be a model “lives and letters” database, much used, much loved, and much imitated. We hope it can soon start to serve as the model and the base for a much wider set of annotated letters, diaries, and other Victorian life-writing.  

What open access initiatives have been most successful for Duke University Press?

In the realm of journals, we have concentrated our open-access efforts on what are alternatively called diamond or platinum models, i.e., models that do not depend on author payments as their source of sustainability. In the areas we publish in primarily—the humanities, the interpretive social sciences, and mathematics—most authors do not have grant funding to cover OA charges, as they do in the sciences; so they would have to pay article fees out of their own pockets.

The model for those efforts is our very successful publication of Environmental Humanities, a journal that is supported through annual contributions of $5,000 each from five academic centers scattered among Australia, Canada, Europe, and the US. (Magazines for Libraries said, “Environmental Humanities is one of the most beautifully realized open access journals I’ve ever had the pleasure of reviewing. This is a title whose URL should be shouted from the rooftops: it’s that good.”)  

This is a model we are promoting for other open-access journals that want to work with us, and we have recently signed an agreement with Judith Butler and the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs for taking on a fledgling journal called Critical Times: Interventions in Global Critical Theory, which we expect will be equally successful.

How do you decide whether to participate in an OA initiative? What are your criteria?

Our criteria for publishing an OA project of any sort are the very same criteria we use for choosing to take on any publishing project: the project must be intellectually significant and it must be financially sustainable. Both our OA books and our OA journals pass through the very same peer-review processes, including final approval by our faculty board, as everything else we publish.

The books we have published in OA form have almost always already been through the approval process long before they are chosen for OA publication. The main OA funding programs for books that we now use—Knowledge Unlatched and TOME—have so far been focused on already-accepted books that are well along in the production process by the time they are chosen for receiving the financial support that will allow the access to be opened up.

But even if we knew from the first that a book would be published OA, we would take it through the same review and approval process; and also we would design, edit, produce, market, and sell it in all the same ways as a book that had no open access.

How do you find ways to make OA book publishing financially sustainable?

So far, we find it impossible to imagine receiving funding that would be sufficient to pay all the costs for our very labor-intensive methods of book publication. Our books are expensive to produce, given the amount of time and care we put into them, and the unlatching amounts provided so far by OA funding sponsors like Knowledge Unlatched and TOME are not nearly sufficient to cover our full publishing costs (including staff time). So, with the exception of a few early and not very successful experiments, all of the books we publish in open access form electronically are also for sale through all our usual sales channels: we print them like any other book we publish; and we also offer them for sale in electronic formats in all the usual ways.

This is sometimes called “hybrid” OA publishing. We expect that the subventions or “unlatching fees” that enable us to open these books up can cover the revenue losses that come from electronic availability, as people choose to use the OA version rather than buy a copy. But we definitely do not expect those fees—on the order of $15,000—to be our sole source of sustainable income on these books, as it would not be nearly enough. With 75 books that are hybrid OA now on the market, we are starting to be in a position to collect good data on the effect of electronic OA publishing on the sales of these books. The ability to measure the effect of OA in a hybrid publishing arena is crucial for us to be able to assess whether a payment of something like $15,000 is enough to cover our revenue losses when we open the electronic access.

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