March 17, 2018

The Lever Initiative: Taking a Stand To Change the World | Peer to Peer Review

Barbara FisterThe first phase of the Lever Initiative is very nearly complete, so it seems a good time to share what we’ve learned.

Back in the summer of 2010, I sent an email to a group of liberal arts college library directors, all members of the Oberlin Group of 80 college libraries, suggesting a crazy idea: What if we jointly investigated the possibility of starting an open access press? It turned out Bryn Geffert of Amherst College was composing a similar message (though a much more considered one) at almost exactly the same time. We both believed that our libraries could contribute something imaginative to the open access movement that reflects our liberal arts perspective, our wish to bring knowledge to the world, and our conviction that even small schools like ours can make good things happen. We formed a task force to explore the idea, brought in Melinda Kenneway of TBI Communications as a consultant, and now we’re close to wrapping up the first stage. The name we chose was inspired by Archimedes’s claim that he could move the world if given a place to stand and a lever.

The goal is to explore “whether libraries collectively could launch a sustainable Open Access press to provide scholars editorial attention worthy of their best work in whatever form this might take—and offer it to the world.” In our first phase, we held virtual workshops with library directors, conducted interviews with people who have interest in and knowledge of innovative scholarly publishing, examined the landscape for open access book publishing, and surveyed faculty, both at our liberal arts colleges and more broadly. The next step, should we decide to go forward, will be to explore what exactly we might do and how we would fund it.

The conversations with library directors raised the issues that librarians generally face when thinking about investing in open access projects. Some wondered if there aren’t already too many books being published, or whether we’d be shoring up an expensive but bankrupt system of exchanging obscure tomes that nobody reads for job security. Some thought our efforts should focus on developing innovative new formats. Still others wondered why they should take scarce dollars that they use to support their students’ research needs and put them into a project that might not benefit their students at all. The conversations we had were a fascinating microcosm of the profession’s ambivalence about how we can best support the creation of new knowledge—and whether that’s even something librarians should do. The publishing experts we talked to were similarly ambivalent. Some wished us well but warned us that it would be very difficult and extremely costly. Others were more encouraging and felt a new approach might be possible.

We also found, surveying the landscape, that there are a lot of projects like this at the starting gate. In 2010, there weren’t so many models out there and little urgency about setting books free. Since then we’ve been ungluing, unlatching, and launching lots of initiatives. One open access publisher that was founded since we began this project is the Amherst College Press. Geffert got the Amherst faculty and administration so fired up, they decided to get started right away. They’ve already hired a director for their new press.

The two faculty surveys we conducted gave us some fascinating results. The first was distributed to faculty at several Oberlin Group colleges, and over 600 faculty members participated. But since liberal arts colleges represent such a small subset of higher education, we also distributed the survey to a second group of faculty, mostly working at four-year through PhD-granting institutions, with a few community college faculty members in the mix. Because this second survey was a convenience sample reached by contacts within the task force’s networks, those results need to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, the findings were fairly consistent between groups, though our second sample was more dissatisfied with the status quo and more interested in open access options.

Faculty members were relatively satisfied (or at least not as dissatisfied) with the quality of traditional scholarly book publishing in terms of selection, peer review, editing, and production. They weren’t so happy about the speed of getting a book to market, distribution, and price. They feel fairly well served by their libraries when it comes to getting books they want to use; interlibrary loan was frequently mentioned in open comments as key to that satisfaction. Generally, faculty don’t seem to express any sense of crisis in terms of gaining access to high-quality books—yet they were concerned that good books weren’t reaching readers because of problems with sluggish time lines, ineffective marketing, and high prices.

To me, the most striking findings of the surveys are that a majority of faculty said they might consider publishing with an open access press. Over half of arts and humanities faculty said they would definitely consider it. Very few said they wouldn’t.

What respondents wanted most from a new press had little to do with new technologies but rather with traditional publishing functions. They wanted editors who were more responsive and helpful. They wanted help reaching an audience. The quality of peer review was vitally important to them, and if they were going to choose an open access publisher, they wanted to see people and institutions involved with it whom they recognized as having strong reputations. Not so important were multimedia capabilities, alternative metrics, or the ability to update texts or interact with readers, though some were very enthusiastic about those things. Criteria for tenure and promotion were invoked frequently as a factor. As one respondent put it, “It’s not ‘publish or perish,’ except that it is totally that.”

The open comments from respondents reflect the range of attitudes you might expect. One respondent wrote, “I’m not convinced that scholarship isn’t already open and accessible.” It’s hard to see the problem if your library is able to get you nearly everything you need. Some were alarmed by a question about short-form publications. As one wrote, “You need at least 200 pages to analyze an important topic in detail. I want my students for be able to follow complex arguments. Why cater to shorter attention spans among students?” But far more respondents warmed to the idea, with 70 percent expressing interest.

Though many of the comments expressed caution (What would tenure committees think? Would the quality be high enough?), there was a lot of enthusiasm, expressed in comments like these:

  • “Anything open access immediately gets my attention—I want my work to be read, not to just be a line on my vita.”
  • “When a viable open access book publisher appears, I’ll gladly send all of my manuscripts there.”
  • “I hope it happens.”
  • “Is it not obvious that we need this?”
  • “Stop talking about it, and do it.”
  • “Let’s get started.”

I can’t predict, at this point, where we will go with this information, but whatever happens, it has been interesting to see such a groundswell of innovation in open access book publishing in the past two years and to get some insights into faculty perceptions, which were frankly far more positive and informed than I anticipated.

Why would a librarian like me, at a school with a tiny acquisitions budget, want to spend some of it on a risky project like this? Because I believe in the transformative value of knowledge, and because I believe that our students are not merely information consumers and degree seekers. They are people who are finding their place in the great conversations that give this world meaning. It makes no sense to me to cut them off as soon as they graduate. I want to help create a world where they can continue to participate in those conversations wherever their lives take them.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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