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An interview with Dr Rose Harris-Birtill from the Open Library of Humanities

Date:06 April 2020
Rose Harris-Birtill
Rose Harris-Birtill

Dr Rose Harris-Birtill serves as Managing Editor across the Open Library of Humanities platform of 28 Open Access scholarly journals, and Editor of its flagship journal OLH, based at Birkbeck, University of London (a short bio is available at the end of the interview). 

Rose was invited to give a talk titled "Inside the Open Library of Humanities: the global benefits and local challenges of Open Access publishing" at the symposium “Rethinking monographs: academic book publishing and open access”, initially scheduled for 23 March 2020. The symposium was cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak; the UB is now evaluating whether the event can be rescheduled at a later date. 

In this interview, she discusses the benefits and challenges of open access publishing in the humanities and describes the publishing model of the Open Library of the Humanities.

What is the Open Library of Humanities? How does the model work?

The Open Library of Humanities, or OLH, is an open access publisher dedicated to publishing peer-reviewed open access scholarship in the humanities, based at Birkbeck, University of London. We’re a scholar-led, not-for-profit publisher and all of our 28 academic journals are both free to read and free to access, with no article processing charges. Our mission is to support and extend open access to scholarship in the humanities – for free, for everyone, for ever.

The OLH model was established to spread the costs of open access publishing fairly and collectively. Initially funded by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and from OpenAIRE, part of the European Commission, the OLH is funded by an international consortium of libraries and institutions which each contribute an annual membership. Rates are banded according to the institution’s size, and are kept low to ensure affordability, while smaller institutions pay less.

We’re incredibly grateful to our supporters for their help; as a supporting institution, the University of Groningen is part of an international community of nearly 300 supporters from 18 countries. Each of our supporters plays an invaluable part in keeping the OLH working – so a huge thank you to the University of Groningen from us all at OLH. Each supporting member is entitled to a voting position on the Library Governance board, with the ability to vote on the inclusion of new journals, allowing the OLH to be collaboratively governed by its supporters.

After 5 years of activity, how is the platform doing? Has it established itself as a respected publication channel in the humanities?

Absolutely – it’s a real pleasure to say that the OLH has established itself as a respected and innovative open access journal publisher for humanities scholarship. In just five years we’ve established a platform of 28 peer-reviewed journals, whose scholarly articles have received over 360,000 downloads worldwide up to the end of 2019.

We’re proud to say that we achieved financial independence in 2019; OLH now has four full-time staff, funds two external commercial university presses to convert their journals to open access, and has developed Janeway, our own open access publishing software, which we’ve built in-house and encourage others to use freely.

We’ve also worked hard to change the field of open access publishing by encouraging other organisations to use our model as the basis of their own open access publishing frameworks. We’re delighted that OLH won a Coko Foundation Open Publishing Award last year, so it’s great to see the team’s efforts being recognised – here’s to the next five years!

As a researcher in the humanities why should I publish in an OLH journal? What are the benefits of open access?

There are many benefits to publishing open access. For researchers, publishing open access means making research accessible as widely as possible, for the benefit of all. Widespread budget cuts have had a huge impact on the humanities, and so free access to scholarship is an enormous help to researchers, teachers and students alike, as well as those unable to reach works in financially or geographically inaccessible locations, those working with travel or budget constraints, and individuals living with disabilities that prevent physical access to texts. And with entire populations quarantined as at present, open access to research is invaluable.

As Editorial Officer at the OLH, I serve as Managing Editor across our platform of 28 journals, and Editor of our flagship journal OLH. All our academic articles are subject to rigorous peer-review and benefit from robust digital preservation and shareability, with accessible metrics allowing researchers to keep track of the number of people accessing their work.

The scholarship that we publish covers some of the most dynamic research taking place in humanities disciplines today – from literature, classics, modern languages and cultures, linguistics, philosophy, theology and history, to political theory, sociology, anthropology, ethnology, film and new media studies, and digital humanities. You can see the full list of OLH journals here.

The journal OLH, which is our flagship journal, also publishes curated Special Collections, which are dedicated collections of articles that are guest edited by academic specialists. These cover topics as varied as The Medieval Brain, Postcolonial Perspectives in Game Studies, Muslims in the Media, Freedom after Neoliberalism, and The Abolition of the University. You can find more info about applying to edit an OLH Special Collection here.

What does the future hold for the OLH? Any plans to expand into book publishing? 

We currently don’t have plans to publish books, as our business model is tailored specifically for journals. An integral part of the OLH is that our scholarship is always free to read and free to publish. This is possible on the scale of journals, but many open access monograph models currently require substantial book processing charges. This can mean that only those who can find the funds to cover these charges can get their work published – which runs counter to our core mission.

However, while open access book publishing comes with its own unique challenges, there are also promising new developments underway, such as the COPIM project. While this is separate to OLH, this is another project that Birkbeck, University of London is currently involved in that aims to tackle the lack of support for presses wanting to transition to open access business models.

About the interviewee
Dr Rose Harris-Birtill serves as Managing Editor across the Open Library of Humanities platform of 28 Open Access scholarly journals, and Editor of its flagship journal OLH, based at Birkbeck, University of London. Rose also teaches at the University of St Andrews, and holds the International Society for the Study of Time (ISST) New Scholar Prize, the Frank Muir Prize for Writing, and a McCall MacBain Teaching Excellence Award. She has served as an invited guest editor for special editions of C21 Literature: Journal of 21st Century Writings and KronoScope: Journal for the Study of Time, and her recent monograph David Mitchell’s Post-Secular World: Buddhism, Belief and the Urgency of Compassion was published in 2019.

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