• Open Insights: An Interview with Demmy Verbeke

    Posted by James Smith on 2018-05-14


Humanities Open Access: A Future for Researchers and Librarians

An Open Insights interview with Demmy Verbeke


Demmy Verbeke was trained as a Neo-Latinist, receiving his PhD in Classics from KU Leuven in 2005, and was a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard University (2006-7), the University of Warwick (2007-9) and KU Leuven (2009-12). He joined KU Leuven Libraries in 2012, where he is Head of Artes and plays a central role in organising library services for the Arts and Humanities.


As a member of the management team, Demmy also contributes to the strategic development and operational management of KU Leuven Libraries as a whole, with a particular focus on (library support for) research and scholarly communication. He is a strong believer in Fair Open Access and acts as section editor for the Open Library of Humanities.

 

OLH: Many thanks for agreeing to talk to us, Demmy. KU Leuven has been a big supporter of open access. What drives you to push for open scholarship?

DV: I have to admit that my interest was initially mercantile, in the sense that I hoped (and still hope) that OA will help to address the budget crisis in academic libraries. When I started in the Arts Faculty Library in Leuven in 2012, the library was in dire straits. The cost of subscriptions was bigger than the collection budget of the library. That is problematic for any type of library, but especially for an Arts Faculty Library, since the expectation still is that its core business is to buy books, not journals. But we did not even have enough money to pay the journal subscriptions, let alone for buying monographs!

The cost of subscriptions was bigger than the collection budget of the library. That is problematic for any type of library, but especially for an Arts Faculty Library, since the expectation still is that its core business is to buy books, not journals. But we did not even have enough money to pay the journal subscriptions, let alone for buying monographs!

Luckily, we have been able to mend that situation, partly thanks to cancellations and a major reorganization, but the crisis has made me realise the business model of commercial academic publishers is unsustainable and that we need a new approach.

OLH: As a humanist by training and the head of Artes at KU Leuven, how would you say that your perspective differs from that of your peers?

DV: One thing that I am perhaps especially conscious of, being a librarian in the humanities, is that we need a diversified approach if we want to achieve OA for all domains of science. A focus on journals and the five big publishers might work for STEM and the social sciences, but it misses the point in the humanities. Monographs are still central in our field and the “big five” are in fact not that big in most humanities fields. So, we need to take that into account if we want OA to work in our domain too.

The way I see it, there are ethical, academic and financial reasons to support OA: you want research results to be free and available to all; you want to maximize the impact of your research findings; and you want a more sustainable (and hopefully cheaper) way of financing scholarly communication. We should be careful not to create an OA world that only addresses the academic reasons to engage with OA.

I am not certain how much coming from a humanities background plays a role in this, but I guess I am also more focused on the difference between for-profit and non-for-profit forms of OA than some of my colleagues. The way I see it, there are ethical, academic and financial reasons to support OA: you want research results to be free and available to all; you want to maximize the impact of your research findings; and you want a more sustainable (and hopefully cheaper) way of financing scholarly communication. We should be careful not to create an OA world that only addresses the academic reasons to engage with OA. As far as I am concerned, there is absolutely no reason to believe–quite the contrary – that a for-profit market for OA funded by APCs or BPCs would financially be any better than a for-profit market funded by publication sales. So, let’s not make the mistake of prolonging a very expensive approach to scholarly communication that does not serve scholarship, but instead work out an approach to OA where the focus is not on making profit.

OLH: What are some of the specific challenges for the humanities that libraries can help to address?

DV: I think that libraries in the humanities can help to address the issue of OA monographs. I know that this is easier said than done, but perhaps we should take a more radical approach to journals in the humanities and invest the savings we make that way in OA monographs. What I mean is that, in my view, realising OA for journals in the humanities is actually easier than in other disciplines. The first reason is that the market is a lot less in the hands of the big commercial publishers. Of course, these are putting up a serious fight to change the market: they have a tremendous amount to lose. So why not take the quickest route to realising actual change by taking them out of the equation? That is very difficult to do in social sciences or STEM because of their market share, but what is stopping us in the humanities?

We should be able to convince a lot of publishers active in the field of humanities to work with instead of against us, since they always have had a focus on serving scholarship, not on making money. Why not take the opportunity to work with these publishers and just drive the others who refuse to work with us out of the market?

We should be able to convince a lot of publishers active in the field of humanities to work with instead of against us, since they always have had a focus on serving scholarship, not on making money. Why not take the opportunity to work with these publishers and just drive the others who refuse to work with us out of the market? A second reason is that impact factors are a lot less important in the humanities. Commercial publishers own a lot of journals with high impact factors, so I understand that researchers and librarians in disciplines which, despite everything, are still attached to them, feel like their hands are tied. Not so in the humanities. So according to me, we can much easier realize OA journals in the humanities and save a serious amount of money in the process. Why not re-invest that money in infrastructure for OA monographs?

OLH: It's a bit of an age-old and clichéd thing to say, but some question the continuing place of the library in the digital age. What would you say to that?

DV: If libraries were primarily warehouses for physical books, then I would be the first to say that we don’t need that many of them anymore. We would still need them in disciplines that continue to rely on physical forms of scholarly communication or on heritage materials, but that’s it. However, I have never considered this to be the primary function of libraries. Rather, it is all about providing access to information and playing a central role in scholarly communication. The way we do this might have changed, but not the essence of what we are doing. As long as we remember that we should provide updated advice and support, scholars will turn to us to advise them on metadata, the dissemination of research findings, long term preservation, etc.

To put it bluntly: we underestimate our importance. Researchers and libraries together should decide on how a system for scholarly communication should be organised and should not accept that commercial partners tell us what to do.

We should also not underestimate our continued importance on a budgetary level. Researchers provide the content of scholarly publications and are the main consumers of them, but academic libraries have always provided the budget and infrastructure to make the scholarly communication system work. That was the case in a physical context, and has not changed in a digital one. To put it bluntly: we underestimate our importance. Researchers and libraries together should decide on how a system for scholarly communication should be organised and should not accept that commercial partners tell us what to do. Libraries control a substantial part of the budget needed to build and run the system. So I see it as our task to take the lead when we see opportunities to come up with better and cheaper ways to do things.

OLH: OA2020 has become an influential movement and perspective in the European open access world. What are some of the opportunities and risks of its strategy?

DV: At first, I was not convinced at all. I thought it was all about dealing with the big commercial publishers and negotiating off-setting agreements. I was and remain pessimistic about the possibilities of realizing real change if you continue to deal with the same publishers. I also did not believe negotiators had enough “ammunition” to reach off-setting agreements that would be truly transitional. However, I have come to doubt my own pessimism by learning a bit more about the DEAL negotiations in Germany. I am impressed by the way they handle the negotiations and have been assured that they realise that we need to stimulate alternatives and that we need to have a diversified approach if we want to address OA in all disciplines. In any case, I think OA2020 has been good in creating a new enthusiasm for what could be achieved and organising a more international approach.

The risk I see here for the humanities is that we forget that OA2020 is more than just negotiating with big publishers. This might be the most realistic approach in social sciences and STEM, but it also implies that you continue (at least for the time being) to deal with unwilling publishers and need to make some serious investments in order to prepare for negotiations. I am not convinced that this is necessary in the humanities. 

The risk I see here for the humanities is that we forget that OA2020 is more than just negotiating with big publishers. This might be the most realistic approach in social sciences and STEM, but it also implies that you continue (at least for the time being) to deal with unwilling publishers and need to make some serious investments in order to prepare for negotiations. I am not convinced that this is necessary in the humanities. As said, I think we actually have the opportunity to simply drive publishers out of the market if they refuse to adapt, so why invest that much time, energy and budget in trying to deal with them? I believe a lot of people involved in OA2020 see the need for a diversified approach, but I still worry about off-setting agreements which are not transitional enough, while they can be avoided in the humanities, and that the investment needed in other disciplines will come at the expense of the humanities.

OLH: What trends in present and future open access are helping and harming humanities research?

DV: A very positive development in recent times – not just for OA in the humanities, but for OA in general – is the attention to copyright. The Harvard Open Access Mandate is an important example, we also have the UK Scholarly Communications Licence and Model Policy, and I hope we will soon have something similar in place in Leuven. For me, this is an essential element for a more balanced collaboration with publishers, and it provides yet another opportunity to show researchers that they can (and should be) in charge of the dissemination of their own research findings.

A big threat that I see is OA mandates that are not properly thought through, for instance by forcing researchers to publish in OA without stimulating non-for-profit OA alternatives. This drives scholars into the arms of commercial publishers, who see the opportunity to further increase their profit margins. If scholars are forced to publish their work in OA, but their field offers basically no non-for-profit possibilities, then they are forced to go for the (often very expensive) commercial solution. This is not helped when governments or other funders respond to this problem by pumping even more money into the system, which then just flows to the commercial publishers. Besides, there is only that much money to go around. I worry that budgets will be used up by funding for-profit OA in social sciences and STEM through commercial publishers, thus leaving no budget to invest in non-for-profit alternatives in the humanities.

I worry that budgets will be used up by funding for-profit OA in social sciences and STEM through commercial publishers, thus leaving no budget to invest in non-for-profit alternatives in the humanities.

This is also connected with the aura of prestige of legacy publishers that I really do not understand. For instance: I am glad to say that a lot of colleagues in Leuven fully support the decision to subsidize Fair OA initiatives, such as the Open Library of Humanities. However, it never ceases to amaze me how much time we spend on debating these kinds of investments, which to me are directly related to our mission as academic libraries to support scholarship and provide maximum access to information. On the other hand, there is little reflection on whether we should continue our contracts with big commercial publishers which typically cost ten times (and in one case even one hundred times) more and are to a large extent contradictory to our mission. I guess I should consider this to be quite normal: it is old versus new. Still, if the old way has proven time and again to be detrimental for our budgets and the dissemination of research findings, why do we so easily continue to fund it? Imagine what we could do if we not only repurposed the budget spent on big deals, but also redirected the attention, energy and expertise of the library staff working on them, who are currently not asked to question them, but just to prepare and administer them.

OLH: What are your thoughts on the different methods of open access (green, gold, hybrid and so on) and their place in an evolving OA system?

DV: I suppose that very few people still believe in hybrid. However, that does not mean that it is disappearing. Just look at the graphs published by Bo-Christer Björk on the growth of hybrid open access between 2009 and 2016 (https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3878) or read Danny Kingsley’s reflections on the Finch Report. Opposition against hybrid might be wide-spread amongst librarians, but it is still becoming the norm in commercially-run journals with a high impact factor. This should not surprise us because it is the easiest way to maximize profit margins: just make sure you get paid twice. I blame OA mandates which are not properly thought through: if you require researchers to publish in OA, but do not stipulate that hybrid OA is excluded and still attach importance to impact factors, then it is obvious that commercial publishers will make or keep the high impact factor journals in their portfolio hybrid.

For-profit gold OA is also very dangerous because, as I said before, it might answer the academic reasons to engage with OA, but it is done at a very high cost for research-intensive institutes. It is a mistake to think that these institutions will be able (or willing) to pick up the bill.

As a scholar, I do not invest so much time and energy in preparing an article, to then have a pre-print instead of the final version circulate. So to me, green OA is not the ultimate solution, although I support it as a step in the good direction.

As far as green OA is concerned, I am torn between Stevan Harnad’s “inevitable success of transitional green OA” and Michael Eisen’s “inevitable failure of parasitic green OA”. On most days, I agree with Eisen. However, on the days that I believe that no-embargo Green OA could ever be universally mandated and provided, I share Harnad’s vision. In any case, I think it is fair to say that green OA for the moment is no game-changer and is in most cases an alternative next to the traditional publication model. What is more: it is an inferior alternative because of the embargos and because of the fact that it usually only permits the distribution of post-print versions, rather than published ones. As a scholar, I do not invest so much time and energy in preparing an article, to then have a pre-print instead of the final version circulate. So to me, green OA is not the ultimate solution, although I support it as a step in the good direction.

If I compare hybrid, for-profit gold and green OA, I prefer green. However, the best option in my opinion is fair gold OA, which offers all of the advantages of gold OA, without the price tag of the for-profit approach.

OLH: What does fairness look like in OA, and how can we achieve it?

DV: The essence to me is making sure that researchers stay in control of the circulation of their own research findings. So, they need to maintain the copyright to their publications and the publishing infrastructure needs to be owned by or be responsive to the academic community. This also ensures that this infrastructure is modelled in a cost-effective way and not in order to maximize profits. Publishing costs money, and I do not underestimate the professionalism needed in order to do a good job. But we should limit it to providing a professional publishing service. I see no reason to put publishers in charge of the system. They are an essential element in the equation, but not the most important one.

Academics are the content providers, academics are the main consumers, and academic institutions such as libraries are the main funders, so why should we not be in charge of the infrastructure?

Academics are the content providers, academics are the main consumers, and academic institutions such as libraries are the main funders, so why should we not be in charge of the infrastructure? I know it is again easier said than done, but I believe we should redirect our investments towards only supporting infrastructure where researchers or libraries are in the driver’s seat.

OLH: Are profit and open access compatible?

DV: No. Of course, it is perfectly fine, and even smart, to not work completely break-even on whatever you publish. You need a bit of reserve for the hard times and to invest in innovation. And if you want good people to work in publishing, you also need to pay them a decent wage.

If the goal becomes making profit, then you will always need to find ways to close off access to scholarly information, so that you can charge people more than the actual cost.

But all of that should not mean you confuse the goal of scientific publishing. Its raison d’être is the dissemination of scholarship, not to make profit, especially because you are mostly dealing with public money. If the goal becomes making profit, then you will always need to find ways to close off access to scholarly information, so that you can charge people more than the actual cost.

OLH: Finally, what OA strategies would you like your colleagues to be more proactive in adopting in the future?

DV: I am not certain I would call this a strategy, but we definitely still have a lot of explaining and convincing to do. The general assumption is that gold OA is always very expensive. Another prejudice is that fair OA initiatives are scientifically inferior and imply career suicide if you want to be taken seriously as a scholar. I think researchers and libraries need to work together to disprove this prejudice: researchers by investing their skills in fair OA initiatives (and refusing to lend them to commercial endeavors) and libraries by funding such fair OA initiatives and highlighting them as the preferable alternative for organizing scholarly communication. And we should not stop stressing this until it becomes career suicide to contribute to a commercial system which is bad for scholarship.

I think researchers and libraries need to work together to disprove [the prejudice that gold OA is expensive/inferior]: researchers by investing their skills in fair OA initiatives (and refusing to lend them to commercial endeavors) and libraries by funding such fair OA initiatives and highlighting them as the preferable alternative for organizing scholarly communication. And we should not stop stressing this until it becomes career suicide to contribute to a commercial system which is bad for scholarship.

I am very curious to see what will happen at the University of Lorraine. They did not continue their big deal with Springer and used the savings to invest in no-APC OA initiatives such as OpenEdition, Érudit, Open Library of Humanities, Sci-Post, EDP Sciences and Epiga. We should all follow their example. And if they prove that this works, we will have a clear argument to convince even the biggest doubters.

Our thanks to Demmy, and keep an eye out for more #EmpowOA Open Insights soon!




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