As well as being the Chair of the Open Book Collective, due to launch soon, Joe Deville is one of the founders of Mattering Press, a small Open Access book publisher. We sat down with Joe to speak to him about how he became involved in Open Access publishing, some of the challenges that small publishers can face when starting up, and how his work with Mattering Press led to his involvement in the Open Book Collective.
Q: What sparked your interest in Open Access publishing?
Joe Deville: Mattering Press was founded by a group of early career academics who had become interested in the practices of scholarship we and our colleagues were involved in during our PhD. As we finished our PhD, we started to take our next steps into the world of publishing ourselves, including starting to think about book length forms of scholarship. At that point in time, there was no obvious place where you can publish book length, Open Access scholarship in the field of science and technology studies, which is the area in which we were working. So, in a somewhat implusive move, in retrospect, we decided that we should start our own press! We didn't really know much about many of debates around Open Access at that point, but we knew that we wanted scholarship to be available as easily as possible. I think that our deeper interest in the Open Access movement started with the decision to create that press. Then, of course, we've learned a lot more both in terms of how to be a publisher and in relation to Open Access. That's continued all the way up until the COPIM project, which is how I became involved in what would become the Open Book Collective.
Q: That’s really interesting. You have almost answered the next question, which was how did you come to found Mattering Press? Maybe you could tell a little bit more about the early stages of the process, what sort of hurdles you overcame and what your ambitions were at that time?
JD: In terms of the the press itself, one of our ambitions was to publish open scholarship but there was a simpler reason why I wanted to create the publisher. This group of us had been providing each other with forms of support during our PhDs and we wanted to carry on working together. The press provided a nice way of us being able to do so. I think it's important to recognize those other motivations for wanting to get involved in publishing. The scholarship is important, but sometimes you just find a group of individuals that you like working and collaborating with.
At that point in time there weren't many OA book publishers around, even if OA journal publishing was increasingly becoming a subject of discussion. There were a handful — Open Book Publishers, for example, or Open Humanities Press. Both of those in due course provided us with different forms of support, but when we started we didn't have access to those kinds of networks. We therefore had to learn a lot ourselves about publishing, from how to typeset a book to how to create a print on demand publishing model. That was incredibly complicated.
To give another example: we didn't have any publishing contracts for authors, or funds for legal support, so we had to write those ourselves. We were sent some example contracts by other publishers - I think Open Humanities Press gave us an example of their contract and I had contracts myself from non OA publishers as a rough guide. All these practical tasks can be huge impediments if you don't have the relevant expertise or access to funding.
Q: That sounds very challenging and quite brave in some ways. How did you come to be involved in COPIM and how did you first perceive the need for a project like the OBC? Did those things happen simultaneously or were you thinking about the infrastructure of OA being problematic before you joined COPIM?
JD: The COPIM project involved the coming together of many different strands of work which were already happening relatively independently of one another. For me, you can trace things back to the launch of Mattering Press. I had prepared a small grant application to the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University, for funding to support the launch of the press alongside a workshop with other publishers around the challenges of doing OA publishing. Happily this was successful, with the workshop taking place at the Centre for Invention and Social Process at Goldsmiths, my previous institution. The discussions started there would in due course lead to a further grant application, this time jointly with many of the publishers that would become involved in the COPIM project. The application was OpenAIRE, for a project aimed at exploring new infrastructures for Open Access book publishing. Again, we were successful, with the group receiving funding of around €45,000. The project led to a number of outputs, including for example a collective conference pop-up presence designed by my Mattering Press colleague Julien McHardy, as well as the launch of ScholarLed, an organisation designed to support and advocate for academic-led Open Access book publishers. Another less tangible output was an ethos: of collaboration over competition, as well as starting to think about what infrastructures needed to be in place to allow us to collaborate better with each other. We began talking about how we could work together to improve quality or metadata, discussions that would eventually sow the seed for the idea of Thoth, another COPIM project. We also talked a lot about revenue and how we might think about different ways to do OA book publishing not reliant on book processing charges. In many ways, you can trace the idea for the Open Book Collective back to these discussions.
Then we saw a call for applications to Research England’s Development fund (RED), which we felt we fit well with, for a proposal aimed at solving some of the many problems of Open Access. This eventually led to the ultimately successful COPIM project bid, which was made jointly to Research England and the Arcadia Fund. With the work package that I am jointly responsible for, what we wanted to do was build on the library membership scheme revenue model, which Open Book Publishers and punctum books were already using, and thinking about how we can expand it to help OA book publishers transition away from a reliance on book processing charges.
Q: What do you feel have been the major challenges so far in establishing and building the Open Book Collective?
JD: That's a good question. The first thing to say is that the Open Book Collective is more than one thing. First it is an organization, and specifically a not for profit organisation, in the process of applying to become a charity in the UK. Setting up an organization can be complicated, especially if you're keen that that organisation will eventually be a charity, with a rather unconventional charitable object, as will be the case with the Open Book Collective.
But the biggest challenge has been around developing the OBC platform. This is the online revenue management platform that we committed to build, and have now successfully built, as part of the COPIM project. The platform is not live yet, but it is operational, albeit in a beta testing form behind the scenes. The reason why that’s challenging is because what you're doing is something entirely new, there is no real model existing for this kind of platform. It’s a huge conceptual problem. What do you need this platform to do? How should it work? It's a political problem. How do you set your fees? How should revenue be allocated? What should the legal status be of participants on these platform?
It's also a technological problem. How do you actually build a platform that's able to respond to all the the needs of the different users? In my role as a lecturer at Lancaster, one of the areas I teach on is around the organisational challenges of developing and implementing new IT projects. IT projects are notorious for their delays, for failure and for not meeting expectations of those developing them. It has therefore, unsurprisingly, proved to be our biggest challenge. However, we are very happy, very lucky to be able to work with DeltQ, a development company in which Martin Eve, another member of the COPIM project, is involved. Martin understood very well what we are trying to do.
Overlaying all this is of course the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has made everything more complicated. Happily, we were able to extend the duration of the project, which has certainly helped.
Q: That's great. And then I just have one final question, which is how would you summarize your hopes for the OBC launch and future?
JD: That's a really good question again. You can think of these hopes operating on sort of different scales. In our original bid to RED and Arcadia, we said that the ScholarLed publishers would operate as a test case for this platform. So a simple hope I have is that this test case proves to be successful. The question then becomes, how do you categorize success? I suppose the minimal version would be that the platform works, that those publishers receive at least some level of funding via the platform that they can then use to supplement other income streams they might have.
That would be the kind of minimalist version of my hope, and I think we will achieve that. But of course, my hopes are extended beyond that. We will have other initiatives involved in the platform, both service providers and other publishers, all involved in Open Access book publishing. I therefore hope that the number of initiatives on the platform continues to grow, over time. I then also hope that libraries really start to see this platform as a trusted actor in the field — a place they can go to find publishers and service providers that really are working to transform the terrain of Open Access book publishing. I also hope, obviously, that the OBC becomes financially sustainable and is able to start its charitable work. Another part of the OBC will be to support the OA book publishing fields ecosystem more broadly, irrespective of whether that means supporting its members or those not directly involved in the collective.
I do have a yet further hope, and that is the OBC platform plays its part alongside other initiatives in shifting how both libraries, publishers, and service providers think about funding OA book publishing activities. I hope that libraries move away from a pay-to-publish model of supporting Open Access or read-and-publish type of deals with commercial publishers, to a model where they see their role as supporting the OA book publishing ecosystem more broadly. Obviously, we hope at the OBC that membership programs provide them with one way of doing so. Perhaps there are other revenue models that might emerge in future — I am certainly not of the view that the membership program model is the only model that can exist in this space. For now, though, it seems to me to be the most viable model that we have for shifting how book publishing is done. We're seeing other initiatives doing something similar, such as Opening the Future, MIT's Direct To Open program and others. Such models will involve some major conceptual shifts for librarians: rather than thinking about paying for being able to access content, it means paying to support an initiative that has convinced you that they are credible based on their past track record.
Another important part of OBC's mission is to build a new community of publishers, infrastructure providers, libraries and whoever else is interested in supporting Open Access and get them working much more closely together. Often, publishers and libraries don't talk to each other very much, whereas we think that they should.
So I have many hopes. If we meet at least some of them, I'll be very happy. Of course, most immediately, my hope is that we can actually just get launched, but that's another matter.
Well, we’ll leave it there for today. Thanks very much for your time and your valuable insights into this work!
The logos used in this blog post are those of Mattering Press, COPIM and the OBC respectively.