An informal Q&A with Demmy Verbeke, who is Head of Artes, a division of KU Leuven Libraries, and plays a central role in organising library services for the Arts and Humanities at KU Leuven.
Many libraries are grappling with OA in different ways. Some even have dedicated OA budgets for acquisitions, but KU Leuven has launched something a little different again - the KU Leuven OA Fund. Can you tell us a bit more about that, what it is and how it came about?
[DV] The KU Leuven Fund for Fair OA is a central fund run by the library with an exclusive focus on non-profit and community-driven approaches to scholarly communication. It was established for a number of reasons: to make sure that part of the budget was set aside to invest in alternatives for the dominant for-profit approach (as this approach tends to hoover up all available funds); to contribute to the financial sustainability of non-profit approaches which in my view are essential to keep the market healthy; to help showcase these alternatives; and to facilitate decision-taking. I actually came up with the idea when I was on a bike ride with my wife in the Spring of 2017. Something had been bugging me for years, namely that a lot of librarians agree that the system of scholarly communication is broken, but in my opinion take too little action to do anything about it, despite the fact that we bear a large part of the responsibility for keeping the system alive by the way we invest our acquisition budgets. The experience of trying out something new, namely by financially supporting the Open Library of Humanities in 2014, had actually also frustrated me because I had to spend hours and hours trying to convince people to invest a tiny fraction of our budget this way, while we can decide to renew our contract with legacy publishers, costing us literally thousands times more, in a minute. So, it suddenly dawned on me riding my bike during that sunny afternoon: what if we had a fund that was exclusively devoted to non-profit and community-driven approaches? Would that not mean that (a) we protect some of the library’s money so that we can put it where our mouth is and (b) speed up the decision process if something comes along that we want to invest in? I wrote a short memo with my proposal and presented it to the director of KU Leuven Libraries, who promised to take it up with the CFO. I assumed that would be that for the time being. I was already very happy that the director had not immediately shot my idea down and hoped that I had planted a seed that would have a chance to grow after a couple of years, when matters had gotten even worse and the library was eventually tasked to come up with alternatives (upon which I could point out that I had already made a suggestion). However, in the fall of 2017, I got the unexpected news that the budget was granted, and I should come up with guidelines and administrative processes on how to spend it.
Peter Suber has said that libraries need to support not only OA research but also open platforms, tools, services, standards, and infrastructure otherwise they will “be bought up by for-profit corporations or they may just die or fail”. The KU Leuven Fund seems to be a step in this direction - why do you think it is so difficult for other libraries to take these steps? How do we get from where we are, with a number of one-off initiatives, to a more systemic transformation of scholarly communications?
[DV] To be honest, I have no idea. But the very least that libraries in my opinion need to do is to contribute to the financial sustainability of the open platforms, tools, services, standards, and infrastructure Peter talks about. We are good at complaining about vendor lock-in and the cost of scholarly communication, but bad at doing something about it. What is more: we are actually co-conspirators if we continue to give our money to the suppliers whom we complain about. So to me, it is an absolute no-brainer that we have a duty towards our scholars and institutions to try and stimulate a healthier ecosystem. Once you start looking into it, there actually is quite a lot already which libraries can support. And yes, it can be daunting because there is such a large variety of approaches and suppliers and business models, which will not all prove to be viable. But I don’t see a problem with this, as we know what monopolies lead to. What is wrong with hedging your bets and trying out several things? It is true that still too few librarians seem to agree, but I am cautiously optimistic that things are moving forward as I see more and more library membership programs pop up and notice that they are getting the stamp of approval of respected players like SPARC, LYRASIS and Jisc - which promises to make them a lot more “business as usual” for acquisition departments of libraries.
In a blog post earlier this year you mention that recently librarians have “become restrictive gatekeepers, pushed into a policing role which is contrary to their nature.” Can you expand on this idea - why do you think this is the case?
[DV] I believe that we have been forced in a role contrary to our nature by the digital turn. In the old days, librarians bought paper publications, catalogued them and put them on the shelves in reading rooms. Access was typically democratic: not only staff and students, but also other users were able to consult what librarians had carefully collected, sometimes at very modest entrance fees. I am convinced that a lot of librarians embraced that role: they may have acted as guardians of books and reading rooms, but that was mostly to keep things safe and pleasant, and they were proud that they played a key role in providing access to scholarly publications to anyone who might be interested. However, in the digital realm, access to material that was produced for profit, is typically very restricted, as we are not allowed to provide access for anybody who is not a staff member or a student of the institution paying (very dearly) for it. What is more: even in 2021, we still have materials that we pay enormous amounts of money for but can only be consulted on-campus (try to explain that to users during COVID-19 times). What ticks me off is that we seem to have accepted that librarians are the ones who need to police that access, who need to make sure that no one gets it unless the publisher allows this (at a high price) and whose main role it is to act as money-collectors. To me, the shift from being central in creating openness to being central in denying access is unacceptable.
Given a crystal ball, what do you see in the future for monographs?
[DV] Again, I need to admit that I really don’t know. I can only answer on the basis of what I prefer personally - but do not claim at all to be representative for scholars younger than me or even scholars my age. Part of me cannot believe that monographs will continue to play a prominent role, even in the humanities. I discovered so much of the research I found most useful because it was shared early in the thinking process through blogs, preprints, talks and slides that I am no longer convinced whether it warrants the time, effort and investment to produce a monograph myself. I don’t want to “sit” on my ideas for years, saving them up for a monograph. On the other hand, I might even feel like I am cheating people a bit if I produce a book that is full of stuff that I have shared before and is thus available elsewhere. But another part of me is convinced that there still is a future for monographs - especially through the combination of an OA ebook (good for impact) with a moderately priced paper version (for slow reading), as I still find myself preferring that format to engage with the scholars whose work I admire the most - even if that means I am partly reading reworked versions of thoughts they shared before.
You are well known as an OA advocate and have spoken on many occasions about its benefits. A colleague in the COPIM project team was recently challenged by an academic to show them some critical examples of open access - can you think of any reasons why OA might not be the future?
[DV] In the humanities, I do find myself sometimes advising against “going OA”. There is still a surprising number of smallish publishers who are simply not equipped or willing to publish in OA. Sometimes, there are actually excellent partners for researchers in a lot of other aspects. Instead of insisting that researchers in that case should find another publisher (with the real possibility that they will end up going with a for-profit publisher with far less noble intentions), I try to find other solutions. An example is the agreement we reached with a local humanities publisher last summer. They keep publishing behind a paywall, because they are convinced that selling paper publications will continue to be the preferred way in the niche market they service, but we have negotiated with them that KU Leuven authors get an electronic version of their publications, are allowed to deposit this version of record in the institutional repository and are allowed to share this version of record without embargo. Similarly, I will always recommend taking the Green OA approach - if need be, with an accepted version and an embargo - over paying a hefty APC. So, I guess my answer would be: absolutely agreed that a for-profit approach to OA is not the future and that we should resist if more pressure to publish in OA forces us into for-profit models, but I disagree that this implies we should dismiss OA altogether.
You have a background in the Classics - how is your approach to OA informed by your own research experience?
[DV] To be honest, I was not paying a lot of attention to the business of scholarly communication when I was doing a PhD in Classics, but you are right that it imprinted a number of things on me that form how I now think about OA. One thing is that I don’t need to be told that there is more to scholarly publishing than academic journals, just like I am acutely aware of the vast number of small publishers active in an enormously broad spectrum of business models and levels of professionalism. I also quickly became aware that there is a difference between, on the one hand, scholarly quality brought by the researchers producing the manuscripts and overseeing the editorial process and, on the other hand, the publishing expertise brought by the publisher. Sometimes the content and editorial process are of a very high quality, but researchers don’t want to see what a terrible job their publisher is doing (and I am not necessarily talking about lay-out, but for instance in pricing policies, distribution, archiving, etc.). Likewise, books and journals can be produced in an exemplary manner, while the content is seriously lacking. So when I made the switch to the library, I was motivated to try and shape a role for the library to act as a matchmaker between researchers and publishers because we understand both sides.
Beyond open access, what positive changes can you imagine for scholarly communications in general? What would your publishing ‘utopia’ look like?
Perhaps I first need to sketch what my dystopia would be. I worry that OA to publications has actually become a sideshow. And while we spend all of our time and energy on trying to make the best of this sideshow, we remain blind for the fact that tools and systems for things like research data management, bibliometrics, research software and discovery have become monopolized by for-profit players answering to shareholders rather than the academic community. So my utopia is what Peter Suber called for, namely that the academic community is not only in control of (OA) research output but also of the platforms, tools, services, standards, and infrastructure.
With thanks to Demmy for his time. Work Package 3 looks forward to widening the conversation with other librarians.
If you would like to know more about becoming a member of Opening the Future, you can read more about the programme and benefits on the website. COPIM is running an OtF programme with two well-respected publishers:
CEU Press who are offering backlist access to titles on Central and Eastern Europe and the former communist countries: https://ceup.openingthefuture.net/
Liverpool University Press who are offering backlist access on Modern Language titles: https://lup.openingthefuture.net/.