Home 9 Featured Posts 9 The Movement to Open Access Scholarly Publishing, Part 4: UMICH, BTAA, And The Great Library Publishing Experiment

The Movement to Open Access Scholarly Publishing, Part 4: UMICH, BTAA, And The Great Library Publishing Experiment

by | Feb 28, 2022 | 0 comments


By: Nancy K. Herther (writer, consultant and former Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota Libraries)

Last May, Servicescape website noted that due to the pandemic, “scientists from around the world worked frantically to understand the virus, find effective treatments, and develop vaccines to stop the spread and save lives. As part of this international effort, researchers, universities, companies, and governments agreed to knock down barriers set up by the traditional system of sharing research results. Scientists shared results before publication. Publishers fast tracked the peer review process for COVID-19 research papers, and allowed them to be freely available online. Organizations helped curate the rapidly growing list of COVID-19 publications, so researchers could more easily find the information they needed.” 

The movement to Open Access (OA) publishing isn’t new; however, events of the past two years have accelerated the moves to open science and created new standards for the sharing, access and use of scientific data and information.  One such effort was the 2021 initiated collaboration between the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) and the University of Michigan Press.  In a three-year agreement, these organizations are providing multi-year support for Fund to Mission, which represents a new “open access monograph model that aligns with its mission and commitment to equity, justice, inclusion, and accessibility. The model demonstrates a return to the origins of the university press movement and moves toward a more open, sustainable infrastructure for the humanities and social sciences. It is one of several programs that university presses are developing to expand the reach of their specialist publications.”


The core Fund to Mission goals represent a major shift for the role of universities, and particularly the role of libraries in scholarly publishing – from providing access to printed/existing research to now working to create a functional framework for quality publishing that can be replicated – and tweaked – to fit the unique environments of each Big Ten member institutions.

UMich Press intends to use Fund to Mission “to convert at least 75% of its frontlist monographs to open access by the end of 2023, without any author ever having to pay. The Press is working to build a sustainable model by achieving stable funding for this monograph program from three sources: annual funding from the library community, recurring funds from the University of Michigan, and other funder payments. The commitment from BTAA builds on support from a number of libraries and consortia as well as additional funding from the Provost at U-M.”

The Big Ten Academic Alliance and University of Michigan Press three-year agreement involves not only their fifteen member libraries, but is testing the potential roles and changes to the foundations of information access and retrieval.  Rob Van Rennes, Associate Director, Library Initiatives for the BTAA, stated when the Fund to Mission program was announced that this new model “advances the goals of the Big Ten Academic Alliance by supporting not only open content but open infrastructure. We couldn’t be happier to join UM Press in creating an equitable, sustainable infrastructure for our members and the broader community.”  

Fund to Mission demonstrates an attempt to return to the origins of the university press movement and a more open, sustainable infrastructure for the humanities and social sciences. What types of new roles, new competencies will be required in this new OA environment?


Charles Watkinson

Charles Watkinson is University of Michigan’s Associate University Librarian for Publishing, which includes University of Michigan Press (UMP), Michigan Publishing Services (MPS), and Deep Blue repository and research data services (DBRRDS). Before coming to Michigan in 2014, he held similar positions at Purdue University Libraries and as Director of Publications at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. He holds a BA/MA from University of Cambridge in Archaeology and Anthropology and an MBA from Oxford Brookes University. We interviewed him in January 2022.

NKH:  In the description of your new position, it was stated that the “University of Michigan Press’s budget will fall under the jurisdiction of the University Library budget and the University of Michigan Press will receive money from the General Fund.” Did these moves prove successful? What did you find when you became the publisher?

Charles Watkinson:  Like most UPs, Michigan had always received some support from the “general” funds. However, the crucial change for the University of Michigan Press was in 2014 when the Dean of Libraries, James Hilton, persuaded the Provost’s Office to move the Press from “auxiliary” status to “designated” status. It sounds like a minor change, but “designated” units in the University are judged by their ability to advance the mission of the University first and their capacity to sustain their operations second. That’s different from “auxiliary” units that are judged primarily by their ability to make revenue. Almost all university presses around the US are classified as “auxiliary” which represents a misunderstanding of their mission-driven purposes.

NKH:  Today, you lead Michigan Publishing which was created “to serve the changing needs of scholars through the merging of the University of Michigan Press, Michigan Publishing Services, and Deep Blue Repository and Research Data Services.” UMich Press along with the other functional units are all key to the generation and use of new information and knowledge. How do you envision the ongoing development of Michigan Publishing?”

Charles Watkinson: What we’re seeing is that faculty members and graduate students are using digital tools to publish new types of output in new ways. They are publishing data sets, software tools, blog posts, virtual exhibits, . . . not just journal articles and books. The vision behind Michigan Publishing is that we can support this continuum of scholarly outputs. What we’re struggling to do is to connect our different services together, so we’re exploring partnerships where we can work with scholarly centers to publish the data in Deep Blue, create white papers through Michigan Publishing Services, and then release books through University of Michigan Press. If we can show how our services all integrate to add value to a particular discipline, we will have achieved our goal. Another issue that has been coming up increasingly is how we can support communities who have valuable information they want to publish but work outside the boundaries of the University. Over the years, the University has created policies and funding models that make it difficult to extend the infrastructure we provide to unaffiliated colleagues, but of course that goes against everything we profess to support in terms of equity, justice, and inclusion.

NKH: What has been the reaction by authors you want to attract to your press? The UMich press been around for almost 100 years. Do you see this as strengthening the image of the press with potential authors?

Charles Watkinson: The Fund to Mission program allows us to publish open access books without requiring authors to pay. This has been hugely welcomed by most of our authors, who worry a lot about the costs of open access but often very much want their books to get the extra reach and impact OA offers. That’s not true of all disciplines, but we’ve had really grateful responses from fields such as political science, performing arts, and American studies. There are some skeptics, mainly in classics and history, and we’re committed to providing a restricted access option in addition to OA. It’s all about author preference.

NKH: Given the involvement of the Deep Blue Repository and Research Data Services, how have you designed the provision of access and promotion to these assets?

Charles Watkinson: Adopting a common preservation commitment across our services has been the major focus of the last year. We realized that our policies were not aligned across repositories and we weren’t fully confident we could stand behind the preservation promises we were making. We’re really proud of our Digital Preservation Policy: https://www.lib.umich. and credit my colleagues Lance Stuchell and Jeremy Morse for leading in its creation. It has played an important role in the design of the NASIG Model Digital Preservation Policy: https://www.nasig.org/

NKH: Are the various units within the new Press well integrated? Are you meeting your goal of publishing the “broadest possible access to scholarship?

Charles Watkinson: Integration is always a work in progress, and I think “integration” may itself be the wrong framing. What I hope we can do is share some basic principles and values, and then bring the individual strengths of different units together to advance those. When I became a US citizen, the judge who swore us in said that “melting pot” was the wrong framing for what citizenship should mean as it implies subjugating individual cultures. He preferred the metaphor of a “tapestry” in which different cultures are celebrated and our diversity brings strength in pursuit of united goals. That’s how I’ve come to think about university press publishers and librarians working together toward a common goal.

NKH: This may have been ahead of its time, however today more presses are being reimagined in similar ways. What would you advise your peers in terms of dealing with the changes that came with this new plan?

Charles Watkinson: I think it would be arrogant of me to presume to offer advice. We’re all exploring this new world together and if you have seen one university press, you’ve seen one university press — they are very different organizations from each other. That said, I think it is important to see open access as not an ideological imperative, but more just another arrow in the acquisitions editor’s quiver. Ultimately, UP publishers are interested in maximizing access to an individual author’s work and helping her achieve her ambitions. Traditionally it was about choosing the right print binding — paperback or hardback. Now it is also about deciding what ebook formats to make available, and whether open access should be one of them.

NKH: The Fund to Mission project of the Big Ten Academic Alliance and the University of Michigan Press has signed a “three-year agreement to convert at least 75% of its frontlist monographs to open access by the end of 2023, without any author ever having to pay. The Press is working to build a sustainable model by achieving stable funding.” Can you give us an update on where things are with this initiative?

Charles Watkinson: Yes, we’ve had a great start with over 70 individual libraries supporting the program (you can see them listed at https://ebc.press.umich.). It gets harder now, of course, as we look beyond the institutions that have been core funders to those who may be more on the fence. Like colleagues at MIT Press, for example, we’re now looking particularly beyond North America to see whether European, Australasian, and UK libraries are interested in investing in open access for books. In any case, thanks to the supporting libraries, we will publish 50% of our monograph titles OA in 2022 – that’s over 40 books – which was our ambition. Getting to 75% in 2023 is a stretch goal, but I think we’re on a great path to meet it.


MIT Press has initiated their own “first-of-its-kind sustainable framework for open access monographs” they call Direct to Open (D20) which is intended to move “professional and scholarly books from a solely market-based, purchase model where individuals and libraries buy single eBooks, to a collaborative, library-supported open access model.” They claim to have already gotten 102 libraries participating, 48 with three year commitments to the program which will be supported by MIT Libraries. Of these, all of the BTAA libraries along with CRL, NERL, SWLA, PALCI, CAUL, JISC and CRKN collaboratives now participate.  

With such rapid change – and the critical need for credible information and data during this pandemic, these efforts are important and heighten the role that libraries, universities and research centers together play in not only producing research and cures for the pandemic, but in both guaranteeing the continuing high quality of research and making this easily available across the globe.  The challenge is real in a time of such rapid developments.

Off-the-record, some of the key players in this potential movement are unsure of the eventual path that OA will take. As one academic executive (who asked for anonymity) explained, “many of these models expect high publishing institutions to cover more of the financial burden and I’m concerned that they will be unsustainable over the long term.” As another noted, “I don’t think we’ve found all the right models yet.”

For years now, there has been debate, discussion and early efforts to radically change scholarly publishing and to bring it into the academy itself. Beginning with protests over access issues and high costs of the private sector, today we are seeing efforts such as the Library Publishing Coalition and Plan S principle with its gutsy pledge: “With effect from 2021, all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access Journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo.” cOAlition S, part of the European Science Foundation, and so many more. 


Scholarly research is important – medical information, for example, can mean the difference between life and death. How can quality control be established in the web environment and checked/guaranteed?

As Taylor and Francis noted in one of their webpages: “Many funders and institutions now ask their researchers to publish in open access journals, so a journal’s open access options will be an important deciding factor when choosing a home for your research.” How will the new processes being developed by for-profit publishers fit into with this new publishing ecology? Or, is there a real chance that we will see the eventual end of commercial research publishing?

In order to make this work, it isn’t just the individual researcher that has to agree to OA, but also the policies and priorities of their institutions and the existing reward structures that influence choices that writers make. Is the global academic community ready to take this on? What kinds of incentives or requirements will be needed to wean faculty and researchers from their existing publishing preferences? How quickly can university faculty requirements for advancement and promotion be changed to not only allow but prefer OA options? How will the commercial publishing sector respond to these challenges and make needed changes to guarantee their own futures?

An interesting article published in Quantitative Science Studies in 2020 provided a detailed analysis of the pricing of OA journals, finding that the contemporary “OA publishing market reveals insights into forces that create economic and academic value in contemporary science. Political and institutional inequalities manifest in the varying niches occupied by different OA journals and publishers.” Clearly the path to OA for scholarly research is still in the early stages. 

In a key 2019 article, Lancaster University’s Christopher May noted that the “future of publication lies in the hands of early career researchers.” What role do information professionals play in this transition? And how can the academy itself change deeply held assumptions and values that perpetuate traditional publishing systems.  As May explains it: “open access publishing is not ubiquitous in part because as academics we still have insufficient trust in this alternative system.” 

As the Association of University Presses notes: “University Presses are at the center of the global knowledge ecosystem. We publish works and perform services that are of vast benefit to the diverse scholarly network—researchers, teachers, students, librarians, and the rest of the university community.” As this new scholarly publishing paradigm develops, information professionals will be increasingly involved not only in supporting academics in their research endeavors, but in the entire process of scholarly communication and publication.

The issues this presents for academic libraries is also key to ongoing  development. “No matter the size of the institution or the publishing program, no library is immune to the limits of its resources…Many of the difficulties already faced by library publishing programs, such as sustainability and scalability, have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19,” notes a 2022 article in Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication. “Difficult choices about priorities are likely to continue, and publishing programs will be no exception. Still, at its heart, library publishing is experimental and innovative, and its practitioners are motivated and dedicated.” 

 Nancy K. Herther (writer, consultant and former Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota Libraries)


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