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ATG Interviews Joanna Ball, Managing Director, Directory of Open Access Journals

by | Jul 18, 2022 | 0 comments

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By Tom Gilson  (Associate Editor, Against the Grain) and Katina Strauch  (Editor, Against the Grain

Against the Grain V34#3

Joanna Ball

ATG:  Joanna, in succeeding Lars Bjørnshauge, DOAJ Founder and Managing Director, you’ve got some big shoes to fill.  We suspect that has placed high expectations on you as you take on your new responsibilities.  How do you plan to meet the challenge?

JB:  Lars is in many ways synonymous with DOAJ, and his achievements are remarkable.  He started DOAJ back in 2003 as a list of just 300 OA journals and then developed the service into what it is today:  a “household name” of open access infrastructure that spans the globe in terms of both its network of volunteers and influence.

The new Managing Director role which I’ve taken on is intentionally very different from the role which Lars has played in the organisation.  It’s essentially a new role created with the purpose of leading DOAJ into the next phase of its development as it comes of age: ensuring that there is a solid financial base on which we can operate, and that the service and organisation continues to grow and develop in line with the changing needs of the Open Access community.

A smooth transition of leadership is of course critical for the organisation, and I am really pleased to be working closely with Lars in his new role as DOAJ advisor over the coming months to ensure that we capture and transfer the tremendous corporate knowledge he has built up, as well as setting up more sustainable systems for the organisation that are not so dependent on one individual.

In terms of my approach so far, I have spent the first months getting to know the organization, the large global network that DOAJ makes up — ambassadors, volunteers, staff, the Advisory Board, Council, and other stakeholders — and doing a lot of listening!  Over the coming months, I will be working closely with the DOAJ management team to develop a strategy for the organisation going forward.

ATG:  You have had senior management experience in a number of UK academic libraries.  How has that experience prepared you to take on your new role with DOAJ?  What is it about leading DOAJ that compelled you to seek the position?

JB:  In recent years, I’ve had more senior management roles both at the University of Sussex Library and here in Denmark at Roskilde University Library, part of the Royal Danish Library.  That has given me experience working at a strategic level, leading larger teams, and managing budgets, which is of course important for the role at DOAJ. 

Open Access has also been an important theme throughout my career.  I was first captivated by the concept of Open Access at a presentation I saw while working at libraries within Cambridge (UK) back in the early 2000s.  As with so many librarians, Open Access fits with the underlying values that attracted me to the profession in the first place, around opening up of knowledge to improve society.  It wasn’t until I moved to the University of Sussex Library in 2009 and took on a role to manage our services to researchers that I started working directly with OA: organising Open Access Week events, developing Open Access workflows, advice services and policies, and ensuring that OA content was discoverable by library users.  My experience has also included implementing research data management services, leading projects to experiment with new forms of Open book publishing and, since moving to Denmark, leading the University of Roskilde’s Open Science group.  More recently, I have advocated for the cultural change that needs to happen within research libraries to reimagine themselves around open, rather than purchased or subscribed, content.  In practice, this has also involved establishing funds from within library budgets to support Open infrastructures, fundamental to a successful transition to open access.  DOAJ is of course one of the most important and well-established Open infrastructures, so joining the DOAJ team in many ways felt like a natural next step in my career.

I’ve also been involved with UKSG for several years, first as a member and then Chair of the Editorial Board for its Open Access journal, Insights, and more recently as a Trustee and now Chair of the Board.  This introduced me to more collaborative relationships with publishers and working at the intersection between libraries and publishers, a really exciting and enabling arena.  This is, of course, exactly where DOAJ sits as an organisation — a key infrastructure which enables the open scholarly communications system to function and move forward.

I am driven by a need to make a difference and to progress — the feeling of treading water is almost painful for me.  It’s such an exciting time for Open infrastructures:  there’s real momentum and acceptance of their critical role in the research communication ecosystem.  On the other hand, there’s still so much to be done.  The library-aligned infrastructure providers are still in a precarious position, and many are living a hand-to-mouth existence.  There’s a mismatch here which needs to be addressed. 

ATG:  You’ve said that you are looking forward to working with the DOAJ team to ensure that DOAJ is both sustainable and develops in line with the “needs of the wider scholarly community.”  Can you elaborate?  What does sustainability look like?  How do you define the “needs of the wider scholarly community”? 

JB:  Sustainability, at its most basic level, can be defined as ensuring that the organisation survives, and of course there’s an element of that.  A key part of my role will be developing and delivering a financial strategy to ensure that DOAJ is here for the long term. 

DOAJ is proud to be supported by voluntary donations – 83% from public organisations, such as universities, libraries and research centres — many of which are given to DOAJ over a renewable 3-year period, ensuring a financial commitment to develop and maintain the platform.  However, we’re not yet sustainable:  we run on a small surplus which leaves limited space for development and don’t have the security of sufficient reserves to help us weather more difficult times.  We need to expand and develop our existing funding model, get more libraries on board and diversify our sources of income.  DOAJ support is uneven globally, so it will be a challenge to identify ways in which various parts of the world can find ways to support an infrastructure which seeks to be global, inclusive, and benefiting all regions and segments.  We are keen to work with and support more libraries in the United States, and our US ambassador John Dove is helping to drive this forward.

Sustainability for DOAJ is about more than just finance.  It also involves ensuring that we are an organisation where we value and develop our team, make decisions that are in the long-term best interests of DOAJ and its community, and develop a shared view of the future as part of our strategic thinking.  We have a really engaged team who always strives for high quality, and we are proud of the high level of trust and focus on relationships within our organisation.

The wider scholarly community is a key part of this vision for sustainability.  DOAJ is a small cog in the wheel of a scholarly communications ecosystem that is constantly growing and evolving, an interdependent and complex network of services, infrastructures and individuals, where boundaries and roles are becoming increasingly blurred.  To make progress we need to work together, focussing on our shared common purpose of sharing knowledge.  What this means in terms of DOAJ’s own development is that we need to think systemically and build capacity so that the organisation can expand to meet these changing needs, while also enabling space for creativity, innovation and collaborative problem solving.

ATG:  Currently, what would you say is DOAJ’s role within that wider scholarly community?  Do you see it changing or evolving?  If so, how?

JB:  DOAJ started off as a directory.  Today the role DOAJ plays is multifaceted and dependent on where an individual sits in the scholarly communications system. 

For librarians, we help them to integrate trusted open access journals and articles into their services and discovery systems. 

For publishers, we increase the visibility of their journals: the free metadata generated by DOAJ is incorporated into discovery systems around the world.  We also work with local publishers and journal editors to promote best practice in open access publishing and ensure that they are attractive publishing venues for researchers (rather than all research being submitted to the larger publishers in the global north). 

And for researchers, we help them to easily access reliable peer-reviewed open access journals online, as well as identify suitable publication channels.

And then there’s what DOAJ means to the community.  Over the last 19 years we have carefully built up a reputation which is synonymous with quality, independence and reliability.  As the tipping point for Open Access is reached, DOAJ’s role in pushing for a fairer, more equitable system for publishing research will only grow.

The world of scholarly communications is very different now from when DOAJ was first established back in 2003.  During our existence, we have seen first a flip from print to digital publishing, and then a shift in Open Access from niche to the mainstream.  We were set up to fulfil a need — a definitive list of Open Access journals — but we have developed over the years to meet what the community needs.  As the number of Open Access journals increased, it became clear that what was required was not just a title list but one with additional metadata and robust quality control, and we have developed and extended our criteria over the years.  As Funders (like cOAlition-S, for example) begin to specify inclusion in DOAJ as one of their criteria for OA funding, our role will continue to change.

ATG:  When we interviewed Lars in Sept. 2020, he said that “as part of the ongoing discussions around financing the DOAJ, we are debating whether there are secondary services, such as metadata analysis or metrics, that we can offer stakeholders for a fee.”  Are these debates still active?  Can stakeholders expect future fee-based services from DOAJ?  If so, what kind?

JB:  DOAJ is committed to being 100% independent and maintaining its primary services and metadata as free to use or reuse for everyone.  We have no plans to charge for reviewing or indexing journals and are committed to ensuring that we fund this core activity through our existing crowdfunding model.

However, our current funding model doesn’t enable us to achieve all our goals, and in some areas of the world, a crowdfunding model is just not appropriate or achievable due to local policies.  So, over the next few years we will be looking to diversify our income streams, for example, to engage in more funded projects to support our overall strategy, or to undertake work to develop specific functionality in the database.  This could potentially include data services, but there’s still work to be done in terms of scoping what this might look like.

ATG:  Lars also told us that an Advisory Board (9 members) is the highest body in the governance structure and that a broader Council (15 members) advised the Board on a variety of development and management issues.  How do you hope to make the best use of so much advice coming from so many sources?  

JB:  As I mentioned above, DOAJ means different things to different stakeholders so it’s important that this diversity of views is reflected in our governance structure and informs our development.  This year we are planning to formally adopt the Principles of Open Scholarly Infrastructure both as a demonstration of our commitment to being a transparent and community-driven organisation, and also as a tool to identify priorities for further development.  For this piece of work, we will be looking to our Council and Board members for their advice and guidance.

We have just announced election results for new council members, whose terms will run until the end of 2024.  As we’ve now run a full governance cycle, this is a really good opportunity to evaluate how the structure is working and any areas for improvement.  In particular, we want to ensure that DOAJ is governed in a way that allows all voices to be heard rather than just those who can afford to support us.  I have yet to participate in my first Board meeting — so it would be wrong for me to predict the result of that review!

ATG:  Aside from building on the successes of the past, what do you see in DOAJ’s future under your leadership?  Are you and the DOAJ community considering any new initiatives or enhancements to existing efforts?  Where do you see DOAJ in 2-3 years?

JB:  Our current strategic goals cover several themes, including improving DOAJ’s value and place in the discovery chain to increase the coverage and quality of DOAJ’s journal and article metadata. 

One thing I’ve picked up from speaking to stakeholders in my first few months is that there’s a lack of awareness of the range of activities that DOAJ engages in worldwide, and so we’ll be working to raise our profile, ensuring we use multiple languages where appropriate. 

And last but not least, we’ll be continuing to focus on our core service — reviewing applications and journals — working to make our key services as efficient as possible to enable us to keep up with the increasing number of new applications coming in, as well as ensuring that DOAJ continues to focus on bibliodiversity, including more journals in our collection from marginalized or often excluded communities and in languages and subjects which need greater coverage.

Going forward, I can see DOAJ using its expertise in the Open Access Journal world to influence developments at a local and international level.  For example, in 2021, we successfully collaborated with the Academy of Science South Africa (ASSAF) and the South African Department of Higher Education and Training to get DOAJ included in the recognised list of journals, lists and indexes accepted by the South African Department of Higher Education and Training.  This was the first time an open access listing has been recommended to South African University academics, encouraging researchers to publish in open access and make use of the free quality content available on DOAJ.  This recognition of the importance of Open Access publishing and DOAJ as THE index of quality, peer-reviewed OA journals is something we will be working to achieve in other areas in the future.

We will also be using our expertise and role to ensure a more diverse and equitable future for Open Access publishing.  The 2021 Diamond journal report (to which DOAJ contributed) demonstrated the key role that diamond journals play in the scholarly communications ecosystem, particularly in humanities and social sciences, but showed that many face challenges in terms of sustainability and infrastructure.  DOAJ is pleased to endorse Science Europe’s Action Plan for Diamond Open Access which aims for a scholarly publishing infrastructure that is equitable, community-driven, academic-led and -owned.  As part of this, DOAJ will be a key partner in an upcoming EU project to deliver on the recommendations of the Action plan.

We believe that the future of scholarly communication will be open.  As the percentage of research published open access every year grows, DOAJ will remain at the spearhead of that drive to a more fair, more equal and more diverse system for publishing and disseminating research.  

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