The Council of the European Union recently announced its support for scholar-led open access infrastructures. Per Pippin Aspaas draws on the Norwegian concept of the ‘dugnad’ to project the kinds of social infrastructures scholar-led academic publishing requires and how they might be funded.
On 23 May 2023, the Council of the European Union adopted its Council conclusions on high-quality, transparent, open, trustworthy and equitable scholarly publishing. Member states are encouraged to help build infrastructures to provide fertile ground for community-based, scholar-led open access. This is a welcome follow-up of the Action Plan for Diamond Open Access launched in March 2022.
Diamond Open Access is a model of publishing in which Read-and-Publish Deals and other kinds of publishing fees are discarded. Instead, non-commercial funding mechanisms facilitate the publishing infrastructure. Publicly funded institutions, learned societies, libraries, charities and/or governments pool resources – both economic and in-kind contributions – so that the full texts of scholarly books and journals become available online for free.
The publishing landscape is populated by thousands of scholarly journals that publish from 5 to 50 articles and academic book series that publish less than ten books on an average year. Such small-sized outlets tend to be initiated and run by scholarly communities (formal or informal learned societies) that live for rather than off their work. While Diamond Open Access already exists, it has not really taken off. Most small-sized outlets are still hosted by commercial entities that either hide all content behind paywalls, or require money from publicly funded institutions in the form of Read-and-Publish Deals or Gold Open Access publishing fees. Such outlets could easily be converted to a more sustainable, non-commercial, model of publishing.
Community-based scholar-led open access as a Norwegian dugnad
The Norwegian word dugnad (talkoot in Finnish) can be used to characterise an ideal way of realising the Diamond Open Access model. Dugnad means volunteer work for the common good of a community. For example, people in a local building block community can either outsource the necessary gardening, repair of fences, and renovation of the façade to a commercial service provider or join forces and do this themselves. The latter option implies a real dugnad. A dugnad is a social act, where members of the community solve their needs themselves by acting collectively without economic transactions. The resources that are pooled together are human resources: everybody contributes according to their know-how and capacity, and they are ready to learn from and help each other.
The core of the Norwegian word dugnad implies more than just the sum of everyone’s work. Equally important is the act of working together, in person, interrupted by coffee breaks and shared meals. Such dugnad gatherings typically happen once or twice per year. In-between each dugnad, a caretaker (often a resident of the same building block) will take care of everyday practical issues for a small salary. A board consisting entirely of local residents is elected at a (bi-)annual general assembly. The head of the board is responsible for financial issues and the caretaker reports to them.
Scholarly communities behind a diamond journal or books series can be compared to the above dugnad system. The social act of editing a journal or a book series, collectively helping each other by providing peer review or proofreading, represent non-commercial ways of working together in academia that could be a real dugnad. The caretaker will be the technical editor (aka editorial assistant), an IT-minded person who maintains the daily business of the publishing outlet while reporting to the editor-in-chief. The residents of the building block will be the editorial team.
However, there is one fundamental difference between the dugnad and scholarly communities. Most scholarly communities are not local; there will be travel costs. Editors of a journal or book series tend to live far from each other and have their daily work at different institutions, often in different countries. It’s not as if they can walk down the stairs and gather in the garden outside, like a local community can.
A Diamond Open Access Capacity Centre is being made
An EU-funded Diamond Open Access Capacity Centre is currently in the making, the purpose being to help build capacity and professionalise the services offered by the numerous existing Diamond Open Access platforms across Europe. Technical infrastructures are extremely important. However, we need to think, and think urgently, on how to finance the extra workloads of technical editors as well as the regular meetings of editorial boards, or ‘social infrastructures’. Without these resources, there will be no transformation to an open system.
Without physical meetings where editorial boards can work together on calls for papers for special issues, discuss suggestions for improvements to publishing platforms, Diamond Open Access initiatives are unlikely to be sustainable. Ultimately physical meetings are important to fostering a sense of community, one which can quickly evaporate if the editor-in-chief finds themselves alone with no real team surrounding them.
Time for a Diamond Open Access Fund!
A Diamond Open Access Capacity Centre with empty pockets could be helpful, but it would not be a game changer. What is required is a dedicated fund. I estimate a community that runs a journal that publishes 30 peer-reviewed articles per year will be happy to do this for €30,000. That would finance the part-time salary of the editorial assistant (“caretaker”) and allow for a meeting of the editorial board each year. As for the rest, the publishing software is for free. The Diamond Open Access Capacity Centre offers its assistance for free. The community upholds the work by offering the most important resource for free, namely, their own knowhow and working hours.
Read-and-Publish deals are likely to be short lived; they were, after all, supposed to be ‘transitional deals’. The public money that has so far been spent on these deals could be better invested in this kind of fund when these deals come to an end. This would be truly transformative. My suggestion is that applicants apply to the Fund at five-year intervals and are granted in the range of 1,000 Euro per article and €7,500 per monograph that they intend to publish. Opinion pieces, book reviews and the like would count as €50 each. After the five years have passed, they report how much has actually been published and are free to apply for the next five years. The grants offered are adjusted accordingly. In addition, a special flipping grant should be offered to journals and book series that intend to make the time-consuming move from a commercial publishing platform over to a non-commercial one.
We need to make existing non-profit initiatives sustainable and at the same time stimulate more scholarly communities to leave commercial models behind and become dugnad-based. For this change to take place, appropriate sums of money must be put at the disposal of the right stakeholders, namely, the scholarly communities themselves. The time for a Diamond Open Access Fund is now.
A longer version of this opinion piece was published as part of the Diamond Papers series, edited by Pierre Mounier and Johan Rooryck.
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