PLOHSS post caching test

"Academic Spring" protest image. Elsevier tree, bared

“Academic Spring” protest image. Elsevier tree, bared

Part 1: Background

or jump to Part 2: The Conversation

It’s been a revolutionary year in the academic world. In the UK, key fronts were the “Academic Spring” revolt against commercial subscription publishers, the Finch Report establishing UK government policy in support of Open Access publishing (free for all to access and use), and the Research Excellence Framework establishing social-impact based evaluation and funding for research.

Beyond just the UK, the “altmetrics” movement is championing broader measures of scholarly impact, dovetailing with both Open Access and REF, and the dramatic, Silicon Valley-led expansion of MOOC online learning models became a defining issue, almost obsession, in education. Internet oracle Clay Shirky sounded the death knell for higher-ed status quo, invoking the ghosts of industries lost:“Our MP3 is the MOOC, and our Napster is Udacity.” (translation: Look on your works, ye mighty, and despair.).

A current focal point in this fraught situation, is the question of how Open Access (OA) might work in the humanities and social sciences (“HSS”). That is, as opposed to, in the STEM fields (Scientific, Technical, Engineering, & Math) with which OA is now more pervasive, and for which funding models are better established.

Public Library of Science

Public Library of Science

Recent conversations on Twitter have explored the concept of a “Public Library of Humanities (PLOH)”, or Public Library of Humanities and Social Science (PLOHSS). Meaning, some new Open Access platform and/or organization for HSS analogous to the Public Library of Science, a non-profit launched in 2001 that has been a transformative innovator and now the highest-volume publisher of science research. While “PLOH” is basically a metaphor, for what could be various and multiple projects, it seems the concept resonates with many people in scholarly communication right now. There is a sense that some type of HSS “Great Leap Forward” may be possible now, given the gathering Open Access and REF mandates, the diffusion of better publishing tools and cloud computing, and the rise of altmetrics and social impact measurement.

This post attempts to gather, Storify-style, the conversations relating specifically to the PLOS / PLOHSS concept which I’ve been able to gather. There are multiple, parallel, branching, side, semi- or non-public, and ongoing conversations; I am making a best effort to gather a coherent thread out of a very sprawling conversation. If you think I’ve missed or misstated anything important, please feel free to note in comments, or contact me by email tmccormick (at) gmail or on Twitter @tmccormick and I will try to update or append post as appropriate.

I should note, I’ve also been contacted by a number of individuals and organizations, beyond those mentioned in this summary, who’ve expressed interest in or described projects-in-progress related to the topic, but who’ve explicitly or implicitly expressed a preference not to discuss the connection publicly. Interestingly, developing a ”Public Library of Humanities” is by no means seen by everyone as something to be done only in a public or collective manner.

STEM and HSS: a happy conflict of the faculties

STEM and HSS: a happy conflict of the faculties

Aside from just gathering tweets, I’ve pulled in a few notes on conversants and related blog posts, and how this conversation came together, in part because I think there is an intriguing interplay and creative friction occuring now between diverse parties on this issue — STEM and HSS academics, government and policy interests, commercial interests vs. not-for-profit orgs, public and private conversations.

Between STEM and HSS academics, for example, humanists are challenging scientists to consider how HSS practices, norms, and goals may diverge from STEM’s, and why the same funding structures or tools may not work; and challenging them to confront issues such as academic labor precarity and the possibly unexamined political/cultural undercurrents driving academic reforms. (Shelley, in “A Defense of Poetry”, called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and in the present debates,humanists are perhaps the better observers of unacknowledged legislative agendas).

At the same time, advocates such as PLOS’ Cameron Neylon are challenging humanists to, for example, join cultural critique with empirical analysis of cost structures and new production/funding models, and learn from precedents such as how PLOS and PLOSONE (the PLOS “mega-journal” and major revenue-generator) were begun and became so successful.

STEM-to-STEAM movement led by RISD's John Maeda STEM-to-STEAM, a movement to rejoin art & design to STEM studies, led by RISD’s John Maeda

I would suggest that, ultimately, deep engagement between HSS academia and the tools, models, and advocates of science Open Access may yield richer, perhaps even unexpected understandings and innovations for both communities.


Part 2: The Conversation

The suggestion of a “Public Library of Humanities” may well have come up in various places before, but the present public conversation, on Twitter and blogs, may be said to have started with a post on The Disorder of Things. This is a group blog with a contributor roster of mostly young, Europe-based academics in the social sciences and humanities, who mostly go by only first names or pseudonyms on the site, but include at front of masthead Paul Kirby, (aka Pablo K), Department of International Relations, University of Sussex, and Meera Sabaratnam (aka Meera), Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge.


A STEM academic venturing to the Disorder of Things site might, I’m guessing, find it somewhat riotous and baffling at first — evidently substantial but pseudonymous essays, crackling graphical/critical energy, multifarious topics and contributors. But it’s an interesting example of a dynamic, politically engaged and grassroots, tending-to-subversive other side of academia, worlds apart from most science communication.

On 12-17 Nov, Disorder of Things offered a 6-part series “on open access in International Relations and social science.” Paul Kirby explained its genesis, in the first post:

some of us got together to talk about open access and the political economy of knowledge (re)production in our little corner of academia… we’ll be posting those reflections here for your delectation because…labourers in today’s university-factories need to get talking about these things, and fast.

The full series was as follows:

  1. 12 Nov – Paul Kirby (@pablok). “Death To Open Access! Long Live Open Access!
  2. 13 Nov – Colin Wight (@colwight). “Open Access Publishing: Potential Unintended Consequences of the Finch Proposals.”
  3. 14 Nov – David Mainwaring (@d_mainwaring). “One Size Fits All?: Social Science and Open Access
  4. 15 Nov – Nivi Manchanda. “Open Access: Is It Really ‘Open’?
  5. 16 Nov – Nathan Coombs (@NathanCoombs) “The Best Things In Life Are Free?: Open Access Publishing and Academic Precarity.
  6. 17 Nov – Meera Sabaratnam (@MeeraSabaratnam). “Open Access: Time for Action.

Part 2, “Open Access Publishing: Potential Unintended Consequences of the Finch Proposals,” is by Colin Wight, Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and also Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of International Relations.

this post was noted by Ross Mounce (@rmounce), PhD student at the University of Bath in Phylogenetics and Paleontology

Michael Eisen is a biologist at UC Berkeley, Open Access advocate, and co-founder of PLOS.

Steven Hardad of Southampton University, UK, is a primary figure in and prominent advocate for the Open Access movement.

Dec 4 – Meera Sabaratnam & Paul Kirby. “Open Access: HEFCE, REF2020 and the Threat to Academic Freedom

December 13th – Martin Coward. “More Issues in Open Access(#OA)

Around that time, a group of leading UK history journal editors came out with a statement expressing objections to the Open Access mandates they see as forthcoming from the UK government due to the Finch Report.

This prompted a response from Dan Cohen, Professor of History & Digital Humanities at George Mason University, Director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media, and force behind important scholarly platforms/tools such as Zotero and PressForward.



In the end, the revolutionary situation is a complex web of interests and voices, converging and diverging currents. In examining it, aside from looking hard at the numbers, we might also take a leaf from the passionate yet deeply nuanced observations of Wordsworth on the French Revolution. In a section of The Prelude later retitled ”French Revolution, as it Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement”, he famously voiced the sentiment,

mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
When most intent on making of herself
A prime Enchantress–to assist the work,

Which then was going forward in her name!

Later in the Prelude, however, he also surveys the vast subsequent disillusionment, of reason dashed and corrupted:

these times of fear,

This melancholy waste of hopes o’erthrown

As the vivid debate around academic reform in the UK and US today shows, our universities are tremendous repositories of both received greatness and revolutionary potential. There is a future at stake that matters, and many voices legitimately in play.



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