The Future of Open Access at H-Net

Emily Joan Elliott's picture

A guest post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

Guest post by Niels Eichhorn, vice president of research and publications, H-Net.

H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online came into existence in the mid-1990s as a ListServer and publisher of academic reviews. As of 2023, it hosts 190 Networks and publishes about more than 1,000 book, exhibit, website, podcast, and other reviews every year. What you may not know is that one of its newer services is publishing online, open access journals and monographs that are free to both authors and readers. This initiative began in 2019 with the inaugural issue of the Journal of Festive Studies and has grown to include the Proceedings of the H-Net Teaching Conference, and the forthcoming Cultural Encounters of the Civil War Era (ca. 1830—ca. 1890).

We are all aware that the nature of publishing is constantly changing. University presses have been threatened with budget cuts and in some cases closure like in the case of the University of Missouri Press a few years ago or the shutdown of Idaho Yesterdays in the mid-2000s. Many university presses have embraced a trade press outlook and asked authors to write for a more popular audience as well as releasing hard cover, paperback, and digital copies at the same time or sometimes even offering individual chapters for sale. However, there is no denying that prices for books have increased dramatically and there are also the challenges faced by a cornerstone of our profession—peer review. Press and journal editors have increasingly struggled to locate willing peer reviewers. 

While H-Net faces these problems and cannot independently solve them, its status as an independent, academic nonprofit organization that brings together thousands of scholars from around the world, provides unique opportunities. H-Net does not rely on state legislatures or university administrations for financial support and has a lower overhead for staff and volunteers due to the smaller size of our operations. Additionally, H-Net’s use of a flexible and easily adjustable publishing platform that fits the desires and needs of editors and its respected position within the profession provide H-Net an excellent base to enter the peer review publishing market.   

When I agreed to become an editor at H-CivWar (a network dedicated to the study of the U.S. Civil War), David Prior, then the Vice President of Networks at H-Net, sat down with me at the Society of Civil War Historians’ Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh to chat about how to revitalize H-CivWar. A peer-reviewed publication was not among the things he mentioned, but I half-jokingly suggested that if ever Civil War History (one of the premier journals in the field) searched for a new home, H-CivWar should step in and publish the journal digitally. I should be more careful with what I wish for. When I became Vice President of Research and Publications, Dave suggested a unique peer-reviewed project housed with H-CivWar to take advantage of the growing trends of cost consciousness and transnational scholarship. H-Net’s current publishing platforms allow for experimental forms of publishing, open review, and engagement with a vast number of experts who subscribe to H-Net’s networks. Born was the Cultural Encounters of the Civil War Era (ca. 1830—ca. 1890), an edited collection that is in its early stages and hopefully will have its first contribution go into peer review later this year. Distinct from typical edited collections, H-Net Journal’s flexibility will permit us to publish chapters on a rolling basis and provide each chapter author with in-depth and specific feedback during peer review.

After Dave and I agreed on some basic parameters, we invited a third editor to join us, Alison Efford from Marquette University. Dave envisioned a three-part review process. The first step would involve the project editors providing each author with detailed and helpful feedback to strengthen the manuscript in preparation for peer review. 

The second step would be the actual peer review. Here, we decided to forgo the typical two reviewer system and instead go with just one reviewer, who would be an expert in the field covered in each chapter. We wanted to make sure that if we received an article on Argentina during the Civil War Era (c. 1840 to c. 1880), we would not hand the paper to a specialist in U.S. history who only marginally knew Argentinian history. We wanted an expert. This is a unique feature of this essay collection. Usually, essay collections only have one or two reviewers; in this case, each essay will have its own reviewer. There was some debate among the project editors, since I had a bad experience with a singular peer-reviewer who was utterly unfair to the manuscript. (I assume this is an experience we all have shared over our career.) Therefore, we maintained the option of seeking a second reviewer in the event of a tough initial review. 

The final review is the feature distinctive to H-Net, an open review by the subscribers to H-Net’s Networks. Each contributing author is asked to provide a 1,000-word abstract of their essay, which will be published on the H-CivWar Network Page as a blog. All subscribers are invited to provide comments and suggestions to the author by responding to the blog post. As editors, we want the author to consider and potentially address these comments in their revisions before publications. After these three rounds of review, H-Net’s professional copyeditors and layout artists will work their magic to prepare each chapter for final publication.

We expected some reluctance among prospective contributors to the H-CivWar project as most scholars still see H-Net as primarily a space for reviews, queries, and calls for papers and not an organization that publishes peer reviewed journals or edited collections. So far, the interest has been substantial and on par with traditional edited collections that come out in print. Dave, as the editor primarily in charge of first contact with contributors, has placed CfPs on various H-Net Networks and has reached out directly to potential contributors. As much as finding peer-reviewers is difficult, finding contributors for a unique, new project by an organization that has no book publishing record has its challenges, particularly as we scholars face various deadlines and growing institutional demands. So far, things are moving along nicely, and we hope for the first full essay to go into peer review later this year.

It is too early, one year in, to give a full review of the project, and I will likely come back in two or three years to give an updated report, but for the time being, H-Net is uniquely situated to embrace a variety of different peer-reviewed projects and open doors to un- or underexplored topics. H-Net does need to consider staff time commitments and pay. Managing and laying out an issue or monograph can take weeks, but luckily, two student employees have recently been trained to assist with layout. Additionally, by using the Open Journal System to publish, H-Net Journals has a free, open source platform that exports metadata to several indexes and allows a plugin with CrossRef to automatically generate DOIs for each article. Although the plugin is free, H-Net pays CrossRef $275 annually for its services. 

Let’s face it, few of us are ever going to be rich from our books. Receiving a royalty check is a dream that rarely comes true, so why not have our peer-reviewed and copyrighted scholarship, (H-Net copyrights all publications under a Creative Commons’ License) openly and freely available to a broad audience of tens of thousands of subscribers and millions of internet users, not to mention students? The possibilities are endless!

Niels Eichhorn holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War ( LSU Press, 2019), Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019), and The Civil War Battles of Macon (The History Press, 2021).

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