• Open Insights: An Interview with Jeroen Sondervan

    Posted by Paula Clemente Vega on 2019-09-20


An Open Insights interview with Jeroen Sondervan


Jeroen Sondervan is Open Access Publishing Consultant for Utrecht University and currently appointed as project leader open access for the UU Open Science Programme. He has been a commissioning editor for Amsterdam University Press from 2007 until 2016. For over 10 years he has been working on open access journals and monographs, with a special interest in the fields of film and media studies. He is a member of the Knowledge Exchange Open Access Group, the Dutch library consortium OA working group and editor of the national platform openaccess.nl.


Hello Jeroen, thanks for agreeing to talk to us. You have over 12 years of experience working in scholarly journals and monographs in the humanities. Can you please tell us about your background, your current role as Open Access Publishing Consultant for Utrecht University and the projects with which you were and are currently involved?

First of all, thank you for this invitation! I started in 2006 as a publisher at Amsterdam University Press (AUP) in a number of humanities disciplines. AUP, like other university presses, has its focus on books, and back in 2007 AUP was already thinking about models for open-access books. For me, that was the first time I engaged with the concept of open access. I have never abandoned the topic since then.

In 2008, the OAPEN project was awarded funding under the EU Framework Programme 7. In that project six European based university presses started developments for an online platform to store, preserve and disseminate open access books. OAPEN has since become a library with thousands of open-access books, but at that moment we were very much pioneers because there were almost no examples that specifically engaged with open access for academic books and related publishing models. The open access discussions were mainly focused on open access for journals. It was therefore very exciting to be at the forefront of an open access transition for a medium that is of great importance, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. 

At AUP I have also set up a number of full open access journals, such as NECSUS - European Journal of Media Studies and Journal of Archeology in the Low Countries (the latter ceased activity in 2015). Both journals had a non-APC model and were funded by a consortium of Dutch and Flemish institutions (resp. media studies and archaeology). Both were far ahead of their time in their field and we needed to do a lot of advocacy to convince institutions, authors and others involved about the potential that open access could have on the research (broad discoverability and dissemination, etc). 

Starting in 2013 I worked as a freelancer alongside being a commissioning editor in media studies for AUP. When freelancing I worked for a few other publishers and a museum, and open access has always been the main entry point for everything I did for those institutions. In 2015 I started as an open access publishing consultant at Utrecht University. In addition to helping researchers with their open access inquiries (publishing models, journal development, copyright, etc.) I am also involved in UOpen Journals, a library service set to help (starting) full open access journals to become sustainable in the long-term. From February 2019 I have been appointed as open access project leader for the Utrecht University Open Science programme. This is a three-year programme in which we at Utrecht University will focus on promoting open science. Recognition & appreciation, open access and FAIR open data are, amongst others, themes that Utrecht University will fully focus on in the next three years. Exciting times, all the more because of several current developments that create an explosive momentum. Think, for instance, about the deadline in the Netherlands to achieve 100% open access for all papers published from 2021 onwards; the launch of, and following debates on Plan S, and all the challenges that we will possibly face in the slipstream of the implementation of it; the call from institutions for more (financial and quality) transparency in the publishing ecosystem; and last but absolutely not least, the outcry from the academic community to work on a better, more inclusive and accountable way of research assessment by not only focusing on questionable methods and metrics, like the journal Impact Factor. And these are just a few of the many challenges we face in changing the scholarly communication ecosystem into something more accountable, inclusive and (financially) sustainable. I find it really exciting to be able to contribute, even if it is only a small part, to these changes. 

In 2015, your institution, Utrecht University developed a new strategy for open access journal publishing. The cornerstone of this new strategy, following the incubator model, was the shift of the role of the library from being about production to being about consulting, instruction, content stewardship and curation. What does this shift imply for the culture, expertise and expectations of the library? How has Utrecht University solved this so far? 

This is a very good question, because this type of consultancy often requires highly specialist knowledge. And it often relies on certain expertise from people working in the library. We always try to have a clear picture of what researchers need and what the library can support. In some cases, this can be very specific information, and sometimes help can be offered with a service or tool, which is offered outside the library. In the context of the aforementioned Open Science programme, we want to be as flexible as possible to shape this idea of consultancy and publishing support and to be able to link up with precisely those relevant initiatives and projects in the constantly changing landscape of scholarly communication. How are we going to do that? We are now in the middle of further devising and strategically organizing this. 

What do you think are the main barriers to, and challenges and opportunities for open access in the humanities and social sciences?

In my current work I have to deal with a large number of disciplines. The UU is a broad and large research university, so the questions and challenges vary widely. In my time at AUP I naturally gained a lot of experience with open access in the disciplines you mention. 

There are a number of obstacles that I have seen in recent years and for which a good solution has not always been found. First of all, the lack of knowledge about open access is still present. After 20 years of open access you would expect that open access is fairly well known, but that is obviously not the case. You cannot expect that as a researcher whose main task is to conduct research to know every detail about open access publishing. Every time I have the chance, during talks, I always try to explain the why and how of open access. It is too easy to think that "everyone" is on the same page on this subject. I therefore really like your EmpowOA initiative to foster conversations and inform about open access in the broadest possible way. Giving examples and sharing best practices and other narratives is important, I think. We need more author engagement programmes like this. 

Another major issue is the financing of open access publishing. The APC-model may well be working for the STEM disciplines, but it is an absolute disaster for the HSS. The Open Library of Humanities project, with a consortium funding model, is a very good example of a different way of financing than the pay-to-publish model. We must realize that open access publishing is "free" for end users but the entire publishing cycle (reviewing, editing, infrastructure, etc.) simply costs money. This needs to come from somewhere. And I see another immediate challenge for the humanities: quality improvements within many disciplines in the humanities often also lies with the editing (e.g. substantive editing) and type-setting (design and lay-out) process. This is often very labor-intensive and simply takes time and therefore costs money. The paper version of publications is also still highly appreciated in many humanities disciplines. This is especially true for books, but I also regularly encounter this anachronism for journals. It goes without saying that this immediately affects the budget for publishing. Though, I do think that the craving for paper will change quickly in the next 5 to 10 years or so.

One of the main barriers facing HSS scholars in open access is the dominant APC-based publishing model, mainly due to the scarce funding in the social sciences and the humanities compared to other academic disciplines. Within this scenario, devising new business models that adapt to the needs of HSS scholars becomes crucial. In which ways is Utrecht University facilitating and supporting this?

You are absolutely right by saying that the APC is the dominant model for open access publishing. Despite the fact that the majority of journals in DOAJ do not charge any costs to authors. However, the majority of open access articles are published in open-access journals that charge APCs. One of the criticisms of Plan S is that it focuses too much on journals with a publishing model based on APCs. I think this is only partly true. There seems to be enough willingness to look at other systems and models and I am therefore very curious about the ‘opening’ that Plan S seems to offer when it comes to (financial) support for infrastructures and more specifically in those areas where the transition to open access has proven less successful. 

What I find really interesting is the renewed rise of often innovative and open source publishing software and, as I call it, Do-it-Yourself publishing platforms. Open Journal Systems is the well-known and probably oldest existing example, but think also of your own developed Janeway platform, Ubiquity Press with their partner OJS based platform for smaller presses, the Vega Publishing platform, Manifold, Scalar, and I can go on and on. There is a really interesting report by MITpress on this topic published very recently which I would like to recommend, entitled: Mind the Gap. I think here lies the key for smaller editorial entities (as I like to call them), being small, niche journals and publishers with very little resources to invest in a transition to open access (often the case in the humanities). These new platforms often operate at very low costs if you want to outsource hosting. But if you are smart and have some developing skills it is very simple to use those systems. 

At Utrecht University we support open access publishing with the Open Access fund since 2012, covering 50% of the APC costs. In the current Open Science programme we will also look at how we can also support non-APC initiatives to guarantee diversity in the open access landscape as much as possible. 

Even though the use of pre-/and post-print publishing is quite common in some disciplines, more notably in the fields of mathematics, physics, and computer science with arXiv.org, their possibilities still remain largely unexplored in the HSS. In this blog post here, you attribute this to a mainly lack of knowledge and fear on the part of HSS researchers and suggest the crucial role of advocacy in creating awareness and opening discussions about the potential benefits of pre-/and post-print publishing. The recently launched MediArXiv—a free, nonprofit, scholar-led digital archive for media, film and communication studies – aims in addition to accepting and publishing submissions, to also put advocacy at the forefront of your efforts. Can you please expand further on this? How are you planning to use the MediArXiv to advocate for open access in media studies?

Since I left AUP at the end of 2016, I have always remained in contact with the media studies (also my academic background) network. Together with Jeff Pooley, who is also active in advocating for open access in media studies and with whom I have worked on the Open Access in Media Studies website for three years now, I think that it is only a matter of time until preprints will become a more common aspect within the process of scholarly communication in the humanities. Especially in those fields where time-to-publish needs to be short and fast. Because of the transience of the research material (in the case of media studies e.g. YouTube videos or sound and media broadcasting recordings, etc.) it is unthinkable that traditional publication routes can sometimes take several years. This happens. I once had a talk with a researcher whose article on digital online video was published three years after submission to a journal of a large publisher and I have worked on projects that referred to or made use of online video content platforms (e.g., YouTube and Vimeo). The content available on these platforms shouldn’t be considered as sustainably archived and often lack persistent identifiers. They are easy to use but the content available during research is sometimes taken down for various reasons during the review process. With the MediArxiv project we want to address the issue of sustainable archiving of audio-visual content. Thus, and maybe especially, in media and communication studies there is some sort of urgency because of the speed with which media (source and digital) changes. Preprints could enhance speed in the publishing process. One reason we have started MediArxiv is that we want to start conversations about opening up and enhancing the scholarly communication process in this area of research. In the near future we also want to engage with (traditional) journal publishers and society journals and talk about their often not so friendly preprint policies. In other fields, like the social sciences, it is a conversation that has been taking place for some years now. Why not in the humanities? 

In the post I mentioned earlier, you also stressed the importance of changing the way we think about the culture of publishing. In which ways can media studies in particular help advance this change? Is the MediArXiv planning to incorporate multimedia formats in its submissions?

Yes, we want to offer storage for other types of publications as well. Think of the audio-visual essay, which is an expanding, and also fully accepted (reviewed) type of scholarly communication in the field of media studies. The current platform has its limitations and we have just started by installing a steering committee with members from all over the world (we cover over 10 languages for moderation) and drafting our gatekeeping policies. Everything we do is open and we store source material in a Github repository. Our plans for the near future are to engage with other important stakeholders in the field (e.g. humanities commons) to investigate how we can work together on the aforementioned issues. But also to look at how we can enhance interoperability between different (open source) systems/platforms. 

As member of the Knowledge Exchange Open Access Group, you presented at the last LIBER conference the results of the recently released report “Towards a Knowledge Exchange Roadmap for OA Monographs”, which collected a set of best practices and recommendations for libraries and librarians. Can you summarise here the findings and recommendations of the report? What do you set to achieve in the near future with regard to OA monographs publishing?

The report you mentioned is the final result from the Knowledge Exchange project on open access for books, which we started to organise at the end of 2016. This report does indeed call upon the library community to actively engage with the subject. For libraries there lies the potential for a more active role in supporting the publication of open access books and also sustainable infrastructures for discovery and dissemination. Libraries could also play an important role in creating awareness for open access books (for authors, faculty, and pro vice chancellors) by for instance showcasing different publisher models and opportunities. Libraries could also identify common concerns from the academic community regarding open access for books and provide information to overcome these concerns. A very interesting role for the libraries to explore is how the aforementioned role of being a consultant could support this. 

Another very interesting trend is the rise of the so-called academic- and library-led open access publishing. There will be a forthcoming article in LIBER Quarterly (‘Rebels with a Cause? Supporting Library- and Academic-led Open Access Publishing’), that I wrote together with Joe Deville from Mattering Press, Graham Stone from Jisc and Sofie Wennström from Stockholm University Press, and in which we outline this emerging landscape of new university and academic-led open access publishing activities. In the article we also provide examples of how, albeit differing in size, form and ambition, these new presses are not just adhering to conventional publishing norms but often innovating in order to surpass them. Our focus is on open access books and it is interesting to learn what has been achieved already and that these initiatives have already changed the face of academic (open access) book publishing. Bottom-line: libraries already play an important role in these changes and with all the growing publishing expertise they are becoming more suitable partners. 

How can librarians and people involved in open science and open access support a better incorporation of OA monographs in overall OA policies, approaches and business models?

Discussions around policies on open access books (I know you are having a heated discussion on this in the U.K. for a while now) are now increasingly being held at institutional and national levels. But still, and as said here before, discussions about open access policies are still hugely dominated by the developments around open access journals. To give you an example: in the Netherlands, and you would expect it to be otherwise, we don’t have a national approach for open access books, even though it is being mentioned in the National Plan Open Science, which was published early 2017. Above all, the 100% open access ambition is not only for journal articles. I am really glad that there is now a working group, in which I am participating, representing the Dutch research institutions and libraries, where a national policy brief for books is now being drafted. During the OASPA conference in Copenhagen in September there will be an interesting session where this topic will be discussed. The panel will address the developments in the UK and the Netherlands, alongside with what is happening with funders (Science Europe). And when we find a workable solution for books we need to broaden our scope for a real open science approach and look how we can open up other research outputs as well. 


→ All opinions expressed in this interview don’t necessarily reflect the opinion of the Utrecht University Library and should therefore be considered as personal views. 



Our thanks to Jeroen Sondervan (@jeroenson), and keep an eye out for more #EmpowOA Open Insights soon! 


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