Interview with Vivian Berghahn

The head of Berghahn Books talks about "subscribe to open," SSH publishing, and more

Berghahn Books publishes books and journals in the social sciences and humanities (SSH), with a focus on anthropology, European history, politics, and media studies. It was founded in 1994 by Marion Berghahn, and is now run by her daughter, Vivian.

In 2020, Berghahn Books will begin piloting “subscribe to open” for 13 of its anthropology journals. The following interview with Vivian Berghahn, who now runs the company, discusses the motivation and goals behind this pilot, the pressures on small, independent, SSH publishers, and more.


Q: This is Berghahn Books’ 25th anniversary. How did Berghahn start? What’s the story?

Berghahn: Yes, we turned 25 this year — although given the climate for scholarly publishing, we’re happy with each year that passes unscathed! However, this felt like a particularly proud milestone to mark, and we used it as an occasion to recount the path we’ve taken to get to where we are today. You can find the full history here, but in a nutshell, we’re a family firm, founded by my mother, an anthropologist by training (Berghahn Books was the new incarnation of her first firm, which she had founded in lieu of pursuing a career in academia). As a result of her background, our academic foundations run deep, and we pride ourselves in being as specialized as we are. Our publishing mission is very much driven by an appreciation for scholarship that is quite personal, so I think that is reflected in the close relationships we foster with our authors.

Q: You recently announced that Berghahn will be adopting a “subscribe to open” (S2O) approach for its journals. How did you arrive at this decision? What was your decision-making process? How did you gather information to weigh your options?

Berghahn: Although this summer things have been thrown into high gear, the conversation with Libraria, with whom we are embarking on this pilot, began some years ago (at the 2017 American Anthropological Association meeting). That conversation was instigated by one of our anthropology journal editors, who had learned about Libraria from Alberto Corsín Jiménez, one of its founders. There were already a number of (non-Berghahn) journal editors signed up with Libraria, but because of varying publisher arrangements they could not secure actionable commitments to go OA and so were unable to get off the ground. As a publisher, I was inspired by the collective action of these scholars, who were not only expressing their appreciation for publishers and traditional journals as an important part of the scholarly communications ecosystem that they wished to preserve (a sentiment I of course embraced), but theirs was also a voice that is too often lost in the OA debate. It has generally been about funders vs. publishers vs. librarians — never mind what the authors (or especially journal editors) have to say about what they would like. Without the scholars behind the journals, none of this would exist — and so the idea that we come up with a plan that starts by listening to (and being able to do) what they want was very compelling. 

Then in the spring of 2018, I was fortunate enough to participate in the “Move it Forward” workshop hosted by UC Davis. This was an invaluable experience that brought together publishers representing sizes that I could relate to, all of us facing the shared conundrum of what to do about OA (with relatable concerns around funding, APCs, resources, and the dominance of big publishers). It was above all a morale boost for me to hear from our librarian hosts, who had spent years gauging the shifts in OA, that many librarians were also supportive of helping publishers like us tackle OA. Of course, there were still tough questions asked of us and it wasn’t an easy workshop, but I came away from this collegial group gathering feeling more educated, encouraged, and above all motivated to pick up the Libraria discussion. 

Following this workshop, in the summer of 2018 we moved ahead with a meeting at the European Association of Social Anthropologists between those Berghahn journal editors attending the conference and Libraria (in this case Alberto and his co-founder John Willinsky). It was an honest and open meeting, and the overall consensus of the editors in attendance was one of support — open access as a principle was something everyone was behind, albeit with the shared criticism that its present real-world application through pay-to-play gold APCs was exacerbating stratification in higher education and so was to be avoided. However, there were also apprehensions voiced around sustainability and the risks of experimenting with something so new and before it was absolutely necessary. So, with a sense of duty to deliver an equitable open access solution in a sustainable way so that we would all survive, we got to work with Libraria, to see how to make this happen. 

The result was the MIT workshop, where the response from invitees far exceeded our highest hopes. We were thrilled to be able to include not only a diverse array across the spectrum of scholarly communications — from funders and librarians to journal editors, societies, and publishers — but have all sizes represented too (with principal representatives from the largest to the smallest there to share their thoughts). Throughout the day we broke into smaller discussion groups and then reconvened as the full group to present on the findings and in doing so debated not only the current state of OA more generally, but also the pilot specifically. Consequently, the pilot was on the hot seat and subjected to some thoughtful and fair concerns, including our size and the timeline. But the majority were encouraging and, following some valuable pointers from Annual Reviews (who have been very supportive in our borrowing from their approach), the following day we had a strategy session to further refine the approach and set out action points for the coming months. That was followed by invaluable input from a library focus group over the summer that culminated with our announcement just as the 2020 renewals season was underway (admittedly on the tail end, so not ideal). And here we are.

Q: What do you want the pilot to achieve?

Berghahn: The obvious goal is securing long-term sustainable open access for our own journals. I genuinely hope this model will be adopted widely and it will work for others, above all for publishers for whom Big Deal models will never work. The subscription model has never been easy for publishers like us, but we at least could contend even in a world of Big Deals. By normalizing S2O so that librarians see it as a worthy use of their resources (and easy to do) in supporting open access alongside the Big Deals that may also work for them (or if big deals don’t for them to participate in other ways), then we have a compelling way to finance open access publications of all sizes and means. Maintaining a diverse, dynamic, and enterprising publishing ecosystem would be the result — and call me biased, but that sounds ideal to me.   

Q: With “subscribe to open,” there are potential long-term downsides, including the possibility of freeloading institutions and small funding gaps you may have to cover occasionally. What are the issues you’ve identified? What are your plans for dealing with some of the issues that may arise over time?

Berghahn: Indeed, there are some clear risks in the long-term, and for that reason one of the main features of the MIT workshop was John’s Library + Funder model, which we all felt was a compelling (albeit daunting) strategy. Inspired by Chronos, it seeks to find some way to resolve the vulnerability of library budgets while also finding a way to tap into funder resources, where they exist. However, the funders in attendance at the workshop were rather adamant in their reservations, citing logistics and administrative processes that would need to be reconfigured in addition to laws dictating how and to whom money could be distributed. So while we have dropped that idea for now, John has not given up on it, especially with some recent developments that indicate that at least one funder in attendance seems to be changing their tune. So, this is something we intend to return to. In the meantime, we will keep up with infrastructural developments to be ready when the time comes.

That aside, what I do find so compelling about S2O is that whereas many of the big OA deals are between large university systems and big publishers across a lot of journals, in this model any library of any size and budget can contribute to facilitating the OA ambitions of a journal “simply” by “subscribing” to that journal, or where resources allow, to a larger select collection. The current OA transformations are being driven by well-resourced research libraries mainly from the US and Europe — and at least for our fields, they have long been and so will continue to be primary and vital partners if we are to succeed. However, there are libraries outside this group who also wish to be part of the OA movement, and the S2O system allows them to do that, one subscription at a time (as they have with traditional subscriptions). Every little bit helps, and it adds up in important ways that also reduce the strain that comes from otherwise relying on a small pool. Likewise, it is a model that is accessible for publishers of all sizes (self-publishing societies, for instance, who are a big concern for everyone when it comes to OA transition viability), and thereby S2O can offer some hope of retaining a more diverse and democratic publishing ecosystem. It would otherwise be a sad irony if a movement that set out to right the wrongs of an increasingly monopolized profiteering publishing industry instead not only accelerated that trend but meant the demise of the rest of us.

Q: Berghahn is a small, privately held publisher, and not a major multinational like those we mostly hear about. What key differences does this create? Use of intermediaries? Reliance on partners? Potential benefits?

Berghahn: Being small and independently run allows us to be more agile and experimental, for sure. The risks are no less — we’ve thought long and hard about this endeavor and haven’t taken the decision lightly. But the mechanisms to take the plunge, once the factors have been weighed, are far less complex (this is certainly a sense I get from larger publishers, who have expressed interest in the pilot but owing to size/organizational complexity, and the time it takes to jump through internal hoops, need far more time and proof of concept before committing — which is not a criticism, but reminds me of what a privileged position I find myself in for us to function as we do). 

Furthermore, because of the nature of our close working relationships with our editors due to our size, we have benefited from some very open and constructive conversations in the first place and throughout. It’s also at the root of our close collaboration with Libraria, where we were able to be the right type of publisher at the right time for all of us to move forward concretely and try to make this happen. 

A publisher of our size definitely relies heavily on partners for services that we are too small to support in-house, such as fulfillment, online hosting, and distribution. This adds a rather complicated layer — and cost — when it comes to trying something new and unknown, and certainly puts a strain on us internally to be on top of communications and processes as well as cashflow for unexpected costs or income shortfalls. Above all, as with many publishers, we rely on third-party license agreements, such as with full-text databases and JSTOR, to expand our reach to libraries we otherwise don’t have the means to reach. This aspect has presented itself as an important — and still unresolved — consideration for our model. These are partners we value, and in many ways (as in the case of JSTOR), they have been a backfile sales solution when our small size and limited resources have inhibited our ability to go and make those sales ourselves. As a result, this means that libraries currently access our journals across a spectrum of entry points, making it hard for some to pin a value to that access when they are now assessing the cost to support our OA transition. Moving journals to OA may be very disruptive for these arrangements, especially when these organizations are themselves still determining their place in an OA futurescape. So, this is perhaps the one piece of the puzzle I am most apprehensive about. 

Q: How has your team responded to the “subscribe to open” initiative?

Berghahn: It is of course very new territory, so it’s been a lot for everyone to digest and wrap their head around. We are learning as we go along. But everyone is excited to be part of something that’s so novel, and they’ve all really stepped up — not least of all because we opted for a very ambitious timeline so as not to lose the momentum we gained this year. As we’re a small team, it meant we could jump on this and make changes more quickly to make this happen, but it was no small feat and it’s been exhausting for sure. We’ve therefore benefited from working with Knowledge Unlatched, who have come on board to assist us in library outreach at the collection level. They have a great deal of experience across the gamut of open access initiatives, and that has also been reassuring for the in-house team to tap into their expertise. Likewise, working with Libraria has been really rewarding — they are so committed, and for them to do this alongside taxing academic obligations has been really inspirational. John has been especially tireless in helping us craft the pilot and spread the message. I’ll definitely have “collaboration envy” when the next publisher is ready to join! 

Q: Deals between big publishers and big buyers — countries, university systems, consortia — seem to be getting bigger, and harder to hold onto. Do you worry this might create a codependence that could affect editorial or other decisions? Is the issue of influence one you contemplate when you hear about Project DEAL or similar big arrangements?

Berghahn: Big Deals are always scary for publishers who aren’t big enough to make them — as with the Big Deals of the traditional subscription era, they mean far less money is left to go around for the rest of us with journals (to say nothing of books, which are the hardest hit). Above all, when your value proposition is qualitative, a quantitative system is not ideal. So naturally, I don’t love their re-emergence in the OA space. However, it does seem that these recent OA arrangements have put the libraries in the driver’s seat to undo exploitative deals of the past (which is a good thing), and for certain types of large library systems and big publishers these deals seem like the right fit (and we are talking about very strong journal portfolios, after all). 

When it comes to authorship models, from an editorial perspective I do question its implications for submissions at those university systems — is there now some implicit pressure for authors at those institutions to publish in those journals? Or on the journals in the deal to publish authors at those universities? Some of the OA mandate pushback we saw (in Germany even, now home of the DEAL) was that it went against their freedom to choose where to publish — do these read and publish deals not create similar pressures on choice? 

Above all, authors’ exchanges are at a global level, and is not the point of OA to be removing walls to scholarship of all kinds? With these deals there seems to be an element of maintaining (national/institutional) walls or only removing them selectively (for those privileged few), in the name of OA progress, which seems therefore a partial step and not a true solution. To me these models seem more a work in progress — as is ours — but we all have to start somewhere.

Q: Berghahn works primarily in the humanities and social sciences. How does this affect your approach to OA publishing generally?

Berghahn: As a librarian recently reminded me, library budgets also suffer from the same SSH funding shortages that have inspired our OA approach to circumvent the inequities of author APC access. Whatever our strategy we remain vulnerable to shifts in higher education that have long been downsizing SSH in favor of STEM. Our approach therefore always needs to manage its expectations against these larger forces. 

Similarly, I also don’t know that deals prioritizing authorship over readership are a model that works at a smaller scale — be it size of publisher or discipline (where again SSH comes in). For journals like ours, where we publish specialist topics that are often interdisciplinary and international, and in fields that are increasingly precarious (because of those larger shifts in academia) and therefore nomadic, tying the value of journal subscriptions to an institution’s faculty output is a challenge. Likewise, some universities are simply too small to make authorship a reliable marker of value, especially where departments in certain areas are comparatively small (as is typical of many humanities fields), yet still in need of access to library resources. 

But again, I don’t want to be overly critical of current deals that have enabled publishers to move their journals OA (the Cambridge University Press/California deal was an encouraging step for SSH despite my skepticism). Libraries increasingly have to justify their strategies for allocating resources, especially for niche (largely SSH) areas, so a diversity of models is important. 

Q: Berghahn prides itself on high editorial standards. What do you do to maintain these? What can you NOT do because of these?

Berghahn: We do, because we are editorially, not profit, driven — many publishers have so commoditized their journals through scaled, automated systems that they could swap journals out for peanuts and give Skippy a run for their money. 

Being editorially driven means allocating a significant amount of time and resources on production — as befits our journals, whose remits are to foster communications among scholarly communities of all career levels across disciplinary and national borders. All of that, in a nutshell, requires a good copyeditor with careful oversight by in-house staff. It also requires on-going communications editors before we even get the manuscript. This approach allows us to have close and personal working relationships with our editors and authors over many years, which means we’re not alienated from what we publish in the way that automated and anonymous systems are. It’s personal, and so personable and sympathetic.

However, being so “human heavy,” if you will, means that our systems are not as efficient or quick as machine-driven processes are, which puts us at a disadvantage as speed to publication becomes increasingly important, even in the SSH. For instance, it took us a long time to come up with an “online first”/“ahead-of-print” process because once you involve real people, it’s a lot more complicated. We do have it now, but it’s far from efficient. So what we can’t do on account of this emphasis is scale up easily or speed up our publication processes; but we’re ok with that. And on the whole, our authors are too, even though some do get annoyed with pesky copyeditor queries when they just want to get their article out. For us it is about finding the right balance between keeping up with the technological advances that are necessary to meet author (and library) needs, while retaining quality-oriented values that take a bit more time.