Academic publishing arose to serve the needs of university faculty, think tanks and other researchers to share their knowledge as a community. That knowledge filtered down to the students and out to the larger public. Distributed through journals for more immediate access and through books and monographs for longer works.
As knowledge became more specialized and the communities grew, the publishing world expanded and became more complex and more costly to access. Often cost to acquire and increasing focus on more narrow and complex scholarship started to limit access by the public at large and undergraduate students, in particular.
Over the years there have been a variety of efforts to bridge the gaps between the various disciplines and to create different models of open access to make these materials accessible while maintaining a level of publishing acceptable to peers in the various disciplines. An idea to bridge these gaps was put forward by a number of librarians in small liberal arts colleges starting in 1979.
In 2016, over three decades later Lever Press was announced with a number of distinct goals:
1) All publications, primarily monographs, would be free and open access. There would be no charge for authors or users of the materials. The participating institutions would cover the costs for preparation, processing and publishing in electronic formats.
2) The publications would be interdisciplinary where this is defined largely as the humanities and social sciences
3) There would be a substantial focus on issues around “social engagement”
4) The publications would be “intermodal” meaning that they served both scholarly efforts but be in such a form as to be accessible to undergraduate students
There are substantive questions that have not been clarified in their public announcements and in several interviews. Briefly:
1) Open access, which has struggled to clearly define its meaning, basically says open to whomever, students, faculty and the public at large, often at a cost to the author. Lever’s members absorb all costs, essentially making the publications accessible on many sites listing books available. Globally the cost of accessing these as educational materials solves a small piece in the developing world and for students who are held back by high costs for materials. It also expands the audience for scholarly work in similar global markets both in the developing and developed world.
Education has seen a similar scenario with the creation and free access to MOOC’s (massive online open courses) so there is precedent. Where Lever’s publishing and distribution efforts go will depend on the member institutions paying all costs.
2) The idea was born in 1979 in the midst of many innovative efforts to cross disciplinary lines particularly bridging the sciences and the humanities. That idea has had frequent revivals of this effort, particularly today with the global issues of climate change, sustainability and the growing economic gap between the rich and the poor. That need is felt more strongly than ever outside of The Academy, increasingly requiring college graduates to be able to integrate these skills whether in the developed or under resourced world. Lever management has indicated that the humanities and social science faculties have little problems in accessing venues for their disciplinary research and teaching so it is unclear why Lever in light of its origins has limited its academic focus. This is happening when organizations like HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Technology Alliance and Collaboratory are gaining more momentum at all levels from baccalaureate to the research community.
3) Extending “2”, the “dismal science” economics whose neoclassical models are being challenged by the rising heterodox models is but one cross or interdisciplinary area drawing research and policy work along with input from the larger public, globally dealing with all issues affecting both the human and larger bio/physical environment. Again, it is difficult to see how Lever, without becoming academically parochial can not broaden its conception of social engagement except, perhaps to suggest that the science/technology dimension of today’s world creates limits to opportunities for those scholars outside of the area
4) One understands “interdisciplinary” but “intermodal” seems like a neologism created specifically for Lever, and increasingly out of step with efforts of the changing nature of student bodies and education efforts designed to increasingly engage with thinking outside of the Ivy Covered Walls. Since Lever is committed in the first instance to e-learning, it seems that those who are thinking about the future of Lever would look at what materials students access today and also what faculty do also along with the various social and professional media currently in play and growing.
With its publishing model, Lever has created a “lever” to pry open Pandora’s Box opening up opportunities that have not existed and which will increasingly, with other e-delivery provide a spectrum of knowledge options only now being imagined. Additionally, Lever will increasingly make the barriers become increasingly thin between those in the current Ivory Tower and the public at large
Just born, but yet to take its first steps into the world of publishing, what Lever will become is yet to be seen