Getting to the Heart of the Matter through MUSE Open

2018 University Press Forum

[Editor’s Note: This essay also appears as part of the annual University Press Forum in the May issue of Choice and on]

Barbara Kline Pope [left], Director, Johns Hopkins University Press and Wendy Queen, Director, Project MUSE.

Humanities and social sciences scholars have much to offer society. The publication called The Heart of the Matter so aptly describes the reasons why the humanities and social sciences (HSS) are vital to our lives.

As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.1 

For nearly a quarter century, Project MUSE (a division of Johns Hopkins University Press), as a nonprofit publisher working for other nonprofit publishers, has enabled scholars to reach their readers far and wide by disseminating their knowledge in the humanities and social sciences through libraries. Now Project MUSE is a conduit for opening up some of that scholarship to anyone who is on the web, allowing people to read and interact with the content for free, thereby bringing to the world new knowledge, new insights, and, maybe most important of all these days, a pathway to civil public discourse.

A new program called MUSE Open will help scholarly book publishers build bridges between their authors and audiences by providing the technology and discovery services that many publishers do not have and cannot afford to build themselves. Making content open and posting it only on an institutional repository is not enough to realize its full potential. To realize the benefits of HSS scholarship, including bringing new students into the fields and inspiring the public to encourage more robust funding, it is essential that we actively seek out the audiences for the work. One major way to do so is by posting open scholarship on a platform that optimizes for search, features linking partnerships, and provides enough aggregated content that it becomes a destination for anyone in the world seeking new knowledge in HSS.

MUSE Open does just that. Supported by a generous grant of nearly $1 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the team at MUSE completed vigorous audience research and testing until it was assured that the reading experience was the best it could be and that publishers would find participating on the platform easy and cost-effective.

As such, part of the goal of MUSE Open was to go beyond the PDF. While some people still enjoy the portability of the PDF, and we will continue to offer it, searching within the book and reading work best with an HTML interface—particularly on phones or tablets. The HTML format was the springboard for improvements in the reader experience, such as in-line footnotes, auto-loading pages, and the increased ability to make content connections between the materials.

We identified other core areas critical to the success of the new platform for OA monographs:

  • Building scalable solutions for the ingestion and conversion of EPUB book files to HTML
  • Embracing community-supported open source software
  • Defining scholar-desirable tools and functionality
  • Establishing new publishing partnerships and innovative content aggregation
  • Creating a new architecture for measuring reach—an essential element in determining the impact of OA books
  • Educating publishers and authors so that they can generate the most accessible content at the point of content creation

The open content and the gated works are combined in a completely reimagined search function. As with all aspects of the new MUSE Open program, the ways in which we are mingling and connecting content have been informed by scholars.

Discovery is the coin of the realm in publishing. As responsible stewards of our content platform, we are committed to dramatically improving discoverability. Publishers often post their books on many platforms with the assumption that this tactic will increase discoverability. This is not necessarily true. As scholarly publishers, our time is better spent focusing on new methods of linking between content-specific platforms to make the reader experience more seamless and improve discoverability.

Practical innovations that enhance discovery and the user experience include functions like “linked data.” With greater and deeper content connections, no matter the format, and across OA platforms and content collections, we have an extraordinary opportunity to aspire to the next possible form of a publication.

In a pilot project called Black Press in America, JHUP, MUSE Open, and the university’s Sheridan Libraries will combine the benefits of OA with linked data in the humanities and social sciences. This project will open up historical newspapers, published by and read by the African American community, that until now were too difficult to study because they were not easily accessible. The project will integrate scholarship and artifacts focusing on historical black newspapers in the form of books, digital monographs, and digital open educational resources residing at the library and JHUP/MUSE. This broad integration will allow us to explore novel content containers and connections across platforms.

Much like the beginning of Project MUSE, Black Press in America is a partnership between a press and a library, with the noted addition of authors and OA content from the outset. It is our hope that this pilot project will inspire other authors, publishers, and libraries to collaborate on the MUSE Open platform, taking advantage of the elasticity to host and deeply link truly multimedia projects.

Once we facilitate this kind of open work in the humanities and social sciences, the sky is the limit for the specific contributions we can make to a “more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation.”

  1. American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2013), The Heart of the Matter. Accessed February 4, 2018.

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About the author:

Barbara Kline Pope is Director, Johns Hopkins University Press. Wendy Queen is Director, Project MUSE.