Today marked the web launch of Anvil Academic, which promises to reinvent the role of the publisher by raising the visibility of peer-reviewed digital humanities scholarship in open-access formats. Co-sponsored by two influential academic organizations (CLIR and NITLE), this innovative venture now includes several leading research universities and liberal arts colleges among its partners and funders. During a Twitter discussion (hashtag #anvil) hosted by Adeline Koh, Anvil staff Fred Moody, Lisa Spiro, and Korey Jackson responded to a slew of questions about this bold publishing experiment.

Over the past several months I’ve had the opportunity to speak informally with Anvil staff and listen as their plans have developed. Overall, they’ve been refreshingly candid about the particular challenges faced by their start-up as well as the broader obstacles that confront traditional academic publishers. I deeply appreciate their desire to carve out new pathways and to conduct many of these discussions in public, inviting input from individual authors (like you and me), who also have a stake in the outcome of this game. Furthermore, I’m already persuaded that open-access scholarship is in our best interests as scholars, based on the arguments and experiences that co-editor Kristen Nawrotzki and I discussed in our born-digital volume, Writing History in the Digital Age, under contract with the University of Michigan Press. Yet after reading today’s Anvil website and reviewing the tweets, several details about their plans for moving forward are still unclear to me (and perhaps others), so I’ve done my best to articulate them below in the spirit of constructive feedback. Feel free to answer these questions, correct my misunderstandings, or raise entirely new queries in the comments below.

1) Does Anvil envision a more centralized digital publishing model (where all works will be hosted on its platform), or a more decentralized model (where authors host individual works on their own platforms)? Anvil editor Fred Moody answered this question during today’s Twitter chat:

Given limited resources, Anvil (wisely, I think) made a strategic decision NOT to create the “one best digital platform,” and instead expects authors to find or design the most appropriate platforms for their digital projects, which will vary across disciplines and genres. This leads us to the next question. . .

2) Do prospective authors fully understand the broader implications of the answer above? If Anvil envisions a decentralized publishing model, then the author is responsible for hosting and maintaining the digital content. If software updates are required to keep it working with newer browsers, that’s the author’s problem. Spam or inappropriate comments on your site? Again, that’s the author’s job. Want to make an archival version for readers in future decades? That’s up to you. Some academics may be lucky enough to work with highly-skilled, wonderful IT staff who generously support your digital projects and patiently teach you how to do many of these tasks yourself. (Yes, Carlos and Dave, I’m talking about you.) But I’ll always remember the oath that we learned at new faculty orientation: “Don’t assume that someone else has taken care of it.”

3) So what is Anvil’s responsibility regarding the author’s digital project? Based on what I’ve read so far, if Anvil determines a project to be sufficiently interesting, its primary responsibility is to manage the peer review process and render a decision of approval (or rejection) by its editorial board. Call it whatever you want: an imprimatur (sounds scholarly) or a seal of approval (sounds like Good Housekeeping, but it’s the same thing.) Managing the peer-review and approval process is an incredibly important job, one that individual scholars cannot do alone, both for logistical and ethical reasons. It also involves some real costs, as external reviewers for book-length publications are accustomed to receive a modest stipend ($150 to $200 seems to be the current rate) in exchange for their time in reviewing a manuscript. Fred Moody tweeted that he “expects to do [the same].” Maybe Anvil has a larger role in mind for itself. But as far as I’m concerned, even if that’s all this innovative publisher plans to do, that’s perfectly fine for open-access advocates like me.

4) Will Anvil publications undergo traditional blind-peer review, open peer review, or a hybrid of these models — and who decides? During the Twitter chat, Lisa Spiro responded that they will be experimenting with various models:

Personally, I’m a fan of open peer review that blends publisher-designated experts and general readers. But whether Anvil or the author makes the final decision on which peer-review format is most appropriate for each publication is still unclear. What makes this particularly interesting is Anvil’s decentralized hosting model, which means that authors may be responsible for “hosting” an online peer review that is “managed” by the publisher. Kristen Nawrotzki and I did this for Writing History in the Digital Age, which worked for us, but certainly is not the norm for most scholars.

5) If the digital projects are freely distributed, what is the fiscal sustainability plan for Anvil staff and external reviewers? Not clear yet, but Anvil has taken a principled stance against trying to recoup operating costs through book sales, which increasingly appears to be a losing business model for traditional humanities presses. Three cheers for Anvil. Exactly how this works remains to be seen (and will be the topic of many reports to come).

6) Who is responsible for copyediting the final publication? Or marketing it? Or entering it in library catalogs? These answers are not clear. Out of all three, the one that concerns me most is copyediting, which sounds mundane, but my experience tells me otherwise. On a recent digital project with a different publisher, all of the content resided on a WordPress website, but their copyediting workflow required us to download all of it into Microsoft Word format (taking a decade’s worth of technological steps backwards), then re-load all corrections back up to WordPress. (Oh, and did I forget to mention that we had to keep all of those footnotes intact?) As a brand-new digital publisher, Anvil’s lack of legacy editorial workflows may be the best thing in its favor.

7) If Anvil works are open-access, who owns the copyright? My understanding is that Anvil will permit authors to retain copyright, but probably will require them to agree to share it under an open-access license. The most common form of licensing is Creative Commons, which offers different variations on commercial/non-commercial and share-alike/no-derivative distribution.

8) What type of open-access licensing will be chosen — and by whom? So far, it’s unclear whether Anvil will invoke one type of license for all, or leave it to individual authors to decide. If I were in the publisher’s shoes, I’d push for a one-size-fits-all solution. But if Anvil chooses a less restrictive Creative Commons license, some authors may balk against having their digital content redistributed commercially, or allowing others to make unauthorized derivatives. We certainly live in interesting times.

9) Anvil will offer open-access digital-only content, with no print editions. But if the author retains the copyright, does anything prevent her from creating her own print version? If Anvil and the author agree on a Creative Commons license, these are non-exclusive agreements, which means that the copyright holder may enter into another agreement, yet cannot revoke the original one. I’m not a lawyer, but if an Anvil-published author wishes to create a print edition to satisfy the whims of her troglodyte tenure committee, I don’t see anything stopping her from signing up with a print-on-demand service to produce a copy. She could even sell printed copies of her publication through Amazon author services or other vendors. But Anvil may restrict the use of its brand name.

10) If Anvil receives a submission from an author and wishes to enter into a publishing agreement, what exactly would the contract say? To help authors step confidently into the brave new world of open-access digital publishing, I recommend that Anvil draw up a sample contract and post it on their site. (See the open-access publication contract that Kristen Nawrotzki and I signed with the University of Michigan Press.) An ideal contract would clarify: What are Anvil’s responsibilities? What are the author’s responsibilities? The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from working on digital publishing projects with various partners is to clarify these roles ahead of time, before anyone makes erroneous assumptions. From what I’ve seen, too many academics overlook these inter-personal work relationships and presume that “someone else is taking care of it.” Perhaps it’s not just publishing that needs to be reformed. Anvil could do a lot of good by helping us all — especially scholarly authors — think more carefully about the work involved as we step toward the future of open-access digital publishing.