Opening Access to Scholarship: Stevan Harrell on the Studies on Ethnic Groups in China Series

UW Press books on ethnicity and ethnic relations in China are now open access—freely available online to anyone who can get on the internet. Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers led off the UW Press series Studies on Ethnic Groups in China (SEGC) in 1995. At the time, it was among a few pioneering volumes in English covering the lives and history of China’s 120 million ethnic minority peoples. Since then we have published twenty-three more books—the newest offering is Jarmila Ptáčková’s Exile From the Grasslands (2020). Scholars now widely consider SEGC to be the most prestigious series concentrating on ethnic groups and ethnic relations in China. We’ve kept the books reasonably affordable, at least for North American and European professors, but as with most specialized academic books, those who can’t afford to buy them often can’t find them in their local library. This is particularly true for readers in China, where libraries often don’t have much of a budget for English-language books, as well as readers in countries where libraries have little budget for specialized monographs at all.

It was thus welcome news when in 2017 the University of Washington Libraries invited the press to participate in a pilot project to make some UW Press books open access, meaning that anyone anywhere with an internet connection could read them online. This joint project was funded by a grant from the Transformation Fund of the Kenneth S. and Faye G. Allen Library Endowment. I asked the series’ authors if they would be willing to participate, and nearly all of them replied enthusiastically, agreeing that any small amount of book royalties lost by people reading their books online rather than buying print copies would be more than balanced out by greater exposure to their scholarship.

There are a variety of formats for online books or digital editions (often called e-books), many of which can be used for either open access or restricted access. For example, there are a lot of books on the UW Libraries website that you can read if you have a UW NetID as a student, staff, or faculty member—reading these books online is like checking out a print copy from the library. Open access is different—anyone with internet access can read an open access book or article. This model of open access is also very different from the one certain journal publishers employ. A respected journal published by one of the big journal publishing houses recently accepted an article I had submitted, and they offered to make it open access if I would pay a modest fee of around $2,800. No thanks. Our model is not like that. It is, for now, grant-supported, meaning that authors contribute nothing other than, as my late aunt used to say, “applying of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair” for the years it takes to make a book.

To host the books, UW Libraries and the press chose Manifold, an innovative platform developed by the University of Minnesota Press, the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, and Cast Iron Coding. Reading a book on Manifold is really a manifold literary experience. You can, of course, just read. But you can also do more. If you are the author, you can add all sorts of material that is not part of the physical book: updates, really geeky footnotes, color photos, even audio recordings or videos.

Resources are available for readers as well. Create a Manifold account, and after you’ve logged in, you can add annotations or comments for your own use, and if the author agrees, you can make those public. Otherwise you can just use them yourself, rather like marking up a print book with marginalia or a yellow highlighter, only not so naughty. You can even use the handy online yellow highlighter pencil, but on your own copy so it doesn’t bother other people.

For teachers, the possibilities are even greater. Use a book as a text for your class without requiring students to buy it. Annotate passages in the book, making them visible to students only, and ask students to make annotations as class assignments or to facilitate class discussions. Students can annotate for their own private use, or for the use of the class, at theirs or the instructor’s discretion. And it’s all free. We know that some of our books, like Jenny Chio’s A Landscape of Travel, have even been used in class projects by high school students.

Manifold is not the only way to find Studies on Ethnic Groups in China in open access format. The press has also worked with Project MUSE, a platform developed at Johns Hopkins University for e-book publication, and with JSTOR, the granddaddy of all online book and article publishing platforms, to make our books openly available there too. They are available from the UW Libraries’ ResearchWorks repository, HathiTrust, and other sites as well.

We now have exciting statistics on the actual usage of the JSTOR and MUSE online editions of the Studies on Ethnic Groups in China books. They are rather spectacular: in 2020, for example, our JSTOR editions were used by readers in 123 countries. We would of course expect a lot of readers in China, given the topics, and indeed our books were accessed by thousands of readers there. And we would also expect readers from European countries, since many of our authors are European. But who would have expected readers in (just to take the Es) Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, and Ethiopia? Or, to sample the Bs, in the Bahamas, Belarus, Belize, Bhutan, Bolivia, and Botswana? Clearly, there is global interest in our books.

Comparative research on use brought even more impressive results. Comparing “hits” or views and downloads of our books on Project MUSE during the period before and after they became open access, the press found that use increased dramatically. In a selected sample of twenty UW Press books on similar topics that are not open access but available as e-books through JSTOR and MUSE, in 2020, the open access books were used about thirteen times as often as books accessible only via library passwords.

Series authors were enthusiastic about the news. Emeritus Professor Thomas Heberer from the University of Duisburg in Germany, commented on the statistics for his Doing Business in Rural China:

I am really impressed about the wide online readership on a global scale as well as almost 100 readers from Germany! This is specifically important and helpful with regard to the visibility of both the books and the authors, and signifies the excellent position of the University of Washington Press in a globalized world! Congratulations!

Professor Susan McCarthy, from Providence College, was equally pleased about the global reach of the series:

I am gratified—and to be honest, a bit stunned—to discover that since being made open access, my book Communist Multiculturalism has been downloaded or read online in sixty-three countries, from Uganda to Ukraine, the Netherlands to Nepal. I am especially pleased that so much of the interest—55% of the “hits” in Project MUSE—appears to be coming from China. . . .  In a ten-month period after open access was enabled, hits on my ebook increased more than eighteen times over, compared to the prior year and half. Enabling open access has allowed my book, published in 2009, to continue to inform debates about the politics of ethnicity, religion, and national identity in China, at a time when such issues are increasingly, globally salient.

Fifteen years ago, e-books were the wave of the future, but now they are commonplace. Five years ago, open access was a radical idea, and whether it can become the norm in the next few years will depend on funding models. But projects like the pilot with Studies on Ethnic Groups in China are an important step toward that goal of equal access regardless of country or social class. We’re proud to be pioneers in this area.  


Stevan Harrell is UW professor emeritus of anthropology and of environmental and forest sciences, and editor of the Studies on Ethnic Groups in China series.

The open-access editions of the books in the series are available on the UW Press Manifold site, among other platforms.