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Pondering the arrival of the Open Publishing Awards

co-authored by Alison McGonagle-O'Connell and Phill Jones

This year, Coko’s Founder Adam Hyde organized and launched the Open Publishing Awards with a stated mission to celebrate all things open and publishing. The initial ‘launch’ of the awards via social media and a website debut was in August, and somehow the organization managed to assemble a panel of judges, solicit nominations, plan an event and deliver on a shortlist of winners, all within a few weeks. After the awards ceremony last week at FORCE 2019, it is a good time to stop and think: were the awards successful? How can we assess the success, failure, or utility of awards programs, in general? Is there room for another?

First, we can take a look at the ‘why’ behind the awards. The Open Publishing Awards website makes it clear: they aim to celebrate and raise awareness about all things open and publishing. This year, that meant open software and open content, as those were the two categories that nominations were solicited within. Is it enough to “celebrate” and announce a “shortlist” – or are we really hungry to create single category “winners” the way that other awards programs tend to?

Next, who is ordained to decide a) what is open, and/or b) how open is ‘open’? This is a semantic and ideological discussion that occurs on an ongoing basis. My open may not be open enough for you or vice versa. The category descriptions offered some help, but was it enough? 

Coko has been visible trying to help educate publishers about open source, participating in dialogues within this forum and across industry meetings to this effect, so it is no doubt important to them that the proposition of open source software be well understood and legitimately considered by publishers who are serious about their own infrastructure.

Perhaps the 200 nominations that the award category descriptions attracted answer that question. But, how many open software projects and open content items are there in our orbit? The awards seemed to intentionally not limit themselves to one specific sector of publishing, and thus, is 200 nominations an abundance given the total number of possible projects and content that were technically eligible? Was one month enough time to reach them all?

Or, perhaps there were too many submissions. To curate a shortlist of award recipients, 10 volunteer judges and judging Chair Cameron Neylon needed to wade through all 200 of these submissions. In the end, they chose three succeeding nominations from each category to award, but then they also awarded two ‘break out’ categories including three winners for open publishing models and also a lifetime achievement award. These were not conceived of at the outset, and perhaps point to the commitment and sobriety of the judges in fulfilling their mission.

In addition to the quickly assembled and possibly overtaxed judging panel, the initiative’s website, while being fit for purpose, is far from norms observed across “Awards Programs.”  The website is a single scroll webpage which houses lots of information, but is not optimized for, for example linking back to a specific section. This seems like a missed opportunity, as projects and judges may wish to promote their own contributions and special mentions on the site. Then again, the entire offering was assembled in about a month. Perhaps future years’ Open Publishing Awards may benefit from more planning time and resource.

Speaking of resource, it is expected to have a parent organization (usually a membership or professional development organization), and a bevy of sponsors eager to associate with the good will that a well thought out and well managed awards program will generate. The Open Publishing Awards were not sponsored, aside an ‘in kind’ sponsorship swap between FORCE11 and Coko. In some ways, this could signal true objectivity. Coko did not attempt to generate revenue from the awards, and disqualified their own tools from consideration in the Awards process. It’s also notable that there was no Coko representation on the judging panel. For these reasons, Coko appears altruistic here, contributing to the planning and promotion of the awards, but not seeking any direct return.

On one hand these facts point to a fair and equitable nomination and selection process from a diverse panel of committed judges. On the other hand, it may have been helpful to have some funding for support in key areas, and it will be interesting to see whether this is solicited and from whom in future years. For example, would Coko allow Elsevier to sponsor the Open Publishing Awards? How would this impact the cultural currency including for recipients of the honor? 

To this audience, the most recognizable shortlisted names include Open Library of Humanities, which was recognized for Open Publishing Model along with Wikidata. Also interesting is the lifetime achievement award for Public Knowledge Project, creators and maintainers of Open Journal Systems.  The full list of winners is live, with project descriptions, on the Awards site.

Coko said they wanted to celebrate, and we can observe the end result of this effort, for now, appears to be a curated list of all the open ‘stuff’ that some in our space sometimes feel overwhelmed by, or at least confused about. In engaging the democratic nominations process and expert judges, sponsors or no, Coko may have removed some of the hurdles to discovery and fact finding related to Open Source for publishing, and importantly, posited projects and tools front and center to seize on their big moments, respectively.


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