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“Don’t underestimate the impact of incremental change”

Antoine Borrut, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, History Department

Antoine Borrut
Antoine Borrut, credit Juliette Fradin Photography

As the global open access scholarship movement gains momentum, many scholarly associations grapple with the complex issue of whether and how to convert their traditional, subscription based journals to an online, open access model. In a few cases, however, the conversion to open access (OA) was achieved by scholarly associations very early in the OA movement, mostly through the hard work of key leaders who recognized the value of equitable publishing and access.

One such leader and early champion of open access is Antoine Borrut, Ph.D., an associate professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies for UMD’s Department of History. After noticing his Global South colleagues' inability to access information due to cost and permission barriers, Borrut resolved to make a difference in opening up his discipline’s knowledge for more equitable access.

Despite having few resources and scarce funding, Borrut began with the publication by his own scholarly association: Middle East Medievalists (MEM), an affiliate of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA).

When Borrut became MEM’s secretary, the long-standing MEM bulletin was no longer sustainable in its original format and was close to running its course. Borrut, along with Matthew Gordon (Miami University) as co-editor, then MEM’s president, and fellow Terp Christiane-Marie Abu Sarah as managing editor, then a UMD Ph.D. candidate in their program, undertook the task of reinventing the MEM bulletin into a full-fledged, peer-reviewed, open access journal. Dr. Abu Sarah is now Assistant Professor of History at Erskine College.

During their time as co-editors, Borrut and Gordon published 45 articles and 58 book reviews in the new journal titled Al-ʿUṣūr al-Wusṭā: The Journal of Middle East Medievalists- all available online and freely accessible. The journal now resides on Academic Commons, a new open access platform from the Columbia University Libraries. To become even more accessible, the journal may explore the option to move away from the use of PDF, which is not ideal in many countries who don’t have access to high-speed internet.

“Ultimately, wholesale rethinking of publishing models is needed, but the shift can begin with anyone committed to the ideals of the open access movement. Don’t underestimate the impact of incremental change within your sphere of influence,” says Borrut.

Addressing gender imbalance in the field was also extremely important to the team throughout this process.

“Attracting submissions from women and putting women in positions of leadership has been an essential commitment of the journal and of MEM,” says Borrut. “I’m happy to report that, as Matthew and I are stepping down as co-editors of the journal, two esteemed colleagues, Drs. Alison Vacca (UT Knoxville) and Zayde Antrim (Trinity College) are taking over!”

Borrut’s dedication to open access is apparent in all his academic pursuits. Beyond the MEM journal, Borrut with Fred M. Donner, a University of Chicago professor, co-founded and continues to edit an open access book series titled, Late Antique and Medieval Islamic Near East (LAMINE). He is also the co-coordinator of First Millenium Network, a DC-area scholarly initiative aiming to foster interdisciplinary and comparative study of the first millennium of the Common Era, particularly in Western Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic world.

Photo credit: Juliette Fradin Photography