I have just had one of those moments in which writing about the reasons I’m having trouble writing the thing I’m trying to write just made the thing I’m trying to write become far more clear. As in previous such instances (c.f. the opening of the authorship chapter in Planned Obsolescence), the problem being explored in the piece of writing and the problem of doing the writing are pretty intimately intertwined. Someday I would love to remember that before my anxieties about why this thing is so hard to write become quite so pronounced.
Last week’s close attention to open access, its development, its present state, and its potential futures, surfaced not only the importance for both the individual scholar and the field at large of sharing work as openly as possible, with a range of broadly conceived publics, but also some continuing questions about the best means of accomplishing that sharing. As I mentioned last week, providing opportunities for work to be opened at the point of publication itself is one important model, but a model that may well have occluded our vision of other potential forms: the ease of using article-processing charges to offset any decline in subscription revenue possible as previously paywalled content becomes openly available is so apparent as to have become rapidly naturalized, allowing us to wave off the need for experimentation with less obvious — and less remunerative — models.
Among alternative models, as I noted, is author-originated sharing of work, often in pre-print forms, via the open web. Many authors already share work in this way, whether posting drafts on their blogs for comment or depositing manuscripts in their institutional repositories. And recently, many scholars have also taken to sharing their work via Academia.edu, a social network that allows scholars to build connections, get their work into circulation, and discover the work of others. I’m glad to see the interest among scholars in that kind of socially-oriented dissemination and sharing, but I’m very concerned about this particular point of distribution and what it might mean for the future of the work involved.
Here’s the crux of the matter:
When scholars use academia dot edu are they aware that they are providing their data to a for-profit venture capital backed company?
— Seth Denbo (@seth_denbo) October 19, 2015
The first thing to note is that, despite its misleading top level domain (which was registered by a subsidiary prior to the 2001 restrictions), Academia.edu is not an educationally-affiliated organization, but a dot-com, which has raised millions in multiple rounds of venture capital funding. This does not imply anything necessarily negative about the network’s model or intent, but it does make clear that there are a limited number of options for the network’s future: at some point, it will be required to turn a profit, or it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down.
And if the network is to turn a profit, that profit has a limited number of means through which it can be generated: either academics who are currently contributing their work to this space will have to pay to continue to access it, or the work that they have contributed will somehow be mined for sale, whether to advertisers or other interested parties. In fact, Academia.edu’s CEO has said that “the goal is to provide trending research data to R&D institutions that can improve the quality of their decisions by 10-20%.” Statements like this underwrite Gary Hall’s assessment of the damage that the network can do to genuine open access: “Academia.edu has a parasitical relationship to the public education system, in that these academics are labouring for it for free to help build its privately-owned for-profit platform by providing the aggregated input, data and attention value.” The network, in other words, does not have as its primary goal helping academics communicate with one another, but is rather working to monetize that communication. All of which is to say: everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong with Academia.edu, at least just up under the surface, and so perhaps we should think twice before commiting our professional lives to it.
The problem, of course, is that many of us face the same dilemma in our engagement with Academia.edu that we experience with Facebook. Just about everyone hates Facebook on some level: we hate its intrusiveness, the ways it tracks and mines and manipulates us, the degree to which it feels mandatory. But that mandatoriness works: those of us who hate Facebook and use it anyway do so because everyone we’re trying to connect with is there. And as we’ve seen with the range of alternatives to Facebook and Twitter that have launched and quickly faded, it’s hard to compete with that. So with Academia.edu: I’ve heard many careful, thoughtful academics note that they’re sharing their work there because that’s where everybody is.
And the “everybody” factor has been a key hindrance to the flourishing of other mechanisms for author-side sharing of work such as institutional repositories. Those repositories provide rigorously protected and preserved storage for digital objects, as well as high-quality metadata that can assist in the discovery of those objects, but the repositories have faced two key challenges: first, that they’ve been relatively siloed from one another, with each IR collecting and preserving its own material independently of all others, and second, that they’ve been (for the obvious reason) institutionally focused. The result of the former is that there hasn’t been any collective sense of what material is available where (though the ARL/AAU/APLU-founded project SHARE is working to solve that problem). The result of the latter is that a relatively small amount of such material has been made available, as researchers by and large tend to want to communicate with the other members of their fields, wherever they may be, rather than feeling the primary identification with their institutions that broad IR participation would seem to require. So why, many cannot help but feel, would I share my work in a place where it will be found by few of the people I hope will read it?
The disciplinary repository may provide a viable alternative — see, for instance, the long-standing success of arXiv.org — but the fact that such repositories collect material produced in disciplines rather than institutions is only one of the features key to their success, and to their successful support of the goals of open access. Other crucial features include the not-for-profit standing of those repositories, which can require thoughtful fundraising but keeps the network focused on the researchers it comprises, and those repositories’ social orientation, facilitating communication and interconnection among those researchers. That social orientation is where Academia.edu has excelled; early in its lifespan, before it developed paper-sharing capabilities, the site mapped relationships among scholars, both within and across institutions, and has built heavily upon the interconnections that it traced — but it has not primarily done so for the benefit of those scholars or their relationships.
Scholarly societies have the potential to inhabit the ideal point of overlap between a primary orientation toward serving the needs of members and a primary focus on facilitating communication amongst those members. This is in large part why we established MLA Commons, to build a not-for-profit social network governed and developed by its members with their goals in mind. And in working toward the larger goals of open access, we’ve connected this social network with CORE, a repository through which members can not only deposit and preserve their work, but also share it directly with the other members of the network. We’re also building mechanisms through which CORE can communicate with institutional repositories so that the entire higher-education-based research network can benefit.
Like all such networks, however, the Commons will take time to grow, so we can’t solve the “everybody” problem right away. But we’re working toward it, through our Mellon-supported Humanities Commons initiative, which seeks to bring other scholarly societies into the collective. The interconnections among the scholarly society-managed Commonses we envision will not only help facilitate collaboration across disciplinary lines but also allow members with overlapping affiliations to have single sign-on access to the multiple groups of scholars with whom they work. We are working toward a federated network in which a scholar can maintain and share their work from one profile, on a scholar-governed network, whose direction and purpose serve their own.
So, finally, a call to MLA members: when you develop your member profile and share your work via the Commons, you not only get your work into circulation within your community of practice, and not only raise the profile of your work within that community, but you also help support us as we work to solve the “everybody” problem of the dot-com that threatens to erode the possibilities for genuine open access.
It’s Open Access Week, and as befits the occasion, I’m starting it this morning by thinking about what we’ve accomplished, what obstacles we’ve found — or even, if I might dare to whisper, created — and what remains to be done in order create full commitment among scholars and researchers to getting their work into circulation in the most free, open, and equitable ways possible.
The last several months have been quite interesting in humanities OA land: we’ve seen the launch of exciting initiatives such as the Open Library of the Humanities and Luminos, plus the first round of competition for a joint Mellon-NEH Humanities Open Book Program (not to mention a wide range of other Mellon-funded OA projects). At the same time, there seems also to have been an uptick in approaches to humanities scholars by somewhat shady-looking publications claiming an interest in publishing their work (for a fee) or asking to add them to a (somewhat random) editorial board. For many scholars, sadly, the latter cast a long shadow, making it that much harder to persuade them of the value to their work that OA might provide.
I have been wondering of late about the extent to which the problem is the degree to which our thinking about the goals of OA has gotten derailed by our focus on the business model of OA — and even worse, by a more-or-less exclusive focus on one particular business model that can simply be taken up without the need to reconsider the purposes or values of scholarly communication. Shifting costs from the reader side to the author side creates hardly a ripple in the system, as witness the speed and fluidity and commitment with which the most problematic corporate journal publishers have absorbed this shift into their regular practices.1
Having said this, however, I must admit that I feel a bit implicated in that derailment-by-business-model, as my early interventions into thinking about OA in the humanities very much focused on gold OA, on making publications freely and openly available at the source. And I do still think that there are ways of implementing gold OA publishing models — perhaps especially around monographs — that might be more equitable and should be further explored.2 But I worry that this singular focus on making publications freely available might have prematurely foreclosed a set of larger discussions about the broader circulation of scholarship in general.
In some of the early open access meetings I attended, in fact, I found myself arguing with a few other participants who insisted that we were headed in the wrong direction, and that we needed to be thinking about green OA, on the author side of making things freely available — primarily through repository deposit — rather than on the publisher side. But the longer I think about it, the more I have come to believe that what I had in mind in the creation of free-and-open publications bears more in common with repositories than it does with the dominant mode through which OA has been taken up by corporate publishers. My all-too-nascent idea, after all, was based on my experiences with MediaCommons, which led me to hope that groups of scholars could take control of the systems through which they publish by creating collective, cooperative, scholar-organized and -governed publications on open networks.
And some of that has happened. The Open Library of the Humanities, notably, was founded by two humanities scholars who are working closely with the scholars who operate the journals under its umbrella.3 And, of course, MLA Commons is a platform developed by a scholar-governed society on which members are encouraged to develop and share new projects with the field in a wide variety of ways.
But there’s been comparatively slow uptake on this end of the open access spectrum, and it’s worth considering why. On the one hand, there is the fact that publishing requires work, and comparatively few scholars have the time or inclination required to move some of their “own” work aside in favor of working on publishing’s machinery, whether by building their own publications or supporting others through the publishing process. That sort of work isn’t, by and large, what we trained for, and perhaps more importantly, it isn’t the kind of thing for which we get credit.4
Even more, there is the question of prestige: scholars continue to publish in venues that have established imprimaturs, and in venues that they have no editorial hand in, because those two factors continue to be privileged by the various review mechanisms up the chain. Scholars need to persuade internal and external review committees that their work has been selected through an impartial, rigorous review process, and all the better if the name of the organization that runs that review process resonates. But of course publishing collectives are capable of being just as (if not more) rigorous, and scholarly associations like my own can provide not just an imprimatur for those collectives but also access to the many other members in the field that the collectives would likely want to reach.
So the question that remains for me is what will be required in order to motivate scholars to take the lead in forming such collectives. Much of the OA movement has focused on a hearts-and-minds campaign of sorts, working to convince individual scholars that open access to their work is not just good for the work but also key to intellectual forms of social justice. But I think, in the coming years, we need to pay as much attention to shifting the requirements of those review mechanisms up the chain, whether institution- or funder-based, in order to persuade them that impact and prestige might not necessarily correlate, that rigor need not necessarily require distance, and that all publications — from the individual scholarly blog to the most carefully edited monograph — demand to be evaluated on their own terms, with an understanding of the possibilities each presents for the increase in knowledge we all seek.
The National Endowment for the Humanities is celebrating its 50th anniversary today. I’m joining many scholars, writers, filmmakers, educators, and countless others online today in thinking about the ways that the NEH has supported the work that I do, and my ability to do it.
I’ve been the grateful recipient of two Digital Humanities Startup Grants from the NEH, one of which enabled the colleagues I was working with to build MediaCommons, and the other of which supported a collaboration between the Modern Language Association and Columbia University Library’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship in building CORE. What’s crucial about these projects, in my view, is that each focused not on the production and publication of a specific research project (though there is enormous value in and need for support of such work), but rather on developing the means of supporting many other scholars in doing the work that they want to do. I hope, in that way, that these two projects help further the endowment’s goals in, as President Obama phrases it, working to “shape a future of opportunity and creativity for all.”
What is also important to note, of course, is that both projects that I had the honor of being involved with were primarily social in their orientation — MediaCommons sought to create a community among scholars in media studies, and CORE now explores the possibilities that are created when an open-access repository is connected with a networked scholarly community. This community orientation is not at all incidental to the projects, or to the endowment: the NEH has sought from the outset to connect the humanities with the American public. I am honored to have had the opportunity to play a small role in that enormously important project.
Oh, this this this:
I’m increasingly feeling that the old debates (what’s a reasonable cost, green vs gold, hybrid vs pure) are sterile and misleading. That we are missing fundamental economic and political issues in funding and managing a global scholarly communications ecosystem by looking at the wrong things. And that there are deep and damaging misunderstandings about what has happened, is happening, and what could happen in the future.
–Cameron Neylon, “The Political Economics of Open Access Publishing: A Series”
Seriously, I’m trying to make sure I’m reading this right. Is John Boehner being forced out of Congress for not shutting the government down enough? Because I would have thought — and bear with me here — that keeping the governing actually happening is one of the things one might like in one’s elected representatives.
I am stunned to find myself actually feeling kinda bad for the guy.
Today has been a day filled with making progress on a slew of different writing projects, adding a paragraph to this one, reviewing some comments on that one, thinking about some ancillary materials to go with another. It’s also been filled with email, and report outlining, and note-taking.
In fact, it’s been the kind of day that often makes me think “shoot, I didn’t get any writing done at all today,” when honestly, if I had a Fitbit for my keyboard, keeping track of the number of words I produced, I’d probably be nearing my daily goal.
Which is to say that, given the realities of job and life and priorities and such, my goals could use a bit of recalibration. Little steps here and there represent progress, if perhaps not on the path that has been most clearly marked out in my head. Honoring that progress as progress is probably important for my general sense that things are still moving, however it may appear.
The same holds for this space. As you may have noticed, I’ve gotten a bit active here again of late, but not in the big think-piece way I used to be. I have neither energy nor inclination for that kind of work. What’s happening here is small, bits and pieces of thoughts, things I’m reading and seeing, stuff I want to remember. But so far, at least, it’s having the effect of re-engaging me, making me look at the world like a person who wants to share parts of it, and sometimes even has things to say about it. And that’s perhaps the best of what this space, and my writing, have ever done.
Please, please, please, somebody tell me that iTunes 12.3 undoes the certainty with which 12.2 decided that about half of my e-books were #actually audiobooks, no matter how many times I told it otherwise, thereby completely borking my device-syncing process?