Opening Up 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.

  1. This is of course not to say that there is not a crying need for a better understanding of publishing’s current and potential business model. I am watching Cameron Neylon’s developing series on the political economy of OA publishing with great interest.
  2. In addition to Luminos, mentioned above, one might also see Open Book Publishers, whose co-founder Rupert Gatti has detailed in multiple installments their business model. (Full disclosure: I serve on the advisory boards for both projects.)
  3. More full disclosure: I also serve on an advisory committee for OLH.
  4. This issue of credit usually gets discussed in the U.S. in terms of the things that “count” for promotion and tenure, but recent developments in Europe and the U.K. make the question of counting all the more literal, as the continued financial support of entire departments can hinge on a quantified assessment of those departments’ productivity, and the nature of “productivity” is all too narrowly defined.

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