Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values

[A contribution to the Hacking the Academy book project. Tom Scheinfeldt and I are crowdsourcing the content of that book in one week.]

In my post The Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing, I noted that there is a supply side and a demand side to scholarly communication:

The supply side is the creation of scholarly works, including writing, peer review, editing, and the form of publication. The demand side is much more elusive—the mental state of the audience that leads them to “buy” what the supply side has produced. In order for the social contract to work, for engaged reading to happen and for credit to be given to the author (or editor of a scholarly collection), both sides need to be aligned properly.

I would now like to analyze and influence that critical mental state of the scholar by appealing to four emotions and values, to try both to increase the supply of open access scholarship and to prod scholars to be more receptive to scholarship that takes place outside of the traditional publishing system.

1. Impartiality

In my second year in college I had one of those late-night discussions where half-baked thoughts are exchanged and everyone tries to impress each other with how smart and hip they are. A sophomoric gabfest, literally and figuratively. The conversation inevitably turned to music. I reeled off the names of bands I thought would get me the most respect. Another, far more mature student then said something that caught everyone off guard: “Well, to be honest, I just like good music.” We all laughed—and then realized how true that statement was. And secretly, we all did like a wide variety of music, from rock to bluegrass to big band jazz.

Upon reflection, many of the best things we discover in scholarship—and life—are found in this way: by disregarding popularity and packaging and approaching creative works without prejudice. We wouldn’t think much of Moby-Dick if Carl Van Doren hadn’t looked past decades of mixed reviews to find the genius in Melville’s writing. Art historians have similarly unearthed talented artists who did their work outside of the royal academies or art schools. As the unpretentious wine writer Alexis Lichine shrewdly said in the face of fancy labels and appeals to mythical “terroir”: “There is no substitute for pulling corks.”

Writing is writing and good is good, no matter the venue of publication or what the crowd thinks. Scholars surely understand that on a deep level, yet many persist in the valuing venue and medium over the content itself. This is especially true at crucial moments, such as promotion and tenure. Surely we can reorient ourselves to our true core value—to honor creativity and quality—which will still guide us to many traditionally published works but will also allow us to consider works in some nontraditional venues such as new open access journals, blogs or articles written and posted on a personal website or institutional repository, or non-narrative digital projects.

2. Passion

Do you get up in the morning wondering what journal you’re going to publish in next or how you’re going to spend your $10 royalty check? Neither do I, nor do most scholars. We wake up with ideas swirling around inside our head about the topic we’re currently thinking about, and the act of writing is a way to satisfy our obsession and communicate our ideas to others. Being a scholar is an affliction of which scholarship is a symptom. If you’re publishing primarily for careerist reasons and don’t deeply care about your subject matter, let me recommend you find another career.

The entire commercial apparatus of the existing publishing system merely leeches on our scholarly passion and the writing that passion inevitably creates. The system is far from perfect for maximizing the spread of our ideas, not to mention the economic bind it has put our institutions in. If you were designing a system of scholarly communication today, in the age of the web, would it look like the one we have today? Disparage bloggers all you like, but they control their communication platform, the outlet for their passion, and most scholars and academic institutions don’t.

3. Shame

This spring Ithaka, the nonprofit that runs JSTOR and that has a research wing to study the transition of academia into the digital age, put out a report based on their survey of faculty in 2009. The report has two major conclusions. First, scholars are increasingly using online resources like Google Books as a starting point for their research rather than the physical library. That is, they have become comfortable in certain respects with “going digital.”

But at the same time the Ithaka report notes that they remain stubbornly wedded to their old ways when it comes to using the digital realm for the composition and communication of their research. In other words, somehow it is finally seeming acceptable to use digital media and technology for parts of our work but to resist it in others.

This divide is striking. The professoriate may be more liberal politically than the most latte-filled ZIP code in San Francisco, but we are an extraordinarily conservative bunch when it comes to scholarly communication. Look carefully at this damning chart from the Ithaka report:

Any faculty member who looks at this chart should feel ashamed. We professors care less about sharing our work—even with underprivileged nations that cannot afford access to gated resources—than with making sure we impress our colleagues. Indeed, there was actually a sharp drop in professors who cared about open access between 2003 and the present.

This would be acceptable, I suppose, if we understood ourselves to be ruthless, bottom-line driven careerists. But that’s not the caring educators we often pretend to be. Humanities scholars in particular have taken pride in the last few decades in uncovering and championing the voices of those who are less privileged and powerful, but here we are in the ivory tower, still preferring to publish in ways that separate our words from those of the unwashed online masses.

We can’t even be bothered to share our old finished articles, already published and our reputation suitably burnished, by putting them in an open institutional repository:

I honestly can’t think of any other way to read these charts than as shameful hypocrisy.

4. Narcissism

The irony of this situation is that in the long run it very well may be better for the narcissistic professor in search of reputation to publish in open access venues. When scholars do the cost-benefit analysis about where to publish, they frequently think about the reputation of the journal or press. That’s the reason many scholars consider open access venues to be inferior, because they do not (yet) have the same reputation as the traditional closed-access publications.

But in their cost-benefit calculus they often forget to factor in the hidden costs of publishing in a closed way. The largest hidden cost is the invisibility of what you publish. When you publish somewhere that is behind gates, or in paper only, you are resigning all of that hard work to invisibility in the age of the open web. You may reach a few peers in your field, but you miss out on the broader dissemination of your work, including to potential other fans.

The dirty little secret about open access publishing is that despite the fact that although you may give up a line in your CV (although not necessarily), your work can be discovered much more easily by other scholars (and the general public), can be fully indexed by search engines, and can be easily linked to from other websites and social media (rather than producing the dreaded “Sorry, this is behind a paywall”).

Let me be utterly narcissistic for a moment. As of this writing this blog has 2,300 subscribers. That’s 2,300 people who have actively decided that they would like to know when I have something new to say. Thousands more read this blog on my website every month, and some of my posts, such as “Is Google Good for History?“, garner tens of thousands of readers. That’s more readers than most academic journals.

I suppose I could have spent a couple of years finding traditional homes for longer pieces such as “Is Google Good for History?” and gotten some supposedly coveted lines on my CV. But I would have lost out on the accumulated reputation from a much larger mass of readers, including many within the academy in a variety of disciplines beyond history.

* * *

When the mathematician Grigori Perelman solved one of the greatest mathematical problems in history, the Poincaré conjecture, he didn’t submit his solution to a traditional journal. He simply posted it to an open access website and let others know about it. For him, just getting the knowledge out there was enough, and the mathematical community responded in kind by recognizing and applauding his work for what it was. Supply and demand intersected; scholarship was disseminated and credited without fuss over venue, and the results could be accessed by anyone with an internet connection.

Is it so hard to imagine this as a more simple—and virtuous—model for the future of scholarly communication?

28 thoughts on “Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values

  1. Pingback: Stephen Ramsay » Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Value (continued)

  2. Michael J. Altman

    I find all four of your points compelling but I have to say what I like the most about your argument is they way you bring the issue of power and the politics back into the equation. Open access publishing isn’t just about updating our scholarly communication or self-promotion, it’s also a deeply political statement about power, systems of knowledge, and hierarchy.

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  4. Gideon Burton

    I wholeheartedly concur and add my voice to the choir. I loved the anecdote about Perelman. When scholarly publishing becomes open in the sense of a true gift economy, we will have some breakthroughs. See my comparable post on this topic, “The Open Scholar” (http://bit.ly/openscholar).

    To quote myself from another post on being a public intellectual:
    Our values are upside in academia when the whole trajectory of establishing scholars and scholarship is aimed at hiding and restricting knowledge, when the business model that accompanies traditional scholarship attaches a monetary motive to keeping ideas out of circulation. I think it will soon become hard to call someone “published” if they agree to having their work hidden, delayed, and restricted (the primary traits of restricted-access scholarship) when this is not a necessary condition to the circulation of knowledge. (http://www.academicevolution.com/2009/04/scholar-or-public-intellectual.html)

  5. Dan North

    Very interesting, thankyou. You’ve got me thinking now – am I allowed to put my old articles up on my blog, or do I need permission from the journal? How long do I wait before it’s fair to do so?

    Having said that, if my publisher refuses to cough up royalty payments again this year, I might just put my whole book up online, chapter by chapter. It’ll even allow me to correct and update a few things.

  6. Sandy Thatcher

    First, to Dan North, don’t assume you have those rights unless your contract you signed with the publisher says you do. Fair use does not apply to your article for your subsequent use of it once you have signed a contract (though third parties may apply fair use to their own uses of it).

    Second, to Gideon Burton, it surely is exaggerating to say that traditional toll-access publishing restricts access. For one thing, publishers spend a lot on marketing and branding, which help attract readers, who in the general web environment face a mass of undifferentiated content. Such marketing and branding are even more important for books when over 500,000 books were self-published last year!

    Third, to Dan Cohen and others, OA is not an either/or proposition. Presses like ours at Penn State are experimenting with hybrid models whereby books are available online at no charge but can be bought in POD editions also (which generate revenue to make the OA possible).

    For a perspective from university presses on OA, see my recent talk at a major conference on this issue here: http://openaccess.unt.edu/symposium/program-schedule

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  8. Shyam Sharma

    This post was brain tonic for me. As an international graduate student in the US right now but who is going to return to the same old world, I think that “gated” scholarly communication–whatever it many other merits–is primarily driven by the old and shameful culture of excluding, judging, and limiting knowledge, rather than disseminating and sharing with the largest possible number of people. I read Stephen Ramsay’s response to this, and I was NOT impressed at all–because he sticks to the same perspective of the tenured/gated scholar. What about students like me? What about the interconnected world? What about people outside the academy that can subscribe to the journals? I could be the least informed person to talk about this issue, but my conscience/guts tell me that the traditional publication culture is as shameful as the caste system that is still justified in my part of the world–like justifying in the name of economic efficiency of the professions!!! I wish that anyone who fails to be critical and open-minded about gated knowledge market is only kidding.

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  13. Anonymous (Yes _that_ Anonymous)

    “This would be acceptable, I suppose, if we understood ourselves to be ruthless, bottom-line driven careerists.”

    This is because we are ruthless, bottom-line driven careerists. The modes of employment, advancement and research funding in the humanities and social sciences are based around sole authored monographs or journal articles.

    This is particularly true in Australia where the federal government funding signaling to institutions, institutional culture of research reporting, the funding model of major grants which allow for teaching relief, and the methods of promotion for individual academics are strong economic drivers.

    In such a climate the federal government definition of acceptable research publication is centered on _two_ definitions of acceptability.

    1) Commercial publication of monographs or chapters contained in monographs. That’s right, Australia’s core humanities high esteem output is _by definition_ limited to capitalist modes of output.
    2) Peer reviewed journal articles in journals intended for a scholarly audience or conference papers. (Conference papers involves a number of caveats, but these merely reinforce the commercialised nature of the research output publishing). Such journals are unsurprisingly controlled by the current set of interlocking publishing cartels.

    The immediate solution of “well why don’t we set up our own journal / Humanities and Social Sciences version of arXiv.org is not an effective one. New journals lack the esteem which is commonly used as a substitute measure for research quality in HASS fields. Substituting impact factors for esteem is just as hazardous. Let us assume we can over come through computation the differences in citation styles and density _even with_ particular disciplines. We’ve just transplanted ourselves to a vicious economisation of esteem and impact. I think we are all well aware that both of these are poor measures of “quality”.

    As both volume and “quality” of research are economised by the funding and labour structure of the HASS fields, and, as the structure is geared towards publication in traditional closed journals, and, as HASS scholarly output and audiences are limited to people with access to academic libraries due to their employment, there is no motivation to produce an alternative system.

    And the result is a conservative attitude by scholarly workers in HASS fields towards what a publication is.

    [This blog post response earned me zero publication points, and zero esteem factors. The time I used thinking about it, and the time I used to become a person who could think about it, resulted in no economic benefit to me.]

  14. Chris Prom

    Dan,

    While I do think the idea for this volume was interesting, and agree with many of the points in the post, I really do think that you need to outline your methodology and time frame for reviewing the submissions and making a decision on inclusion. At least in the case of my submission, if it is not accepted, I need to know, so I can begin to seek other outlets.

    This is not about careerism, but about service to the community, about disseminating work in the most effective way, and in planning for the future.

    To be a bit critical of the post, I would argue that the fact that materials are not deposited into repositories is not a valid measure of willingness to share. The bottom line is that there are better ways to disseminate research (e.g. blogs), and that depositing into an IR is a royal pain in the backside; which is why I choose not to do it, even though I am an archivist. Finally, what is ‘open access’ is not necessarily a black or white issue–the main journal I publish in is my society journal. The content is behind a firewall, but only for two years, after which point is freely available. The society cannot kill off its major source of revenue merely to support OA concepts, but they are doing the best they can.

    Finally, I think it is useful to keep in mind that there is a legitimate role for speaking to your colleagues in technical ways. Public service can, and is, evaluated as well as formal publication. In other words, blogs can and do count for something in the P and T process, at least at my university. the P and T criteria have been updated in the past, and will continue to be in the future, perhaps not at the pace we’d like, but still . . .

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