So you spend three or four years chained to your computer. You read so many books and articles that your dreams start to conform to the MHRA style guide. You have moments of pure excited joy and (usually longer) moments of unadulterated despair. And at the end of it all, you produce your thesis, your article, or your book.
And no one reads it. No one can, outside a very small group of fellow-academics whose institutional affiliations mean that they can access your work. Even institutions are not operating on a level playing field; say half of your colleagues are from small institutions whose libraries just don’t have a big budget, or they specialise in a subject area very different to yours. A huge proportion of your intended audience is already locked out from being able to discover your work. The problem is even more acute if you’re publicly-funded. Almost everyone you walk past in the street is contributing something to your research – but they can’t read it, unless they’re willing to pay extortionate amounts of money to access it. And, remember, they’ve already paid for it; their taxes are the reason you could carry out your research to begin with.
The open access debate is not a new one; it’s been brewing for nearly two decades. But, to talk specifically to the
context, at a time when we’re being increasingly asked to demonstrate the worth
of our research to a wider audience which reaches outside the academic bubble,
the conversation about open access is heating up. This week’s JISC conference, ‘Open
Access Monographs in the Humanities and Social Sciences’, amply
demonstrated why this is not an issue we can ignore, and why it’s a
conversation that should and must be engaged with across all subject
disciplines and about all academic publishing.
The conference, held at the British Library on July 1st-2nd, provided a rare opportunity for academics, librarians, publishers and policy-makers to come together, providing a space for dialogues which seem long overdue. If open access is, as several speakers suggested, based on collaboration, this conference set the right tone; the very active Twitter feed indicates the kinds of conversations being had, and the need for these dialogues to continue as the open access movement progresses.
It’s nearly exactly one year since the Finch report suggested how open access publishing might work in the UK. (See this blog post from Helen Rogers for an idea of some of the issues this report raised.) It identified two routes by which open access publishing would work: gold, where the author or institution pays the publisher for open access rights, and green, where the work is subject to an embargo for a set time before it is made open access. Open access policies so far have only applied to journal articles, but the conversation now is beginning to consider the future of monograph publishing. Although HEFCE confirmed at this conference that there is unlikely to be a formal requirement for the next (c.2020) REF, they are in the beginning stages of a consultation to consider how open access monograph publishing might be brought into effect.
At the heart of this conference was a dilemma: how appropriate are monographs for publishing research anyway? Jean Claude Guédon asked this question in his opening keynote, suggesting that we now need to find ways to go beyond the monograph. He argued that we need to recognise that all of our research is collaborative; even the monograph is not the work of one lone researcher, but is instead one document entering into a society of texts. The concept of the author-centric text is, he suggested, flawed; it implies ownership over an idea that was, in fact, not developed in a solitary mind, but in conversation with others – whether that be with other academics, or with your partner, your friend, your mum, all of whom will contribute something to your thinking. And anyway, he continued, the single-author thesis does not train us sufficiently for the jobs we’re likely to get after it, when we will be working collaboratively with other people. Why not collaborate on your thesis, then?
Guédon was openly indebted to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s study Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy (2011), and indeed she reiterated many of Guédon’s points in her own keynote later that day. Fitzpatrick went further to suggest that the academy is organised by a vertical hierarchy, whereby established scholars self-propagate their own ideas. In other words, if all our new work is being assessed by the same outdated ideas, it will never get very far. Fitzpatrick argued for a move towards a ‘horizontal’ order, whereby we are all assessed on our trustworthiness and skill rather than out credentials. She stimulated the discussion on the peer review process by comparing the two peer review methods undergone by Planned Obsolescence: ‘traditional’ review, and open access, some examples of which you can see here. She was not arguing for a complete switch to open access peer reviews, but she did demonstrate how the two approaches might work together to produce a better final product. She also indicated how this approach might be used for teaching at all levels; students from across disciplines and institutions can comment side-by-side on the same text, diversifying their conversations and engaging them with a much wider social and critical field.
These keynotes highlighted the broader issues at play in humanities and social sciences publishing in the international market, and the sessions between them illustrated the specific ways in which open access publishing might be approached. As chair Martin Hall noted as he introduced the first panel, ‘to Finch’ might not yet be a recognised verb, but it’s role as a noun has certainly expanded since last year’s report. Panel 1, ‘HSS after Finch’, provided an opportunity for a diverse range of companies and policy makers to articulate their responses to open access publishing of monographs. Rupert Gatti, the Director of Open Book Publishers, received a lot of Twitter praise for his enthusiasm over the course of the conference, and he asked the event’s key question: how can we prove our relevance if our main outputs are not being read by the majority? It was a question with which HEFCE are demonstrably struggling; they confirmed that there would be no mandate for open access publishing in the next few years, despite the growing support for it at government level in the EU, as Carl-Christian Buhr, member of cabinet of the Vice President of the European Commission, explained. As Caroline Edwards suggested in the afternoon session, we risk falling into a ‘prestige trap’, whereby young scholars can’t publish open access because it isn’t as well-recognised – but it never will be if there are no mandates for it. These dialogues seemed to indicate that policy makers and academics are stuck, to a degree, in a loop, whereby academics won’t publish open access until there’s equal prestige attached to it, and policy-makers won’t mandate it until academics are seen to be doing it.
The majority of day 2 saw delegates split into three different strands: one for researchers, one for librarians and one for policy-makers. The researcher strand explored practical ways researchers might explore the possibility of publishing their monograph open access. Ed Pentz, the Executive Director at CrossRef, introduced us to ORCID, an online researcher identity; Ernesto Priego guided us through Creative Commons and CC-BY licenses; Janneke Adema suggested how to find a reputable open access publisher; Ellen Collins explored issues surrounding funding, mandates and embargoes; Will Brooker made the case for actively promoting your work; and Lucy Montgomery provided an introduction to altmetrics. The main message from this strand is easily summarised: you have the power to control your research destiny. Get on ORCID – provide your own information so that people looking for you know who you are and what you’ve published. Get keyed up about Creative Commons so that you know how, and where, to publish open access. If you don’t ask for funding, you won’t get it (publishing OA with Palgrave currently costs £11,000), and you should discuss your own embargo lengths too. Don’t leave it all to the publisher or institution to promote yourself, and get online to track the impact of your work. Open access may put more emphasis on collaboration, but it also highlights the need for self-determination. Your work isn’t finished just because it’s published.
The practical difficulties of open access – where do you get the money, how do you make sure it’s sustainable – may seem unconnected to your concerns. In a traditional publishing landscape, you’d probably be right. But this isn’t a problem that’s going to be fixed by the older generation of academics: this is a problem that we will need to solve. It’ll be our generation implementing this solution, building on the work done by the likes of OAPEN or Knowledge Unlatched. And it’ll be us having the conversations with HEFCE towards making sure that our research can be read by the majority, and can be read for a long time to come. This isn’t a conversation to eavesdrop on; this is one to enter into.
We’re doing our PhDs at a small university. There are a ton of advantages – and there are a ton of ways to eliminate at least some of the disadvantages. Our library cannot buy all of the research platforms that we each need to perform on a world-class platform. The debate at this conference was, in some ways, getting ahead of itself: it asked how we can make our research available to the public when it’s not yet equally available to academics. We’re running before we’ve fully worked out how to walk. But this is the kind of debate that somewhere like Keele needs to make its voice heard, because it’s somewhere like Keele that is going to get the most out of open access publishing. If we don’t have the resources to buy our way onto a world-class research stage, then we need to go by a different route. Open access will bring our work more into the wider public community, yes – but it will also help us to engage with the world-class research community that we deserve to be a part of.
Here’s just a few of the resources mentioned at the conference. For a more in depth idea of the content and context of the event, check out the Twitter feed at #oabooks or the Storify of that feed for easier reading.