Monday 4 March 2013

OA in the UK

Between the Finch Report in the UK, and more direct moves towards a comprehensive Open Access policy for government funded research in the US, it seems we are confronted by an important moment in the evolution of the ecology of scholarship within which academic history writing is produced and published.     

A recent one-day colloquium sponsored by the Institute of Historical Research and the Royal Historical Society was called precisely to bring together major institutional players (Scholarly Societies, Journals, and Publishers) for a conversation about the best ways forward (the Tweet stream is here).  The general feeling seems to be that while every well-meaning historian is keen to promote Open Access (a show of hands at the conference confirmed this), the Gold Route, whereby authors and institutions are asked to shoulder the cost of peer review and publishing, is just not workable in the humanities.   

There is also the beginnings of what many feel is an apparent solution to the problem.  Both the past and present presidents of the Royal Historical Society, and some 21 editors of major humanities journals, signed a letter proposing the imposition of an increased embargo period on the articles in their journals - essentially suggesting they be allowed to have three years in which to make money on their publications before being forced to make them available through Open Access.   They also proposed maintaining a two-track system to ensure that overseas and non-academic authors are excluded from the government led requirement for Open Access.

To me this feels like Saint Augustine's plaint: "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." (Confessions 8:17).

Let me be clear, though.  I understand completely the anxieties motivating these institutions and commentators.  A narrowly defined Gold Route process of the sort privileged by the Finch Report is not workable in the humanities.  The 'author pays' model is predicated on the direct funding of research by government, and on the assumption that the consumers of research outputs are the same as the producers.  In the case of history this is not true. 

 The vast majority of historical research and publication is not funded by project grants; and while a higher proportion is funded through the Universities, and through QR, there is still a large body of excellent work that is undertaken by independent scholars, or as part of a self-funded PhD, or by staff in institutions which do not receive QR funding or participate in the REF.  And similarly, all historians seek to reach a wider audience than most scientists, and imagine their work in the light of a successful 'trade monograph'; which itself forms a recognised academic achievement. 

In other words, I largely agree with the diagnosis that the main thrust of the Finch Report is unworkable.  Though, of course, the Report does not restrict academics to the single route to Open Access, and makes it clear that other types of OA (Green Route) are entirely consistent with the objective of making publicly funded research available to the public.  Following on from this, I also believe the RCUK policy to cover the new costs entailed through grants is also largely unworkable, and if poorly executed in pursuit of a narrow Gold Route form of publication will create issues of fair access, with institutional meddling in academic decision making and serious problems for post-graduates and early career academics. 

What is missing in all this is any positive model of Open Access publishing that takes seriously the fundamental interests and values of history as a discipline, as opposed to the interests of the collection of institutions and journals that purport to speak for it.  For myself I have a clear sense of what I would like Open Access in history (and more broadly in the academy) to look like in ten years' time; and it would have the following characteristics:

  •   It would be built on the deposit of articles and research data (including notes) in institutional repositories, linked to APIs that allow their content to be re-'published', mashed up and re-used (with acknowledgment).
  •  The route to 'publication' would include the initial deposit of research materials, followed by the posting of a 'rough draft' for comment and revision, leading to a post-publication peer review system.  The author would then be allowed to specify at what revision the 'article' is complete, with perhaps a six month norm for revisions.  See for instance the History Working Papers Project.
  •  Metrics for downloads, re-use and citations for the now online article will be used to generate a measure of scholarly importance.  These metrics can include the kind of complex systems for assessing 'authority' (i.e. whose post peer review assessments are worth most) implicit in the Altmetrics movement.
  •  'Journals' will be made up of adopted 'articles' that fit their theme and which are moulded to a particular house style in the open peer review process.  In this ecology of scholarship journals will take on a new intellectual role in shaping debate and argument, and in defining academic communities, and will have a 'promoting' role rather than a 'publishing' role.
  •  Academic monographs will be seen as a simple extension of article publication - i.e. either in the form of long articles, or perhaps as a collection of pieces created as 'articles'.
  •  Genuine 'Trade History' will continue to be sold in the generic forms of biography and narrative etc., but the underlying academic historical content will be available in institutional repositories, while the revisions and adaptions for a popular audience are dealt with separately.
  •  The co-archiving of secondary writing and notes and research materials will allow for the creation of an increasingly vertically integrated form of writing, in which source material and commentary are connected.
  •  The costs of maintaining, curating and archiving the system will be borne by the Universities, with savings from the journal and book purchasing costs.   A separate tNA or British Library repository will support and archive the work of otherwise unaffiliated scholars.

Getting to this point is not straightforward.  But the universities are fully empowered to use the RCUK funding to beef up their repositories, rather than paying journal fees.   The repositories could also take a first step towards a more rigorous ecology of scholarship by archiving and making available the underlying research data we all endlessly collect (and jealously guard as the capital of an ego driven system of professional advancement). 

At the moment most public debate and effort seems to be devoted to preserving the current business model that underpins the public/private partnership that lies at the heart of academic publishing. The journals worry that their main income stream (allowing them to provide studentships etc) will be eliminated; while the publishers worry that their privileged position between subsidised creators of content and subsidised buyers of content will be squeezed.  Both these anxieties are justified.  

 But, we need to ask ourselves whether we really want to use the roundabout and expensive route of generating income from University Library budgets via the publication of materials produced by academic staff, to take money from the providers of education - the Universities - in order to give it to the journals and scholarly societies, in order to allow them, to in turn purchase education from the Universities.  It is ridiculous.

As for the academic presses, they have spent thirty years squeezing the 'added value' from their operation.  In-house copy-editing and proof reading for the most part went ages ago.  And many presses now demand what amounts to 'camera ready' copy.  If the presses do not want to serve their traditional role in an ecology of scholarship (sifting and polishing its products), then it is not clear what their profits are based on.  At the moment, the greatest input on the part of the presses lies in advertising and licensing content, policing its re-use and in producing hard copy versions of books and articles that are largely unwanted (ask any librarian).  A thoroughgoing Open Access model eliminates the need for selling, licensing, and policing, while time will take care of the romantic attachment to wood pulp.

Current debate seems most fully motivated by a reactionary and defensive fear that a change in the nature of academic publication will unravel the systems of authority and organisational finance that used to deliver public debate.  But, if we have faith in the importance of the academy and of scholarship, then we need to continually re-invent the process.  Open Access provides a perfect opportunity to reconnect with the founding principles of the academy.