Open Access – Access to What?

The Open Access debate has been rumbling on for some time now, but it sparked up again last week when the American Historical Association published a statement about making Ph.D. theses available online. This prompted a wide range of responses (search for #AHAgate, and you should find plenty; particularly useful are summaries by the University of Michigan Library and History @ Work, and a collected volume of responses by Open History). The AHA also elaborated their position with a Q&A and a post by former AHA president William Cronon, and by Monday morning it had been noticed by the New York Times.

I was surprised by the vehemence of the negative responses, some of which seemed to be attacking a position I didn’t see the AHA taking, though perhaps the statement could have been framed in a better way. They were not (I think) condemning OA. They were not (I think) saying that Ph.D. students should keep their theses locked away in university libraries. They were (I think) arguing that universities should not force students to publish theses online and, if universities do, to allow students a six-year embargo. This would give them time to turn their thesis, rarely written for publication to a wide audience, into an acceptable academic book, which is pretty essential if you want a full time job in a university.

Much of the debate revolved around whether putting your thesis online really would harm your prospects of getting it published as a book. Harvard University Press suggested, for example, that they approve of online theses as a way to make new scholars visible to publishers. However, they also acknowledged that smaller publishers might face difficulties with this system if university libraries are disinclined to buy books when the thesis is already available for free. To those who suggested that the AHA should rearrange its priorities and focus their energies on changing the tenure situation as the root of the problem, well, I agree, but sadly I am not sure that the opinions and habits, perhaps even the ‘instincts’, of an entire generation of academics can be changed in one fell swoop, much as we might like that, and it seems unfair to put all the pressure on early career academics in the meantime.

I think it is more fundamental to ask what exactly you think a thesis is for. In the Ph.D. course guide at Cambridge, where I recently completed mine, it is described as

the preparation and presentation of a substantial piece of original research…[which] must represent a significant contribution to learning through the discovery of new knowledge, the connection of previously unrelated facts, the development of a new theory or the revision of older views.

Yes, this ‘significant contribution to learning’ should be shared, otherwise it’s not really contributing to learning, and it is great that theses are being made available in the UK through the British Library’s EThOS service, though I am not sure this has increased the circulation of theses much beyond academics. Yet just as important, to me, is the role of the Ph.D. (in a suitably historical metaphor) as an ‘apprenticeship’, with the thesis as the ‘masterwork’ in the old sense, proving that you have attained the level of skill necessary to enter the guild of scholars. You write your thesis for the experts who will test these skills. You do hope your thesis will be readable by a wider audience, and some may well be suitable to go online, but to me this is not the point. I wrote my thesis for my examiners more than anyone else, and it is not online, mostly because I have not had the time to deal with the hassle of copyright permissions for illustrations. If anybody wants a copy, I am happy to send the PDF by email.

I also think there are other, better ways to present Ph.D. research in forms more engaging for a wider audience. Publishing a book from the thesis is only one of these. Blogs are another, as are our PhDcasts (we finished filming Season 2 yesterday, to be launched in the autumn). I believe it should remain the choice of the student, obviously with the advice of their supervisor or other mentors, which is most appropriate. Much doctoral research is publicly-funded, but the labour, and the career, are the student’s, and that ought to count for something. I also worry that if you make something obligatory – whether it is publishing the thesis online, blogging, podcasting, or whatever – you risk damaging it (see this post by Sharon Howard for a discussion of similar concerns). It is important to provide opportunities but the enthusiasm has to come from the ground up, from the students. You get more enthusiasm from volunteers than from conscripts.

While I am, metaphorically speaking, here, I may as well turn to some of the other aspects of OA, which I think are related. The debate, in the UK at least, no longer seems to be about whether OA is coming – it is – but how, and how fast. Fortunately, Research Councils UK appear to be responding to consultations. While their policy states that researchers ‘are expected to publish any peer-reviewed research papers which acknowledge Research Council funding in journals that are compliant with the RCUK policy on Open Access’, they also recognise that ‘the journey to full Open Access is a process and not a single event and therefore it expects compliance to grow over a transition period’, with reviews from 2014 onwards. Likewise, the policy of the Higher Education Funding Council for England requires transition to OA but is still in consultation.

In April, RCUK accepted that ‘Gold’ OA (where authors, or their institutions, pay journals the cost of publishing in return for articles becoming immediately freely available on publication) might not be appropriate, or available in all circumstances, and allowed ‘Green’ OA (where authors publish a pre- or post-publication version, though not normally the publisher’s PDF, of their article in a subject or institutional repository). This still leaves many questions. One is that there are no universally-recognised humanities repositories yet, though many universities have one. Should early career academics, who often move between institutions, leave a trail of articles behind them, or migrate their work with them; and what if you publish something while between institutions? It probably won’t matter too much if you provide links on university profiles or academia.edu, but it could cause headaches.

Much more seriously, there is still disagreement about how long journals should be allowed to embargo articles, so as to still receive subscriptions. RCUK mandate an upper limit of 12 months for humanities, 24 months during the ‘transition period’. A letter by 20 learned societies, on the other hand, recommended 36 months as the viable minimum to sustain journals (there are also useful documents by the Royal Historical Society and the British Academy).

Here there is something of an impasse, and it seems that once again early career academics are caught in the crossfire. I can’t speak for other disciplines, but in history many of the most prestigious journals have opted for a 36-month embargo. It is generally advised that you need an article in a journal at this level if you are even to be considered for an early career fellowship (which you need to write that book to get a permanent job…). So we must decide whether to try to compete at the highest level and thereby hopefully impress interview boards, or comply with RCUK policy. It is not entirely clear what will happen if your doctorate was RCUK-funded and you don’t comply, but the RHS advise that historians continue to publish in the journals most fitting for their research, and record these decisions so that they can be submitted to RCUK’s future reviews.

A third form, ‘Diamond’ OA, has been suggested by Tim Hitchcock and Jason Kelly. In this article they point out that academics already do the editing and peer-reviewing of journal articles for free, and that commercial publishing models no longer fit the academic priorities of swift and widespread dissemination, now that the internet has opened other possibilities. In fact, ‘Diamond’ OA goes further than just cutting out the publishers. In this model, academics place their draft papers in the Open Scholarship Project, directed by Hitchcock and Kelly. These can be commented on by other members of the project: open peer review. The comments are also logged and become, in effect, marginalia, attributed to the commenters. In response to this feedback, the author uploads successive versions until finally fixing one as the ‘authoritative’ version. Instead of submitting this to journals, they then invite learned societies to ‘badge’ it, conferring the same status as if it had been published in their journal.

This looks to me like an ambitious and potentially exciting option, but I remain unconvinced for a few reasons. One is that many people, and I suspect that bibliophilic historians are amongst them, do not trust the internet as much as they do paper. The ‘Diamond’ suggestions for versioning and scholars becoming increasingly accustomed to ‘the cloud’ may change this, but it leads back to the question of changing attitudes, and I wonder how fast this can happen. From the perspective of a young academic, if you want to remain an academic, you have to establish yourself, which generally means articles in widely-recognised journals and books by well-respected publishers. Unlike academics with permanent jobs, we do not have the luxury to take the ‘opportunity’ described by Hitchcock and Kelly, to experiment with forms of publishing that many of our potential employers do not yet regard as highly as more traditional ones.

Such reasoning probably sounds extremely careerist. Perhaps it is. I do want an academic career, but not just because I never wanted to leave uni (though I often make that joke). I love research. I love teaching. I love doing both at university level, and combining the two. I love all the other things academics do: conferences, seminars, discussions, outreach, everything. I love them and I think they are important. I don’t love them all the time, there are downsides, but they are worth it. I am committed to these activities, and I think that, if I am allowed to continue, I could get quite good at them. I play the game not for the game’s sake, but for what playing it might allow me to do, and not playing it will certainly prevent me from doing.

This has already become a long post, but there is just one final part of OA that I want to touch on. At least, I think it should be part, but no one seems to talk about it in the same breath. It is, admittedly, more specific to history than other disciplines: online collections of sources. Some of these are freely available, most famously Old Bailey Online and London Lives, or the aggregator site Connected Histories. Many, however, are not. They are created by commercial companies, who charge subscriptions for access. To suggest, as I did in the first post on this blog, that the situation in Britain is more commercial than elsewhere is apparently erroneous. There has been talk of privatising Gallica, the free online collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France; there is a petition against it, started back in January but still open to sign. More recently, Brill launched their new collection, Dutch Pamphlets Online, which will cost €60,070 for a permanent subscription.

So why is it fine for commercial companies to charge hefty subscriptions for publicly-owned collections, but not for journals to charge for articles from academics’ publicly-funded labours? The two are not entirely analagous; archives can often not afford to digitise their entire collections themselves, and presumably allowing third parties to do so provides archives with some revenue, although I confess I am ignorant of the contract details. You can consult the collections (mostly) for free if you visit the archives – but then you can consult theses and academic journals for free at the British Library and similar institutions, so perhaps they are not so different. University libraries certainly spend vast amounts of money on both kinds of subscription. What concerns me most is that primary sources, which are both our subject matter and our heritage, appear overlooked in the OA debate.

Open Access is coming, and this is a good thing. At the moment, though, the situation is muddled and for early career academics – described by William Cronen as ‘our most vulnerable colleagues’ – can feel quite threatening. On that note I applaud the AHA for standing up for the autonomy of young scholars, which I did not read as an attack on OA. I also look forwards to changes which I hope will make both scholarship and primary sources freely available to everyone; but only if they are carried out in a considered way, which does not jeopardize the cherished individuality of scholars, inhibit the activities of learned societies, or place further, and contradictory, pressures on the already precariously-placed next generation of academics.

5 thoughts on “Open Access – Access to What?

  1. Pingback: The Academic Life I Never Imagined | Teacher Sherrie

  2. This is a great overview, Richard, and I’m sorry I read it too late to include a link in my History from Below post. I’ve since added a comment there mentioning it.

    I agree that the AHA debate became far too polarised with digital evangelists leaping to judgement about the AHA and its statement far too quickly. I think they genuinely have good intentions and their policy suggestion is reasonable in the short-term.

    However, I guess I’m still sceptical that the AHA is on the right side of history (pun intended) on this issue. I’d be very surprised if, in ten or twenty years, it will seem remotely reasonable that a piece of research produced at a public institution should be ‘embargoed’ from the public. Perhaps some junior scholars will get hurt or perhaps academic presses will change their expectations or perhaps the ‘dissertation-cum-monograph’ will simply cease to exist, but I suspect the overall change will be a net benefit for the vast majority of researchers and readers. The AHA should be trying to make the transition as painless as possible, not advocating for loopholes and grandfather clauses.

    • Thanks Brodie! I broadly agree with you, except I think that may be exactly what the AHA thinks it is doing – making things less painful for young researchers caught between the rock of OA advocates’ (often seemingly uncompromising) demands, and the hard place of academia. I also – for reasons explained above – just don’t think of dissertations as ‘public’ documents unless their author chooses to make them public. Would you expect publicly-funded MA students (increasingly rare creatures, I know) to publish their dissertation online? I would support moves to put researchers’ data – as we’ve discussed before, all those photographs of manuscripts we all take nowadays – online.

  3. Pingback: Describing Open Access (OA) to a friend or colleague for the first time. | odonlife

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