Thursday, 25 July 2013

Open Access, History by Committee and other failed utopias

It’s not entirely a beginning; in fact, it might be the end.

 I’m talking about open access publishing. There’s been a fair bit of discussion of this on Canadian history blogs over the last week, mostly over the success of Ian Mosby’s article on nutritional research on aboriginal peoples that made such news but was (temporarily and soon again to be) locked behind a paywall and so inaccessible to many.

Is this a problem? Should we have to pay to read articles? Or should they just be free? Isn’t this research paid for by the taxpayers anyway? These are the kinds of questions, discussed in a much more sophisticated way of course, that have animated discussion on various blogs including those by Christopher Moore and Andrew Smith.

For many younger scholars, though not only them, open access seems like a great idea. It’s democratic. It’s of the times. What’s not to like? Now the Times Higher Education supplement informs us of a growing movement amongst publishers to move towards open access publishing for monographs (for the non-academics who read the blog, monograph is academese for book, usually a boring book). This plan would have scholars (or their institutions, funders, etc) pay lump sums to get their books published and be freely and openly accessible.

Hooray for democracy and open access to researchers! Or maybe not.

This move only furthers trends already firmly entrenched within the academic community to leave publishing decisions firmly in the hands of academics. That is, under these models it will even more be the case that it will be academics and academic bureaucrats making decisions about what matters in a book/article, about how these should be framed, what questions should be asked, how they should be written. This isn’t new. Today in academic journal publishing, the process is almost entirely done by academics, with articles being peer reviewed by other academics. There is an editor, an academic, who supposedly (and sometimes really does) edit the article. There is an editorial board (staffed by academics) who make large decisions about the journal and the articles to be published.

For monographs (or books - they really could be books although they rarely are now) the process is also increasingly only handled by academics and editors who don’t actually edit. The only editing most books receive is copy-editing - that is, the editing that tries to get rid of typos and grammatical errors. The assumption is (largely based on finances) that this is the only editing needed for monographs.

Open-access publishing will only further entrench this process. Academic publishing will be just that – academic publishing.

Given the recent problems in the wider world of Canadian publishing –  the consolidation amongst publishing houses, the declining interest in Canadian non-fiction titles – this should make us worried. (Remember even Stephen Harper’s soon (ever?) to be published history of Canadian hockey is signed to a US press.) Publishing with academic presses might soon be one of the only areas where we can publish non-fiction books on Canada that are serious. And if this process is not curated, not edited, only peer-reviewed, and then ultimately paid for only when you have an institutional affiliation or have been deemed acceptable by your scholarly peers in peer review, this will be alarming and harmful.

This is especially the case in Canadian history. Historians, after all, aren’t physicists. We don’t just do ‘pure’ history only to be discussed amongst ourselves. Some of what we do is pretty much only intelligible, or interesting, to other academics. But much of what we do is or should be geared toward the public, toward the people whose society we are studying. Historians tell stories.

The back-and-forth discussion between academics and the wider society, between academics and editors, between the interests of academics and the realities of what is interesting and compelling in the wider society is/was a good tension. It is/was useful. You wouldn’t want either side to fully win out. Like much that is useful in the intellectual world, it’s the conversation, the continuing dialogue and perhaps disagreement that matters.

Open-access publishing, especially if this moves to monographs, will be a disaster for historians unless there is a serious injection of funds to institutions and to wider funding bodies. This isn’t going to happen. Welcome to a future of history only by peer-review committee. We’ve tasted it before, always as one dish alongside others. When it comes to fill the whole plate, we may decide that we’d like a different flavour now and then. But it might be too late.

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