Monday, 6 January 2014

There's open access and then there's open access

I remain sceptical about the open-access publishing phenomenon in academia, especially for  historians. It's not that I'm against more people reading and having access to the work of historians. I'm just not convinced that this is the way to go about it. I doubt that the subscription costs to academic journals are the reason more people aren't reading them.

If we want more people to read academic history we have to write it differently. And having to give it away raises all kinds of problems - it's fine for tenured academics, but what of those who want to write for a broad audience? If we have to give it away, how valuable is the information we're finding anyway? If no one wants to buy it, giving it away just reduces its value.

Then there's the point that history isn't like a science. For one there aren't the hefty subscription fees for high profile journals, the things that bankrupt university libraries. And even more importantly, historians ought not to work like scientists, to always build upon the work of others, refining processes to make them better. History can only ever work this way in part. The greater danger of this approach is that we all end up sounding alike, stuck in narrower and narrower debates.

Historians ought to only ever speak to each other half the time. Just as often, there's the bigger audience, the community and the nation.

But to end on a positive note I see today there's a good development in an area of open access I can definitely get behind: opening up historical document online for all to see. I've written recently about the good news that the official records of Canada's parliament are all up online. Now it's the turn of Quebec's house of assembly to get their records up. You can access the material here.


  1. I wonder if having open access journals might encourage us to write a bit more broadly? You're right, of course, that's there's a bigger cultural change that has to come if the general public is going to read our work. I know @ian_mosby had his tongue in cheek today on Twitter when he joked about readers loving historiographical debates, but as long as peer reviewers ask for such things...

    All that being said, I think the Historical Studies in Education model is the best way forward. They've transitioned to full open-access, online. If you want a print copy, then you pay.

  2. There's a side of this debate that really gets overlooked by people who have never worked for one of the journals that aren't open access, and that has to do with the quality of the final product of the journal and its articles. While a lot of the work of journal publishing is done for free by editors and reviewers (under that ever-growing, but invisible to politicians and the general public, category of our work called "service"), there are still very real costs that currently are paid for by subscriptions, SSHRC grants and fees paid by the online journal aggregators. If you want top-notch copy editing, layout, etc., there are costs involved in paying people to do this. And I'm not seeing much so far in the push for all-open-access coming out of the Tri-Council that accounts for an alternative way of covering those costs. I think there are limits to how much of academic publishing should rely on volunteer work.

    The author in me wants my work widely diffused. But when I wear my hat that has worked on the editorial side with journals, I see another side to this debate.