Community Review

In my last book, Planned Obsolescence, I argued for the potentials of open, peer-to-peer review as a means of shedding some light on the otherwise often hidden processes of scholarly communication, enabling scholars to treat the process of review less as a mode of gatekeeping than as a formative moment in which they could learn from and contribute to their communities of practice. In Generous Thinking, my focus is somewhat different—less on the ways that scholars communicate with one another and more on the ways we invite the world into our work—but the emphasis on opening up our processes and imagining the ways that they might invite new kinds of conversations remains.

When I launched the open review process for Planned Obsolescence in 2009, the world was somewhat different. There seemed cause for optimism about the potentials presented by new kinds of openness, and though there was without question just as thick a strain of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and general hatred within western culture, it was somehow less emboldened. Or so it seemed to me, at least, in my narrow corner of the internet, where my colleagues and I chatted happily through our blogs and on Twitter, imagining the ways that our networks could help support more open, egalitarian modes of scholarly engagement.

Things are different in 2018. Scholars are being actively targeted for their political beliefs, with off-campus groups campaigning for their dismissal. Entire academic departments have come under investigation by state legislatures for their apparently subversive activity. And too many writers whose work explores issues of race, of gender, of sexuality, of oppression routinely receive threats of violence in response.

As Generous Thinking will attest, I still believe in the opportunities presented by building more open forms of conversation both within the academy and between the academy and the broader publics with which we engage. But I am more cautious about how we should do so now, or at least I am less naive. And so I’ve staged this review process a little bit differently.

For the last two weeks, the manuscript has been open to a group of invited readers, many but not all of them close colleagues, including folks on- and off-campus, folks in a range of faculty and staff positions, folks with bents more optimistic and much less so. My hope was—and remains—that inviting a community to engage with the text before opening it up to the world would help create a space of honest, productive critique, a space in which the manuscript’s shortcomings might be discussed without fear.

But it’s nonetheless important—it’s in fact the heart of Generous Thinking’s argument—to take that next step, to engage in a broader dialogue and invite the world into the process. So the community review is now moving into a period of open review. That openness is both important for this project’s own development and important for this project to model: if we’re going to find our way to a space of greater generosity, it has to start here.

Not just because this project needs to live by its own principles, though that’s an important part of it. But because some of us face far greater dangers than others, and those of us who, like me, are comparatively safe must be willing to create spaces where important public discussions can take place. We need to build our communities, and then we need to invite those around us into them.

So: between now and the end of March, Generous Thinking is open. After that, the record of our discussions will remain publicly available, but the comment function will be closed. I hope that you will share any thoughts you have about the project, and that you will invite any readers you think might be interested to join this discussion.

Thanks to those who have read and commented so far, and thanks to all of you who are reading now. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Opening Up Open Access

It’s Open Access Week, and as befits the occasion, I’m starting it this morning by thinking about what we’ve accomplished, what obstacles we’ve found — or even, if I might dare to whisper, created — and what remains to be done in order create full commitment among scholars and researchers to getting their work into circulation in the most free, open, and equitable ways possible.

The last several months have been quite interesting in humanities OA land: we’ve seen the launch of exciting initiatives such as the Open Library of the Humanities and Luminos, plus the first round of competition for a joint Mellon-NEH Humanities Open Book Program (not to mention a wide range of other Mellon-funded OA projects). At the same time, there seems also to have been an uptick in approaches to humanities scholars by somewhat shady-looking publications claiming an interest in publishing their work (for a fee) or asking to add them to a (somewhat random) editorial board. For many scholars, sadly, the latter cast a long shadow, making it that much harder to persuade them of the value to their work that OA might provide.

I have been wondering of late about the extent to which the problem is the degree to which our thinking about the goals of OA has gotten derailed by our focus on the business model of OA — and even worse, by a more-or-less exclusive focus on one particular business model that can simply be taken up without the need to reconsider the purposes or values of scholarly communication. Shifting costs from the reader side to the author side creates hardly a ripple in the system, as witness the speed and fluidity and commitment with which the most problematic corporate journal publishers have absorbed this shift into their regular practices.1

Having said this, however, I must admit that I feel a bit implicated in that derailment-by-business-model, as my early interventions into thinking about OA in the humanities very much focused on gold OA, on making publications freely and openly available at the source. And I do still think that there are ways of implementing gold OA publishing models — perhaps especially around monographs — that might be more equitable and should be further explored.2 But I worry that this singular focus on making publications freely available might have prematurely foreclosed a set of larger discussions about the broader circulation of scholarship in general.

In some of the early open access meetings I attended, in fact, I found myself arguing with a few other participants who insisted that we were headed in the wrong direction, and that we needed to be thinking about green OA, on the author side of making things freely available — primarily through repository deposit — rather than on the publisher side. But the longer I think about it, the more I have come to believe that what I had in mind in the creation of free-and-open publications bears more in common with repositories than it does with the dominant mode through which OA has been taken up by corporate publishers. My all-too-nascent idea, after all, was based on my experiences with MediaCommons, which led me to hope that groups of scholars could take control of the systems through which they publish by creating collective, cooperative, scholar-organized and -governed publications on open networks.

And some of that has happened. The Open Library of the Humanities, notably, was founded by two humanities scholars who are working closely with the scholars who operate the journals under its umbrella.3 And, of course, MLA Commons is a platform developed by a scholar-governed society on which members are encouraged to develop and share new projects with the field in a wide variety of ways.

But there’s been comparatively slow uptake on this end of the open access spectrum, and it’s worth considering why. On the one hand, there is the fact that publishing requires work, and comparatively few scholars have the time or inclination required to move some of their “own” work aside in favor of working on publishing’s machinery, whether by building their own publications or supporting others through the publishing process. That sort of work isn’t, by and large, what we trained for, and perhaps more importantly, it isn’t the kind of thing for which we get credit.4

Even more, there is the question of prestige: scholars continue to publish in venues that have established imprimaturs, and in venues that they have no editorial hand in, because those two factors continue to be privileged by the various review mechanisms up the chain. Scholars need to persuade internal and external review committees that their work has been selected through an impartial, rigorous review process, and all the better if the name of the organization that runs that review process resonates. But of course publishing collectives are capable of being just as (if not more) rigorous, and scholarly associations like my own can provide not just an imprimatur for those collectives but also access to the many other members in the field that the collectives would likely want to reach.

So the question that remains for me is what will be required in order to motivate scholars to take the lead in forming such collectives. Much of the OA movement has focused on a hearts-and-minds campaign of sorts, working to convince individual scholars that open access to their work is not just good for the work but also key to intellectual forms of social justice. But I think, in the coming years, we need to pay as much attention to shifting the requirements of those review mechanisms up the chain, whether institution- or funder-based, in order to persuade them that impact and prestige might not necessarily correlate, that rigor need not necessarily require distance, and that all publications — from the individual scholarly blog to the most carefully edited monograph — demand to be evaluated on their own terms, with an understanding of the possibilities each presents for the increase in knowledge we all seek.

The Political Economics of Open Access

Oh, this this this:

I’m increasingly feeling that the old debates (what’s a reasonable cost, green vs gold, hybrid vs pure) are sterile and misleading. That we are missing fundamental economic and political issues in funding and managing a global scholarly communications ecosystem by looking at the wrong things. And that there are deep and damaging misunderstandings about what has happened, is happening, and what could happen in the future.

Cameron Neylon, “The Political Economics of Open Access Publishing: A Series”

Tools and Values

I’ve been writing a bit about peer review and its potential futures of late, an essay that’s been solicited for a forthcoming edited volume. Needless to say, this is a subject I’ve spent a lot of time considering, between the research I did for Planned Obsolescence, the year-long study I worked on with my MediaCommons and NYU Press colleagues, and the various other bits of speaking and writing I’ve done on the topic.

A recent exchange, though, has changed my thinking about the subject in some interesting ways, ways that I’m not sure that the essay I’m working on can quite capture. I had just given a talk about some of the potential futures for digital scholarship in the humanities, which included a bit on open peer review, and was getting pretty intensively questioned by an attendee who felt that I was being naively utopian in my rendering of its potential. Why on earth would I want to do away with a peer review system that more or less works in favor of a new open system that brings with it all the problematic power dynamics that manifest in networked spaces?

In responding, I tried to suggest, first, that I wasn’t trying to do away with anything, but rather to open us to the possibility that open review might be beneficial, especially for scholarship that’s being published online. And second, that yes, scholarly engagements in social networks do often play out a range of problematic behaviors, but that at least those behaviors get flushed out into the open, where they’re visible and can be called out; those same behaviors can and do take place in conventional review practices under cover of various kinds of protection.

It was at this point that my colleague Dan O’Donnell intervened; by way of more or less agreeing with me, Dan said that the problem with most thinking about peer review began with considering it to be a system (and thus singular, complex, and difficult to change), when in fact peer review is a tool. Just a tool. “Sometimes you need a screwdriver,” he said, “and when you do, a hammer isn’t going to help.”

Something in the simplicity of that analogy caught me up short. I have been told, in ways both positive and negative, that I am a systems-builder at heart, and so to hear that I might be making things unnecessarily complicated didn’t come as a great shock. But it became clear in that moment that the unnecessary complications might be preventing me from seeing something extremely useful: if we want to transform peer review into something that works reliably, on a wide variety of kinds of scholarship, for an array of different scholarly communities, within a broad range of networks and platforms, we need a greatly expanded toolkit.

This is a much cleaner, clearer way of framing the conclusions to which the MediaCommons/NYU Press study came: each publication, and each community of practice, is likely to have different purposes and expectations for peer review, and so each must develop a mode of conducting review that best serves those purposes and expectations. The key thing is the right tool for the right purpose.

This exchange, though, has affected my thinking in areas far beyond the future of peer review. In order to select the right tool, after all, we really have to be able to articulate our purposes, which first requires understanding them — and understanding them in a way that goes deeper than the surface-level outcomes we’re seeking. In the case of peer review, this means thinking beyond the goal of producing good work; it means considering the kind of community we want to build and support around the work, as well as the things we hope the work might bring to the community and beyond.

In other words, it’s not just about purposes, but also about values: not just reaching a goal, but creating the best conditions for everyone engaged in the process. It’s both simpler and more complex, and it requires really stopping to think not just about what we’re doing, but what’s important to us, and why.

If you’ll forgive a bit of a tangent: I mentioned in my last post that I’d been reading Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement, which focuses on developing practices for renewing one’s energy in order to be able to focus on and genuinely be present for the important stuff in life. I only posted to Twitter, however, the line from the book that most haunted me: “Is the life I am living worth what I am giving up to have it?”

At first brush, the line produces something not too far off from despair: we are always giving up something, and we frequently find ourselves where we are, having given up way too much, without any sense of how we got there or whether it’s even possible to get back to where we’d hoped to be.

But I’ve been working on thinking of that line in a more positive way, understanding that each choice that I make — to work on this rather than that; to work here rather than there; whathaveyou — entails not just giving up the path not taken, but the opportunity to consider why I’m choosing what I’m choosing, and to try to align the choice as closely as possible with what’s most important.

In the crush of the day-to-day, with a stack of work that’s got to be done RIGHT NOW, it can be hard to put an ideal like that into practice. And needless to say, the opportunity to stop and make such choices is an extraordinary privilege; thinking about “values” in the airy sense that I’m using it here becomes a lot easier once things like comfort, much less survival, are already ensured.

But this is precisely why, I think, those of us in the position to do things like create new programs, or publications, or processes, need to take the time to consider what it is we’re doing and why. To think about the full range of tools at our disposal, and to select — or even design — the ones that best suit the work that is actually at hand, rather than reflexively grabbing for the hammer because everything in front of us has always looked like a nail.

So, an open question: if peer review is genuinely to work toward supporting our deeper goals — not just getting the work done, but building the future for scholarship we want to see — what tools do we need to have at our disposal? What of those tools do we already have available, even if we’ve never used them for this purpose before, and what new tools might we need to imagine?

Future Publishing

Back in the late spring of last year, I participated in a panel discussion on the future of publishing in visual culture studies, as part of the Now! Visual Culture symposium held at NYU. The panel organizers, Marquard Smith and Mark Little, have edited our presentations together into a brief collection entitled “Future Publishing: Visual culture in the age of possibility,” which they’re releasing today.

I’m very happy to have been able to participate in such a great discussion, and to be able to help spread the word a bit further. Please download, read, respond, repost; we look forward to hearing from you!

Open Review: A Study of Contexts and Practices

crossposted from MediaCommons:

In April 2011, MediaCommons and NYU Press jointly received a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support a year-long study of open review practices and possibilities. The document that follows is a draft of the white paper that will serve as the grant’s primary outcome. We are happy to post a draft of this paper for open peer review.

The questions raised in the paper affect a wide range of scholarly processes. They impact publishing, of course, but also the ways scholarly work is assessed beyond the moment of publication, from hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions to funding applications, and the development of a scholarly reputation. The issues we discuss affect scholars at every stage in their careers, as well as publishers of journals and books of every sort, and administrators at many different kinds of institutions.

We therefore welcome the broadest possible feedback, both on the white paper’s details as well as on the larger questions that it raises. Please join in the discussion!

Open Access at 10

I’m really happy (if mildly tired) to be writing from Budapest, where (like Cameron) I’m honored to participate in a meeting on the tenth anniversary of the Budapest Open Access Initiative. It was this gathering, ten years ago, that gave a name to the growing sense that the content produced as a result of scholarly research can and should circulate freely in the age of the Internet. We’ve come together to discuss what’s been learned over the last decade, as well as the directions for the next decade.

As I told someone yesterday, I’m simultaneously surprised that it’s already been ten years and that it’s only been ten years; the discussions that took place in Budapest a decade ago have had such an impact that it seems at one and the same time as if their ideas have always been in circulation and as if they have only just been introduced.

Needless to say, it’s auspicious that this anniversary meeting is taking place at a moment of widespread discussion about the value of public access to the products of scholarly research. Personally, I’m also thrilled that this discussion broadly recognizes the value of such open circulation of the products of humanities research as well as that of the sciences, and that there is serious consideration being given to the particular challenges that different subsets of the academy face in the transition toward more open models of communication.

I’ll hope to report more thoughts as the meeting progresses, and will look forward to bringing what I learn back with me, as we continue thinking through the future of scholarly communication in the humanities.

iBooks, Authoring, Education, and So Forth

A quick note: I had the opportunity to attend the Apple Education event today on behalf of ProfHacker, where I posted my reflections a bit later in the day.

And a bit after that, I appeared on Tech News Today, talking more about the ways that iBooks 2, the iBook Author application, and the other things announced today might (and might not) affect education.

It’s been a whirlwind. Thank goodness I have a quiet weekend planned.

Giving It Away: Sharing and the Future of Scholarly Communication

The last talk I gave at MLA 2012 was a keynote for the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, the text of which is below. I’d love any feedback you might have to offer.

Giving It Away: Sharing and the Future of Scholarly Communication

As you might guess from my title, this presentation focuses in large part on questions of open access as they might affect our thinking about the future of scholarly communication. “Open access,” I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, is a fraught concept among both scholars and publishers, one beset by a lot of misunderstandings, both intentional and unintentional. Arguments circulate out there saying, for instance, that open access will open the floodgates to a lot of bad scholarship, when in fact open access publishing is perfectly compatible with peer review, and there are many OA journals that are more selective than their closed-access counterparts. There are folks who argue that open access is financially unsustainable, or even, as has been suggested by the recent proposal of the Research Works Act in Congress, an unreasonable infringement on publisher income, when in fact a range of new models for open access publishing are coming into being, and several of the major commercial journal publishers have recently announced new OA ventures, which they of course would never do if they hadn’t found a business model in it somewhere. On the other hand, there are equally misguided convictions out there that open access publishing is free; clearly that’s not so. What I am hoping to do in this talk, however, is to shift our thinking about open access, for the moment, from a focus on costs to a focus on values, though without entirely leaving behind the overwhelming and at times quite grim economic realities by which we’re surrounded.

To begin, a bit of background: discussions of the possibilities for new open publishing models began online in the early 1990s, as a number of scientists and librarians recognized that the growth of the Internet made possible the free and open reproduction of scholarly literature. This is not to say that, even then, there was a conviction that OA publishing could be done for free; it was apparent to all of the players in these discussions that there would be continued costs involved in the production of the scholarly literature, but it was equally apparent that the costs of that literature’s reproduction online would trend toward zero. Experiments such as Paul Ginsparg’s pre-print server for papers in high-energy physics (which of course later developed into arXiv) as well as open challenges to the escalating subscription costs of STEM journals by projects such as BioMed Central and Public Library of Science began to suggest that there might be another path. Stevan Harnad pushed these discussions into the open by submitting what he called a “subversive proposal” to an email list in June 1994, in which he pointed out that “the scientific journal and the scholarly monograph are threatened by rising costs, rising output, and constrained academic budgets. The most painful paradox is that in the interests of science, the law of the market cannot be allowed to function. An item with a very small market may yet be the indispensable link in a chain of research that leads to a result of high social value.” This is, in effect, the problem of the “long tail” in scholarly publishing; in traditional publishing, a few bestsellers provide financial support for the much less popular items on the list, those items down the tail that are extremely important to someone, though they’re unlikely to reach a terribly large audience. The problem for us is that scholarly publications are all tail; practically the only audience for the stuff is the same group of scholars who are producing it – and yet, as Harnad pointed out, for those scholars, the work is indispensable. One means of escaping this paradox, Harnad suggested, was the creation of globally accessible electronic self-deposit archives of scholarly articles – the foundation of today’s institutional and disciplinary repositories.

Over the years that followed Harnad’s provocation, the guiding principles of the open access movement began to be articulated, leading to the Budapest Open Access Initiative published in 2002, which gave the movement its name. Following behind the Budapest initiative were the June 2003 Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing and the October 2003 Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Scientific Knowledge. Together, Budapest-Bethesda-Berlin defined the agenda for open access scholarly publishing:

By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited. (BOAI)

“Open access,” that is, means free access not just in the sense of “gratis,” work made available without charge, but also in the sense of “libre” – work that, subject to appropriate scholarly standards of citation, is free to be built upon. This is the cornerstone of the scholarly project: scholarship is written to be read and to influence more new writing.

And this influence is the coin of the realm for scholars; the more influence that scholarship can produce, the better. Though lingering in the background of these early declarations was an awareness that open access publishing has the potential to “[give] authors and their works vast and measurable new visibility, readership, and impact” (BOAI), early mobilization around open access focused on the damage that a small number of corporate publishers who were accumulating vast numbers of scholarly journals were doing to university library budgets, as well as on the profound international economic inequities that functioned to create a growing divide between the information haves and have-nots. Open access presented the potential for scholars to help bridge this divide, serving not only their own interests in getting their work into broader circulation, but also serving the public good; as the Budapest Open Access Initiative put it,

An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge. (BOAI)

It’s hard not to be moved by the idealism of a statement such as this, and easy to see why the movement’s impact accelerated from here. The tenth anniversary of the Budapest Open Access Initiative is rapidly approaching; in the intervening decade, the open access movement spread through a dramatic increase in the number of OA journals (the “gold” model of open access), including the very public mass resignations of a number of editorial boards of closed-access journals, who then joined together to start new publications online. Additionally, the open access movement over the last decade was profoundly expanded through a growing number of institutional and disciplinary repositories (the “green” model of open access), as well as an increasing number of institution- and funder-based mandates requiring the deposit of the products of research done under their auspices. (It is of course those mandates that the Research Works Act seeks to attack.) By this past November, at Berlin 9, the ninth annual conference associated with the Berlin Declaration and the first to be held in the U.S., 34 North American signatories had endorsed the declaration and agreed to uphold its principles, including more than 20 colleges and universities. These signatories collectively produce a powerful demonstration of the expansion of U.S. commitment to facilitating open access, a commitment that can be seen at the national level in the recent White House Request for Information on Public Access to Digital Data and Scientific Publications.

[Here I noted that the deadline for responding to this RFI was upcoming — today, in fact — and urged the attendees to make their opinions known.]

Though these conversations, like the White House RFI, have to this point been overwhelmingly dominated by the sciences, the Berlin 9 conference took on as part of its focus this year the impact of open access on the humanities. While our fields bear certain interests in common with the sciences, there are a few important differences as well. The most obvious of these is a radical difference in funding systems and levels. Scientific research is all but impossible to conduct without large-scale grant funding, and scientists have long been able to write publishing costs into their grants. As a result, the business model for open access scientific publishing was relatively clear: shift from a reader-pays to an author-pays model. Easy-peasy. In the humanities, however, not only is the available funding generally too low to accommodate significant publishing charges to authors, but the vast majority of research is either supported by the scholar’s institution or is self-funded.

It’s for that reason that I’m not standing here suggesting that a large-scale transition of humanities publishing to an open access model would be easy; it wouldn’t. Humanities publishing faces a set of financial constraints that are daunting at the best of times, and crushing in times of economic retraction. As I argue in Planned Obsolescence, it is of course perfectly well possible to make scholarly publishing profitable; the Wileys and the Elseviers have certainly managed it, but they’ve done so at the direct expense of our universities. For not-for-profit scholarly publishers to follow the commercial publishers’ lead would for a range of reasons I explore in the book be a disaster. Those presses can’t be beaten at their own game, as the large conglomerates that operate them will always be able to conduct business more efficiently, and more ruthlessly, than the university should want to do. But nor can we simply hand over the business of scholarly publishing to them to operate; as John Thompson noted in Books in the Digital Age, in times of economic slowdown “commercial logic would tend to override any obligation [such companies] might feel to the scholarly community” (98), leaving nothing to stop them from eliminating academic publishing entirely, if it ceases to pay. So we can’t beat them, and we can’t join them; what we can do is change the game entirely. And it’s for this reason that I want to argue that, despite the serious difficulties involved, a transition to open access publishing might be desirable – desirable enough that rather than ending our conversations with the seeming insurmountableness of the financial obstacles, we should instead start figuring out what it will to take to get around them.

One thing that makes open access publishing so desirable for the future of scholarly communication is the increased impact that openly distributed scholarship is able to have, and study after study shows that open-access literature – whether that published in “gold” OA journals or that deposited in “green” OA archives – is more cited than is work published in traditional closed venues. In addition to facilitating traditional researcher access, however, openly published work can also reach a much broader range of readers – students and instructors at undergraduate teaching institutions and at secondary schools, for instance, as well as folks who work outside academia entirely. Open-access scholarship has the potential to reach a broad spectrum of potentially interested publics.

We in the humanities often resist opening our work to these publics, fearing the consequences of such openness – and not without reason. The world at times fails to understand what we do, and, because our subject matter seems as though it ought to be comprehensible (you’re just writing about books, or movies, or art, after all!), isn’t inclined to wrestle with the difficulties that our work presents; their dismissive responses give us the clear sense that the public doesn’t take our work as seriously as, say, papers in high-energy physics, which few lay readers would assume their ability to comprehend without some background or training. As a result of these doubled misunderstandings, we close our work off from the public, arguing that we’re only writing for a small group of specialists anyhow. In which case, why would open access matter?

The problem, of course, is that the more we close our work away from the public, and the more we refuse to engage in dialogue across the boundaries of the academy, the more we undermine that public’s willingness to fund our research and our institutions. As Kathy Woodward put it so brilliantly on Friday, the major crisis facing the funding of higher education is an increasingly widespread conviction that education is a private responsibility rather than a public good; we wind up strengthening that conviction when we treat our work as private, by keeping it to ourselves. Closing our work away from non-scholarly readers, and keeping our conversations private, might protect us from public criticism, but it can’t protect us from public apathy, a condition that is, in the current economy, far more dangerous. This is not to say that such openness doesn’t bear risks, particularly for scholars working in controversial areas of research, but it is to say that only through open dialogue across the walls of the ivory tower will we have any chance of convincing the broader public, including our governmental funding bodies, of the importance of our work. And let me say this clearly:  increasing the discoverability of scholarly work on the web, making it available to a broader readership, is a Good Thing, not just for the individual scholar but for the field in which she works.  The more that well-researched, thoughtful scholarship on contemporary cultural issues is available to, for instance, journalists covering those issues for popular venues, the richer the discourse in those publications will become – increasing, not incidentally, the visibility of institutions of higher education, and their importance to the culture at large.

Even more important than its ability to foster this kind of impact, however, is the fact that open access publishing is far more in keeping with the core values of the scholarly enterprise. And this is where I really want to focus our attention, and where my title comes back in: giving it away. The notion of “giving it away” as I’m using it here comes to me from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and its rendering of the ethos of Alcoholics Anonymous:

Giving It Away is a cardinal Boston AA principle. The term’s derived from an epigrammatic description of recovery in Boston AA: ‘You give it up to get it back to give it away.’ Sobriety in Boston is regarded as less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay the loan back, but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works, spreading this message to the next new guy who’s tottered in to a meeting and is sitting in the back row unable to hold his cup of coffee. The only way to hang onto sobriety is to give it away (344)

This requirement of passing on what has been learned has its origins in the program’s twelfth step, in which the recovering alcoholic carries the message to others who need it. The sharing that this sense of “giving it away” invokes – the loan that can never be paid back, but only forward – includes that sharing done at meetings, telling one’s own story, not as a means of self-expression, but rather as an act of generosity that enables the addict to transcend the self. “Giving it away” is thus a profoundly ethical mode of engaging with others in need; more than that, in Infinite Jest, “giving it away” becomes the only means of escaping the self-destructive spiral of addiction and self-absorption that constitutes not an anomalous state, but in fact the central mode of being in the contemporary western world.

What I want to argue is that this sense of “giving it away,” of paying forward knowledge that one likewise received as a gift, functions well as a description of what should be the best ethical practices of scholars and educators. We teach, as we were taught; we publish, as we learned from the publications of others. We cannot pay back those who came before us, but can only give to those who come after. Our participation in an ethical, voluntary scholarly community is grounded in the obligation we owe one another, an obligation that derives from what we have received.

Like the stirring sense in the Budapest Open Access Initiative of “uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge,” this kind of idealism is all well and good, but it doesn’t adequately account for an academic universe in which we are evaluated based on individual achievement, and in which prestige often outstrips all other values. Surveys conducted both by Ithaka and by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley indicate that “a fundamentally conservative set of faculty attitudes continues to impede systematic change” (Ithaka): scholars choose to publish in those venues that are perceived to have the highest influence on their peers, and that influence is often imagined to increase with exclusivity. The more difficult it is to get an article into a journal, the higher the perceived value of having done so, of course – but this sense of prestige too easily shades over into a sense that the more exclusively a publication is distributed, the higher its value. If we were simply to give our work away, it seems, its value would quickly trend toward zero.

This is, at its most benign, a self-defeating attitude; if we prize exclusivity above all else, we should not be surprised when our work fails to circulate. And in fact, it is when our work fails to circulate that its value declines; as Dave Parry has commented, “Knowledge which is not public is not knowledge.” It is only in giving it away that we truly produce knowledge; it is only in escaping our self-absorption as a field, and instead of talking amongst ourselves, sharing our ideas with others, that we can pay forward the loan that we have been so generously given. Such an approach to our work, I would argue, requires less of a change than it might initially sound; all of the players in the scholarly communication chain – authors, reviewers, editors, publishers – are always engaged in a process of “giving it away”; it’s just a matter of how and to whom. As a journal editor put it Thursday in the discussion at the session on the future of peer review, the entire enterprise runs on an engine of generosity. None of our work can ever truly be for profit; when we try to profit from it ourselves is precisely when we lose most profoundly.

Publishing is never free, of course; it either costs us in dollars or in labor (and often both), and sustainability in scholarly publishing has often been equated with the need to produce revenue based on the sale of publishing’s products. As I’ve argued at length, however, the current system of scholarly publishing is already not sustainable for most not-for-profit organizations, and some of the ostensible solutions – such as handing journals over to the commercial publishers who seem to have found a viable profit model – are only making things worse. One might see here the cautionary tale of a fellow humanities scholarly organization that, facing a budgetary crisis, contracted with a commercial publisher to distribute its journals. That organization received a nice bit of income in the short term – but the commercial publisher involved immediately more than doubled the institutional subscription fees for the journals involved, ensuring that more libraries would be forced not to carry those journals, and thus reducing the potential impact of the work published in them. And needless to say, however much the organization involved earned in this exchange, the corporate publisher earned more.

So rather than giving our work away to corporate entities that will profit at our expense, might we instead find a way to make a virtue of our market failures? What if we understood sustainability not as the ability to produce revenue, but the ability to keep the engine of generosity running? What if we were to allow the engine of generosity on which so much of the enterprise runs to affect the final point of distribution, if we were to embrace the gift economy of scholarly communication and make a gift of our work to others? What might happen if outreach, generosity, giving it away were our primary values?

Such ethics need not be economically unsustainable. Larry Lessig has argued at length that the most successful potential business model of the digital age is not the sale of closed, proprietary content, but instead the “hybrid” model under which so much of contemporary online communication operates: the production of content is freely done by users; the distribution of content is provided equally freely by the company; but the company charges for certain kinds of services surrounding that content, whether premium tools for engaging with that content or additional space for storing that content or what have you. This so-called “freemium” model underwrites services including Flickr, Dropbox, WordPress, and a range of other internet-based communication tools. In all of these systems a basic level of access is provided for free, while value is created through services or tools; with Flickr, for instance, the value the company provides comes not from the site’s wealth of photographic content – users provide that, and are able to do so through a basic level of service available for free – but instead in providing access to a suite of tools that allow users to share, tag, search, connect, and so forth. The value in the system, which users are willing to pay for, is the means of interacting with the content, rather than the content itself. Such a model works best for user-generated content – and of course all scholarly communication is “user-generated,” created to be shared, producing the most substantive benefits for its authors when its distribution is as broad and as open as possible.

I want to return to the sense that I mentioned a few minutes ago in which all of us in the scholarly communication chain are always engaged in the process of “giving it away”: scholarly authors write in order to get their ideas into circulation within their fields, and, like many musicians today, are paid not for their publications but for their performances, whether in the classroom or on the lecture circuit. But it is not only scholars who give their work away: peer reviewers do so as well. In journal publishing, reviewers provide their services on a purely volunteer basis; the only compensation comes in the ability to help shape the future of the fields they care about. Bonnie Wheeler has noted the mounting difficulties, of course, in getting reviewers to do this work, and it appears that under the current system, reviewer resistance is bound to grow. There is a strong movement afoot encouraging peer reviewers to reserve their volunteer labor for publications that make the results of that work freely and openly available; if the journal publishing system runs in part on the engine of reviewer generosity, it would serve us well to respond to that generosity by paying it forward.

The system also runs on the engine of editor generosity; journal editors, as you all know better than anyone, donate tremendous amounts of time and effort to enabling and improving communication within their fields, usually with a bare minimum of reward and increasingly without institutional support. What would it be to pay forward such editor generosity, and to create an environment in which the value created by such editors, as well as the values they espouse, were allowed to proliferate?

Similarly, not-for-profit publishers are committed to facilitating the circulation of the products of scholarly research, but are constrained by the need to do so sustainably if they are to survive. What would it be for such publishers to create systems within which authors, reviewers, and editors were able to pay forward what they have received, to give their work to one another and to the public beyond? What would it be for publishers to give all of that content away, and to focus their work on developing advanced services for interacting with that content, and with the community?

Making such a transition from a focus on content-for-sale to a focus on services and tools cannot be made without similar generosity on the part of our foundations and our federal granting agencies. Those granting agencies are beginning to think about how they might support scholarly communication as it becomes more open, but those agencies can only do so much; we have to be sure the engine they help us build can continue to run. As such, universities must “recognize,” in the words of a recent Ithaka report, “that publishing is an integral part of [their] core mission and activities,” and respond by supporting those engines of generosity on their campuses, knowing that such generosity will be paid forward in increased visibility, and increased goodwill. Donald Hall has argued that the future viability of higher education requires that we collectively reclaim the intellectual growth fostered in the academy as a public good rather than a private responsibility. If we ask this of our institutions, and our funders, we must also ask it of ourselves.

There are financial realities that must be acknowledged in all of this, and I don’t want to minimize the difficulties of grappling with them. But in all such discussion about such financial realities, I cannot help but remember something Michael Jensen of the National Academies Press once told me. The NAP makes all of its publications freely and openly available on the web, producing revenue by selling print versions of that content. Admittedly, NAP has probably lost revenue that it could have obtained if it had refrained from giving the work it publishes away online – but it has gained significantly in visibility, in discoverability, and in goodwill. As Jensen said, when I asked him about this model, the press’s mandate is to make as much of its work available as freely and openly as it can while still breaking even. And this is the ethos that I would love to see become the guiding principle for scholarly communication more generally.

How much can we make freely and openly available in this fashion? How might we reimagine the production of revenue in scholarly communication from a basis in the sale of content to a basis in the provision of services? How can we work together to reorient our perspective from costs to values? How might openness allow us to better engage not just with one another but with the world around us, treating that world not just as an object laid open to our masterful scrutiny, but instead as a complex conglomeration of agents both able and entitled to enter into conversation with us? What if we were to recognize that the only way to hold onto the knowledge we have – and to help higher education and the communities within which we work to thrive – is to give it away?

Adventures in Publishing Contracts

Some months back I received a contract from a Certain University Press for an article that I’ve got forthcoming in what’s going to be a super cool edited volume. I was a little taken aback, on reading the contract, to discover that I was being asked to sign over 100% of my copyright to the press, and that I was promising to refrain from doing anything with the article other than simply handing it over to them. No provisions for depositing a pre-print in an institutional repository, not even with an embargo. Nothing.

(Let us just say that the topic — heck, the title — of my article made this situation a little ironic.)

So with the support of the volume’s editors, I edited the agreement to add in the phrase “except as provided for in the attached addendum,” and then attached a version of the CIC Author’s Copyright Contract Addendum. And thought, well, we’ll see what happens.

I heard nothing for months, until today, when I received a revised contract from the Press. This contract:

1. Leaves all copyright with me. (Yay!)

2. Grants to the Press a license to publish the article in this volume, as well as to republish it in any derivative works, in all languages, in any media (“now or hereafter known”), throughout the world. (Perfectly fine with me. They could even have included the entirety of the universe, known and unknown, as a recent contract received by a friend of mine did.)

3. Says that I agree not to “license, publish, transmit, post (or permit the license, publication, transmission or posting)” of the article for a period of 1 year after publication without prior written permission, after which I can do whatever I want to with it.

And that’s the one I have a question about. Because as I read it, they’ve given me both more and less than I’ve asked for. The CIC agreement has a six-month embargo, rather than a year, it separates out uses of the text by the author’s home institution (for posting in an institutional repository, for instance) from general republishing, and retains for myself immediate and perpetual rights to use the article in any way I’d like in conjunction with my teaching, conference presentations, lectures, and the like.

On the other hand, all of those latter two uses seem subsumed within the fact that this version of the contract leaves all copyright with me, merely licensing it to the Press. The only thing I’m giving up is that additional six months of being able to republish it however I like.

So… I’m curious how you read this? Would you be willing to sign off on the contract now? Are there other issues I ought to consider here?