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?

Open Peer Review: New Rule

New rule! From this moment forward, in anything claiming to be a “discussion” of open peer review, no one is allowed to refer to the Nature experiment as evidence that open review can’t work, at least not unless you simultaneously demonstrate (a) that you’re aware of at least one experiment in which it worked quite well (hey, wait; the results were even reproducible!) and (b) that you’ve read at least one text that asks a question or two about the Nature experiment’s presuppositions, and thus its scientific merit. We can call this the Fitzpatrick variant of Godwin’s Law; once Nature gets trotted out, it’s evident that you’re not interested in a real discussion.

That is all.

Today’s (Apparently) the Day

According to Amazon, at least: today is the day that Planned Obsolescence has been released!

The link above is to the paperback version; here’s a link to the Kindle edition. And it’s the existence of the Kindle edition that makes the whole “release day” thing so amusing (to me, at least).

I got my first copy of the paperback about four weeks ago now. Granted, I got it the very day it arrived at the press, and it does take a couple of weeks for Amazon to get its first shipment, to get that shipment into its system, and to get ready to start shipping them out. So while I kinda expected them to update the book’s page from listing a November 1 release date to reflect its in-stock-ness before now, I wasn’t terribly surprised that it didn’t happen.

But… the Kindle edition. Has also been there, more or less ready to go. Folks even pre-ordered it! And apparently are receiving it today. Virtual copies of my book are zipping out across the WhisperNet, arriving like presents in people’s digital libraries.

Which is completely awesome, of course, but it does make me wonder: November 1 was not intended by NYU Press to be an official laydown date; there was no publisher-enforced embargo on sales, or reviews, or anything else before that. And given that one of the virtues of the Kindle is that you can have that text right now, why hold it back? Why turn what was meant to be an estimate by the press into an official release date?

It makes today pretty nifty for me personally, but I’m wondering whether it makes any kind of sense otherwise.

Inside Higher Ed

And just to round out what has been a completely insane week, an article reviewing Planned Obsolescence, including an interview with me, is up this morning at Inside Higher Ed. Thanks to Steve Kolowich for a fun dialogue!

(Now back to the enormous pile of work I need to get done. Which is one certain way of making sure that this flurry of attention doesn’t go to my head.)

Moves and Updates

The news is starting to make its way out there: I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be joining the Modern Language Association this July as the Director of Scholarly Communication. In this role, I’ll be leading a new office that will expand upon the existing book publications program, exploring new modes of publishing and exchange in order to support the changing needs of MLA members in the twenty-first century.

Pomona College, where I’ve been a member of the faculty for the last thirteen years, has generously granted me a leave of absence in order to explore this opportunity. My feeling is that it’s an extraordinary opportunity not just for me but for the profession at large — the MLA, which has been a leader in addressing the changes facing the academy today, will be thinking head-on about the future of scholarly publishing, supporting member initiatives and experiments and helping to shape the vibrant and creative ways that scholars will be communicating in the coming years.

There’s lots to be done before I get started — not least, moving to New York early this summer — but I’ll look forward to exploring the possibilities for this new office and its programs as we go forward.

The Never-Appeared

I’m thinking that I’m going to start a new publishing project around here, based around a cluster of essays that I’ve written for various collections that have never actually gotten published — because the editor lost interest in the project, or because the publisher dropped the book, or because of some situation that was never really explained. I’ve got at least three of these essays, things that I really rather like but that don’t fall into the main pathway of my current work, and so things for which I’ve never been quite motivated enough to seek a new home.

Those never-appeared essays sort of rankle; they’re imperfect and sometimes out of date, but they should at least see the light of day. Perhaps when I’ve cleared the last few pending writing projects off my plate, I’ll go ahead and publish them.

On Open Access Publishing

[The following article was originally published by the Society for Critical Exchange in January 2010; alas, that version has been overrun with spam comments, making further discussion of or linking to it unlikely. I’m thus republishing it here, in the interest of having a copy that’s viable into the future.]

Raising the idea of “open access publishing” among contemporary scholars produces an immediate and sometimes surprising set of responses, ranging from enthusiasm to anger to befuddlement. The open access movement has a wide range of proponents and an often entrenched opposition, and the depth of feeling on both sides often leaves those scholars in between scratching their heads, wondering exactly what the deal is.

A huge part of the confusion arises from the proliferation of misinformation and mythology around the notion of open access; opponents of open access alternately argue that making all scholarship available for free will destroy the economic model of the publishing industry, making it impossible for anything to get published, and that doing so will simultaneously undermine peer review, turning all scholarship into vanity publishing, allowing just anything to get published. Neither of these things is true; open access publishing does not necessarily mean making everything available free of cost, nor does it necessarily imply the absence of peer review processes. It doesn’t mean that scholars lose control of the copyright of their publications (from a certain perspective, we’ve long since given that away, but that’s a matter for another article), and it doesn’t mean that plagiarism will become more prevalent.

What does it mean, though? Why have a number of colleges and universities, including institutions as varied as MIT, the University of Kansas, Trinity University, and Oberlin College recently passed resolutions mandating the open access availability of the work of their faculty members? Why have similar initiatives failed at other institutions? And what’s actually at stake in such decisions?

Far more in depth histories and analyses of the open access movement are available — including John Willinsky’s The Access Principle and Gary Hall’s Digitize this Book!, among others — but in what follows I hope to present one reading of the issues at play in the debates around open access, and my own argument for the reasons that scholars and publishers alike should support and participate in open access publishing.[1]

The open access movement in contemporary scholarship began in large part with the sciences, as a response to the predatory practices of certain commercial journal publishers. By the early 1990s, a small number of large commercial publishers had acquired most of the top journals in many fields and had begun developing a range of profit-oriented pricing structures, including bundling together large groups of journals to which libraries are required to subscribe in order to gain access to the key journals that they actually want. Because of these practices, many less-affluent institutions in the U.S. — much less those institutions in developing nations — have become unable to afford to provide access to the most important research being done in what have come to be known as the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). And, of course, scholars without official ties to a subscribing institution, including independent researchers and un- and under-employed faculty members, are often unable to access that scholarship as well.[2]

Open access publishing thus has its origins both in an economic imperative, to ensure that our institutions aren’t bankrupted by the commercial interests in the scholarly communication chain, and in an ethical imperative, to ensure that less affluent institutions and individual scholars without institutional support are able to gain access to current research. That ethical concern is heightened by the prevalence of public funds used in the development of this research, including funds provided by federal granting agencies. Grantors such as the National Institutes of Health have begun requiring scholars to publish or deposit their work in open-access venues as a condition of funding. Beyond such requirements supporting the public’s right of access to research for which it has paid, however, proponents of open access publishing also call upon scholars to consider the funding and support provided to research by their own institutions, which are then charged exorbitant subscription rates to buy back the products of the research that they have supported.

These concerns have been somewhat slower to develop in humanities-based fields than they have in the sciences, primarily because the monopolistic practices of STEM journal publishers haven’t affected humanities and social science journals to quite the same degree.


There are signs that we need to be paying attention, however; when Wiley recently acquired the rights to publish the American Anthropological Association’s journals (the association’s prior contract with the University of California Press having expired), the publisher proceeded to double the subscription fee for a number of the major journals[3] — an indication that commercial publishers do see the potential for profit in “softer” fields.

Beyond the economics of the matter, however, scholars in the humanities should of course be held to the same ethical obligations as those in the sciences; though the products of our research may not always appear to be as crucial to the health and well-being of diverse populations, our work nonetheless has potentially profound implications for popular discussions about the politics of cultural representations, about the meaning of human interactions, and so forth.

We in the humanities often resist opening our work to the broader public, fearing the consequences of such openness — and not without reason. The public at times fails to understand our work, and, because the content of the work 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[4] 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 that 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 with them, the more we undermine that public’s willingness to fund our research and our institutions. Closing our work away from the public, and keeping our scholarly 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.

All of that having been said, it’s evident that the economics of humanities-based publishing is quite different from that in STEM fields, and many of the misapprehensions preventing the broad acceptance of open-access publishing derive from that difference.

To back up a bit: there are two primary avenues through which open-access publishing is being developed. First, what has been called the “green” road to open access, self-archiving in institutional and disciplinary repositories. Under this model of open-access publishing, which is what is covered by most of the institutional mandates referred to above, scholars agree to deposit copies of their published articles in online archives associated either with their institution’s library or with their field.

Such archives are surrounded by clouds of misinformation, however; some argue, for instance, that self-archiving mandates will prevent scholars from publishing in top-tier journals (thus endangering tenure and promotion bids). In fact, most journals permit some measure of self-archiving, whether of post-prints (the manuscript of an article as edited for print) or of pre-prints (the manuscript of an article as submitted for print).[5] And it’s arguable that scholars have the responsibility to demand that those publishers and journals that don’t, as yet, permit self-archiving change their policies.

But there are other anxieties surrounding self-archiving that demand address as well. Some scholars are concerned that material that hasn’t been subjected to peer review can be deposited in such archives, thus undermining the quality control of institutional repositories generally; others are concerned that making published material available through self-archiving will have the effect of undermining already declining journal subscription figures; still others are concerned that archives needlessly complicate citational practices, by providing multiple avenues of access to published work. None of these concerns are borne out by the facts, however. Material in institutional repositories can and should be labeled as “pre-print” or “post-print,” thus giving a clear indication of its status with respect to peer review and, where possible, directing the interested reader to the final, published version of the text, with its appropriate citation. Such links to journals, and the discoverability of material published in them via institutional repositories, may in fact help promote purchases of articles, issues, or subscriptions from publishers once desirable content has been found. And projects such as the Open Archives Initiative’s OAI-PMH protocol for harvesting the metadata provided by institutional and disciplinary repositories is increasingly making such archives interoperable, and their contents more easily discoverable.

And let this be said clearly: increasing the discoverability of one’s 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.

Beyond self-archiving, however, lies what has been referred to as the “gold” road to open access: journals that are published online in a freely-accessible form. Such journals are surrounded by similar forms of misinformation — most notably, that they aren’t peer reviewed, and because they are made available for free, they must therefore be intellectually valueless, both of which assumptions are patently untrue — but the greatest concern that they raise for scholars and publishers is their economic model. After all, publishing still costs money, and if the journal’s subscribers aren’t financing it, who is?

Part of the reason for such concern has been the visibility of the Public Library of Science project; this non-profit open access publishing project launched its first journal, PLoS Biology, in October 2003, followed by several more such journals, all of which employ rigorous peer review and have developed high rankings in terms of selectivity and scholarly impact. However, the funding model for these journals, as for many other open-access journals in STEM fields, is author-pays, which is to say that authors are charged at times hefty page fees in order to publish their articles. PLoS Biology, in fact, charges $2900 in page fees to an author whose work is selected for inclusion in the journal.

Such a model works in the sciences, in large part because page fees have long been a part of the culture; scientists have for quite some time written publication costs into their funding proposals, and funders have agreed that the cost of publication should be funded as part of the cost of doing research. Transplanting such a model to the humanities will simply never work, as the vast majority of research in these fields is either self-funded or funded, directly or indirectly, by the scholar’s home institution; moreover, grants coming from agencies supporting humanities research are generally so small that there’s no room available for publishing costs.

This is only a problem, however, if “author-pays” is the only viable business model for open access journals — and it’s simply not. Many journals in the humanities have published in a free and open fashion since the early days of the web; the electronic book review, for instance, was founded in 1994, and has been in continuous, open publication since. Kairos, likewise, has been in open, online publication since 1996. And Open Humanities Press publishes a range of open-access, peer-reviewed journals online.[6] Journals such as these generally operate on very limited budgets, cobbling together a range of kinds of support, including grants from funding bodies and staff/in-kind support from the journal’s host institution. But much of the support that such journals rely upon is volunteer labor — unpaid editors and reviewers, volunteer designers and coders, and so forth.

This situation isn’t all that different from more traditional, publisher-based models of journal production; whether the end result is distributed by commercial or university presses, the support that those entities provide to a journal’s editors is generally slim at best. Economist Theodore C. Bergstrom argued this point in his 2001 paper, “Free Labor for Costly Journals?,” advocating that scholars refuse to publish in overpriced commercial journals. I, however, want to espouse a more radical position, and argue for what strikes me as the most important reason for scholars to espouse open-access publishing: reclaiming the value of our labor for the profession itself. I want to suggest, as I conclude this essay, that it isn’t just ethically incumbent on us as scholars to publish in open-access venues, but in fact to create more open-access publications, and more systems for their support. These systems might include new public or foundation-based granting agency programs specifically designed to support open-access publications. They might include more consortial agreements among universities to create and support open-access publications. And they might include the development of new tools to assist in the labor that goes into journal production, such as the Public Knowledge Project’s open-source project, Open Journal Systems, which helps to create a workflow that reduces a journal editor’s reliance on technical personnel and expensive web production.[7]

But the key point is that we need to take back our publications from the market-based economy, and to reorient scholarly communication within the gift economy that best enables our work to thrive. We are, after all, already doing the labor for free — the labor of research, the labor of writing, the labor of editing — as a means of contributing to the advancement of the collective knowledge in our fields. We should value our labor sufficiently to ensure that we, our institutions, our colleagues, and our students, have full and perpetual access to the results of our work — and promoting the development of open-access publishing venues, and contributing all of our work to them, are the best ways to meet that ethical imperative toward the widest possible distribution of the knowledge that we produce.

[1] I focus in what follows on journal and journal-like publishing, largely because of its role in the origins of the open access movement, but discussion of and projects supporting open-access book publishing are on the rise; see, for instance, the work of the National Academies Press, Rice University Press, and Open Humanities Press, and projects such as the Open Monograph Press, among many others.

[2] Contrary to some assumptions, the interlibrary loan (ILL) service of a smaller institutional or public library is not an adequate substitute for such direct access; though faculty at larger institutions rarely see the cost directly, ILL is not a free service, and many institutions are required to pass those charges on to the user.

[3] See Kelty, Christopher M. et al. “Anthropology of/in Circulation: The Future of Open Access and Scholarly Societies.” Cultural Anthropology 23.3 (2008): 559-588.

[4] For evidence of such dismissive responses, one might see the annual stories about those wacky papers being presented at the MLA.

[5] The SHERPA/RoMEO project maintains an extensive list of the copyright and self-archiving policies of publishers.

[6] An extensive list of open access journals may be found at the Directory of Open Access Journals project.

[7] A list of journals using Open Journal Systems is available on the PKP website.

On the Scholarly Press, the Manual of Style, and Intellectual Property

Stuart Shieber posted an interesting and troubling analysis a few days ago of the recommendations of the Chicago Manual of Style with respect to open access publishing. The upshot of these recommendations appears to be “fight it,” or at least “limit the threat it poses to publishers’ ownership of the materials of scholarship.” As Shieber points out, there’s no small irony in the fact that

the book is owned by a university (The University of Chicago, as stated in three copyright notices on each page) filled with faculty and students whose interests are not best served by this kind of short-term profit-maximizing attitude.

And yet, there’s the problem: while The University of Chicago claims ownership of the Chicago Manual of Style, that ownership comes through the intermediary of the University of Chicago Press. And the press, like nearly all US-based university presses — which is to say that I’m not particularly picking on Chicago here; this could have happened at any such university press that happened to be the publisher of such an influential style guide — isn’t part of the university, except in a most nominal sense. The existence of the press is meant to confer a kind of prestige on the university, but, as I discuss in chapter 5 of Planned Obsolescence, the trend over the course of the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first has been to so severely attenuate the relationship between the press and the institution that, for all intents and purposes, most presses are now independently operating non-profit corporations that sometimes happen to reside on university campuses.

Over the course of those decades, most university presses successfully fought off the stigma of being seen as “vanity” publishing operations by professionalizing — turning away from local authors in favor of a field-based publishing model, seeking the “best” work being produced nationally and internationally. The result was increased prestige, and increased income from sales — but that last has proven to be a double-edged sword. Because university presses are no longer seen by their institutions as serving in-house needs, and because they now appear able to generate income from the broader academy, most such presses have had the financial support provided to them by their universities slashed, making them increasingly dependent upon commercial income and decreasingly a part of the broader university culture.

The result, as we see in the open access section of the Chicago Manual of Style, is, perhaps of necessity, a wholly commercial understanding of their function, their products, and their ownership thereof. The press’s survival might seem to depend upon it. And because of that understanding, Chicago, which one might in previous editions have understood to be addressing both authors and publishers, has here clearly announced its partisanship: it is a volume intended to serve publishers, and not the authors those publishers publish, or the universities those authors populate.

And that’s fine. I’m not here calling for a boycott of Chicago style by open access publications — if anything, Chicago could stand to learn from their example — but I do want us to look carefully at the financial implications for all of our universities of the style guide’s having staked out such a position with respect to scholarly publishing and intellectual property. And I want us to recognize that there is another way.

It’s not an easy option, to be sure: it’ll be resisted by everyone involved, from established presses to university administrations to scholars themselves. And there are lots of complexities that I haven’t fully worked out here, of course. But there are a few very basic, if massive, changes that can help get us out of this mess:

  1. Every institution that requires its faculty to publish needs to develop a scholarly publishing service. It might not necessarily be an entirely in-house, single-institution operation — it might be productive to think about consortial publishing arrangements paralleling our current library consortia — but every institution must have a publishing system of some sort.
  2. Those publishing systems must focus on publishing the work of the faculty at that institution, re-creating the connection between the publisher and the institution that has been allowed to deteriorate over the last several decades.
  3. All of the work published through these services must be released in open access form, saving our libraries from the slow death by budgetary strangulation they’ve been suffering, and making the work available to all students, scholars, and interested members of the public. The point of all this publishing, after all, is making the scholarship public; the more freely it can circulate, the better.
  4. Because of that open access imperative, the university publisher — once again genuinely a university publisher — must be fully supported by its institution. If it can find ways to recuperate some costs, perhaps through the sale of print-on-demand editions of work or through other specialized services, so be it, but the university cannot abdicate its responsibility with respect to supporting scholarly publishing, any more than it can expect the library to become self-supporting.

The first question, of course, is about the press once again coming to be seen as a vanity outfit: I can hear the cries of what about peer review? The bottom line here, of course, is that peer review is already the responsibility of scholars, though it’s currently facilitated by publishers; under a model such as this one, scholars will only be required to acknowledge and take charge of that responsibility. University publishers should of course continue to facilitate peer review, but will likely be best served by doing so openly, curating the kinds of crowd-sourced conversation that can genuinely help an author improve a text and that can give us a more detailed sense of the impact an author’s work is having on the field.

There are many, many other questions to be asked about a system like this one, some of which I take up in Planned Obsolescence, but the key point here is clear: as long as university publishing is beholden to the bottom line, it cannot serve the needs of the university community. Only in radically changing the relationship between the publisher and the institution can we set aside the misguided questions about ownership that Chicago has gotten caught up in, and instead genuinely meet the ethical imperatives of open access to knowledge that the university ought to serve.

[Update, 6.34am: edited to fix link problem.]
[Update, 5 Jan 2011, 7.04am: reverted to older version to fix WP iPhone app format hosing, and re-corrected spelling of Stuart Shieber’s name.]

Relaunching The Anxiety of Obsolescence

Back in 2006, a few months before the release of my first book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, I launched a small WordPress-driven site to promote it. The site contained the full introduction and first chapter of the text, plus the introductory bits of the subsequent chapters, as well as gathering blurbs and reviews and so forth.

In the four-plus years since then, that site came to seem dated: the text column was awfully narrow, the template a little constrained, and the content… well, it was border-pushing enough for its time to have as much content posted as I did, but there are better ways of going about it now, and I’d been itching to get the full text into circulation.

I had a brief chat earlier this year with the folks at Vanderbilt University Press, my publisher, asking whether they’d approve of a site redesign that would include posting the full text in CommentPress. Happily, they agreed with my reasoning: four-plus years in, sales have slowed considerably, and it’s unlikely that having the full text online will keep someone from buying a copy of the book. If anything, coming across it through Google might persuade a reader to buy the text. So sure, go for it, was their basic response.

So this morning, I’m happy to announce the relaunch of The Anxiety of Obsolescence for your full-text reading and discussion pleasure.

Enormous thanks are due to my friends at Vanderbilt University Press for allowing me to republish the text in this format. I hope that you’ll support them by purchasing a copy of the book, or by asking your library to purchase a copy. In fact, VUP is generously offering a 20% discount off your entire order if you enter the code ANXIETY when you check out.