Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values (part three)

There’s a fascinating exchange around open access publishing and the reasons scholars might resist it developing right now, beginning with Dan Cohen’s post, Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values, which he wrote for the Hacking the Academy volume, a crowd-sourced book he and Tom Scheinfeldt are editing (to be published by the University of Michigan Press’s Digital Culture Books). Dan argues for the ethical — as well as the practical — imperative for contemporary scholars to publish their work in openly distributed forms and venues.

Stephen Ramsay then published a response, Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values (continued), in which he points out that the ways we substitute what we now understand as “peer review” for real evaluation and judgment by our peers, particularly at the stage of tenure and promotion reviews, so overwhelms this ethical/practical imperative that we never even really get to the stage of deciding whether publishing openly could be a good thing or not.

I’ve left a comment on that response, which got lengthy enough that I thought I’d reproduce and expand upon it here. Steve writes, in the latter paragraphs on his post,

The idea of recording “impact” (page hits, links, etc.) is often ridiculed as a “popularity contest,” but it’s not at all clear to me how such a system would be inferior to the one we have. In fact, it would almost certainly be a more honest system (you’ll notice that “good publisher” is very often tied to the social class represented by the sponsoring institution).

My response to this passage begins with a big “amen.” At many institutions, in fact, the criteria for assessing a scholar’s research for tenure and promotion includes some statement about that scholar’s “impact” on the field at a national or international level, and we treat the peer-review process as though it can give us information about such impact. But the fact of an article or a monograph’s having been published by a reputable journal/press that employed the mechanisms of peer review as we currently know it — this can only ever give us binary information, and binary information based on an extraordinarily small sample size. Why should the two-to-three readers selected by a journal/press, plus that entity’s editor/editorial board, be the arbiter of the authority of scholarly work — particularly in the digital, when we have so many more complex means of assessing the effect of/response to scholarly work via network analysis?

I don’t mean to suggest that going quantitative is anything like the answer to our current problems with assessment in promotion and tenure reviews — our colleagues in the sciences would no doubt present us with all kinds of cautions about relying too exclusively on metrics like citation indexes and impact factor — but given that we in the digital humanities excel at both uncovering the networked relationships among texts and at interpreting and articulating what those relationships mean, couldn’t we bring those skills to bear on creating a more productive form of post-publication review that serves to richly and carefully describe the ongoing impact that a scholar’s work is having, regardless of the venue and type of its publication? If so, some of the roadblocks to a broader acceptance of open access publication might be broken down, or at least rendered break-down-able.

There seem to me two key imperatives in the implementation of such a system, however, which get at the personnel review issues that Steve is pointing to — one of them is that senior, tenured scholars have got to lead the way not just in demanding the development and acceptance of such a system but in making use of it, in committing ourselves to publishing openly because we can, worrying about the “authority” or the prestige of such publishing models later. And second, we have got to present compelling arguments to our colleagues about why these models must be taken seriously — not just once, but over and over again, making sure that we’ve got the backs of the more junior scholars who are similarly trying to do this work.

It comes back to the kinds of ethical obligation that both Dan and Steve are writing about — but for the reasons Steve articulates, the obligation can’t stop with publishing in open access venues, but must extend to working to develop and establish the validity of new means of assessment appropriate to those venues.


  1. At many institutions, in fact, the criteria for assessing a scholar’s research for tenure and promotion includes some statement about that scholar’s “impact” on the field at a national or international level, and we treat the peer-review process as though it can give us information about such impact.

    I suppose this must be true, but it’s sort of shocking to me. It’s not the case at my institution, for example; “impact” and “publications are very much not the same thing, and demonstrating the latter can only serve as partial evidence for the former. I think this is the case in most cases, but tenure candidates are under the misguided (and perhaps misinformed) assumption that publications = impact. Impact has to do with somehow accounting for what your work has done, not just the fact that it has been published.

  2. @Ian: I completely agree, and yet have to wonder how frequently there are cases in which the impact of work as you define it has been extremely high, but the quantity of appropriately authorized work has not, with impact outweighing quantity and resulting in a positive tenure/promotion decision. I think what Steve is pointing to is precisely the fact that in many areas of the humanities we’ve come to mistake peer-reviewed publication for impact. And what I’m after is developing the kinds of systems that will allow us to demonstrate exactly what you’re after: the impact a text has had, the conversations it has spawned, the changes it has inspired.

  3. I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience partaking of P&T at the school and college levels, such a situation is very much supported at my institution. If you do one badass world-changing thing, then so be it. Most people don’t though. In any event, I think the key observation that you’re making is this: publication is something we do for a reason not just for its own sake.

  4. Yes, exactly. And my sense is that if we start publishing for that reason, rather than for the lines on the CV that are currently the mark of distinction in reviews, we’re much more likely at least to take a chance on trying to do one badass world-changing thing.

    I do wonder, though: how likely is that badass world-changing thing to make it through our current systems of review?

  5. how likely is that badass world-changing thing to make it through our current systems of review?

    Good question. I suppose that’s up to us, but for what it’s worth, I think the humanities is particularly behind the times in dealing with that sort of conservatism. I guess that’s not exactly a news flash.

  6. As a junior faculty member just finishing my 2nd year I am absolutely thrilled that this conversation is happening (although not currently in my discipline – but I’m working on that). My only contention is with the premise

    “…senior, tenured scholars have got to lead the way…”

    I realize these faculty make up the majority of the P&T committees, but I think this kind of movement has to be a bottom-up, groundswell kind of thing to gain the momentum it needs. As junior faculty I think we have to stop bowing to the current tenure gods and work to create the changes we so desperately need in our academic institutions. (Don’t we have an ethical obligation just as much as senior faculty? Does not having tenure let us off that hook?) When junior faculty can start garnering “impact” statistics such as page views, downloads, streams of comments from colleagues then (and maybe only then) will enough senior, tenured faculty join the movement. My point being: we can’t wait on them to make it safe for us.

  7. Hi, Trish. You’re absolutely right — you can’t wait — but what I’m trying to press for here is the obligation of the senior folks who are already safe to take a public stand in favor of open access, not in terms of their own publishing practices but in support of junior scholars coming up for review. Such a bottom-up movement among junior scholars is important, and necessary, but without the senior scholars who not only serve on the P&T committees but who write the outside evaluations for review cases, things could be much rougher for those untenured faculty than they need be.


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