The Obligation of Open Access

It’s open access week and I’ve decided to make a new commitment to OA: I’ve signed the Open Access pledge and would encourage my colleagues to do the same. Might there be a risk in doing this as a graduate student, where the “publish or perish” mentality may mean publishing somewhere that won’t budge on OA? Perhaps. But if we’re out to help reform academic publishing I think the path needs to head all the way down to the graduate level, not just among faculty. My pledge is that I will do volunteer reviewing for only one closed academic journal per year. The remainder of my time will be spent on doing work for journals that agree to make their content freely available after 12 months of publication the way that NIH-funded research does.

My understanding of academic publishing is this: Journals are perceived to be the pinnacle of quality scholarship. Academics volunteer their time to peer review articles or books, and editors consider these reviews for their potential for publication, resubmission, or denial. Academic publishers print the journal and send it out to its subscribers, a majority of whom tend to be libraries but also includes individual members.

The economic model surrounding the academic publication of journals no longer works. Libraries cannot continue to hold printed journals from a lack of resources (money) and physical space. Plus, the journals are read by so few on campuses that libraries have to make decisions about which copies they keep on-site, sometimes to the detriment of scholars who work in specific fields. Most scholars and graduate students tend to rely on these institutions for access because the costs of acquiring journals and articles is incredibly high.

In some ways, I understand the conservatism among journal publishers who are seeking ways to ensure copies of articles are not made or distributed. They have a business model that, as I understand it, is fragile: “consistent revenue” is probably not a term used very frequently in conjunction with academic publishing. And there is nothing wrong with them wanting to make a profit off their services. Yet, the real work lies on the scholar producing the content. A lot of labor, time, and energy goes into the creation of journal articles, and to know the realities of publishing and limited reach that most articles receive is dismaying. But the same is true on the side of the journal: volunteering to review or edit a journal also carries a high level of labor; more often than not, this work is done for free because publishers claim that a name appearing in a journal conveys status to the scholar.

Critics might lambast this as irrelevant. After all, since scholars are paid by the university, any time they put in towards academic publishing is part of the job. But, as danah boyd points out, others profit off the labor of academics. Instead of pouring energy into the closed ecosystem of academic journals, these labors should be directed toward open-access journals drawn around an community of academics committed to unrestricted access to their work.

The humanities need this sort of transformation in publication models. The model for print publishing no longer works because the structure is no longer limited to print as the sole distribution medium. Paper publishing is expensive with its associated costs of material, staff, copyediting, marketing, and distribution. Open access publishers have four key areas where they must focus their costs: bandwidth, copyediting, marketing, and staffing. If academic publishers are going to insist on print publication, they need to devise new market options. The culture of the academy also needs to shift to one that: 1) supports open access research, and 2) gives that research the same respect it gives print. We shouldn’t maintain the norms. Since academics are the ones doing the bulk of the labor behind journals, we should do it without the traditional publishing models.

Scholars, especially those who receive public funding for their research, have an obligation to make their research open access. This remains voluntary and non-coercive, but scholars who are going to use money supplied to them through taxpayers should give back as a public good. Scholarship should have value when it can be consumed by anyone who might find the work relevant to them or their interests, not just based on which prestigious journal the work appears in. If the philosophical goal of the university is to serve as the sanctuary of knowledge, then the work we do should be publicly accessible. Not just open access for students, but open access for anyone seeking exposure to the world electronically.

[I’ve written previously about open access scholarship, but have tended to marry digital humanities and open access. That is not my intent above. Open access should be a principle adopted by academics regardless of whether they consider themselves digital humanists or not. See also “Open Access Scholarship and Computers in the Humanities” and “Open Source Scholarship, and Why History Should Be Open Source.”]