[Book Review] Martin Paul Eve. Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future
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Martin Paul Eve, Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. $50 Cloth. Open Access E-Book.
With Open Access and the Humanities, Martin Paul Eve offers a slender, but surprisingly thorough, volume engaging many of the major preoccupations of the open access movement in scholarly communication. In fact, the book’s strongest virtue may be the clarity and economy with which Professor Eve gathers and presents the benefits, risks, and feasible means of adapting Humanities disciplines to open access licensing, distribution, and funding models. Much of this gathering and presenting can feel fairly familiar to anyone already immersed in the slightly more mature conversation associated with STEM publishing (many of the “contexts” and “controversies” to which the book’s subtitle alludes). There really is much to review, however, and as a primer for the open–access curious humanist, Eve’s review should come across as congenial, convenient, and in many cases even demystifying.
The book is neatly organized across five chapters. A brief introduction ably situates the reader in relation to well-trod, but easily tripped-over, ground (including nicely contextualized distinctions between often jargony terminology [i.e., “green” vs. “gold” open access models and “gratis” vs. “libre” modes]). Subsequent chapters tackle “Digital Economics” (subdivided into excurses on “cultural capital,” “academic labour and publishing,” and “scholarship and the commodity form”); “Open Licensing”; “Monographs”; and “Innovations.” In coming to the book initially, I had expected the latter of these two chapters to be the meatiest. Questions around how to approach managing the business of producing long-form arguments are many of the most pressing ones for the “book disciplines,” and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect a book called Open Access and the Humanities to dive into such questions with special gusto. This book doesn’t really do that, and anyone who flips ahead directly to Chapter 4 will likely end up disappointed.
There are, of course, some important features distinguishing academic monographs from articles, but almost all are differences of degree rather than kind. Books take longer to write and evaluate. They also cost much more to produce than articles do, but, as with all other forms of scholarship, the challenges that book-length arguments pose to open access models are ultimately economic and legal ones. It is fitting, therefore, that “Digital Economics” and “Open Licensing” are chapters where the greatest intellectual muscle is brought to bear. I want to focus most of my attention on the former of these, but suffice it to say that Eve’s review of open licensing, its virtues and (limited) perils, in Chapter 3, is at once pithy and informative. It is here, for example, that he makes the trenchant observation that open licensing could substantially improve the impact of humanities research by helping Wikipedia level-up:
Regardless of whether one favours the anarchic construction of this online encyclopedia (and irrespective of the quality controls in some areas), it is a remarkable resource and the first port of call for many lay readers who wish to learn about a topic. While it is already possible to quote portions of research works within Wikipedia under fair use provisions, to extend this reuse to include larger portions of work, or even whole articles, would give a far more visible presence to humanities research in popular, public space. (98)
This simple, but (I think) inescapable, conclusion will bring a chill to Wikipedia-haters and those inclined to fret about plagiarism/“intellectual integrity.” It might also appall many academic publishers, for whom the apparent divergence between the use value and commodity value of such scholarly data remains puzzling to the point of paralysis. In the broader view, however, those of us most interested in the longer-term health and centrality of humanities work as a public good have to see this as a very promising prospect. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve learned everything I know (and ever will know) about the Battle of Austerlitz from Tolstoy and Wikipedia. How much less ashamed would I feel if I believed Wikipedia’s information actually reflected the current state of the scholarly conversation? Maybe, I would get interested in learning more. Maybe I’d buy a book... By lowering barriers to access and re-use, broad adoption of open licensing really could transform the way non-specialists engage with knowledge at the fringe of their daily lives.
From my current position—having worked as an acquiring editor and editorial director at a University Press for the last few years and as an academic librarian before that—Chapter 2, “Digital Economics,” earns the double-sawbuck I spent on the POD paperback of Open Access and the Humanities (an open access version is available through Cambridge UP (link: http://www.cambridge.org/do/titles/open-access-and-humanities-contexts-controversies-and-future/). I’ve marked up my copy quite a bit, and I always keep it handy, as I find myself obliged to go back often to help clarify my own thinking about the snarled virtues and predicaments currently caked together in our present scholarship infrastructure. The heart of Eve’s account is his tidy and compelling unpacking of the “complex and intersecting social and financial economies of value that make up the landscape [of scholarly communication/publishing]” (43). Eve acknowledges but moves well past the “serials crisis” in libraries to explain that current financial hardships are more complicated than the reductively simple “crisis in scholarly communication” typically trotted out by both librarians and publishers when they want to criticize one another for breaking the system. There are, of course, crises within the crisis: “paradoxically, there are both supply-side crises (too much competition for top journal slots [which leads to lower-tier journal and monograph proliferation]) and demand-side crises (institutions’ inability to afford all materials for students and researchers) in academic publishing. These are split across two forms of scholarly economics...: the ‘economics’ of scholarly prestige and the economics of paying for the labour of publishing” (15). A third, growing, crisis comes in the form of utilitarian pressures external to the University (i.e., social and political pressure to quantify the value of a college education and the types of research conducted by University faculty).
When taken together, all these challenges seem insuperable. Libraries have tended to favor the idea of open access because it offers a plausible solution to the demand-side crisis (by shifting cost to the supply side while also expanding access). Publishers and authors (in the Humanities and social sciences, at least) have found the plausibility of the solution less compelling. At times, publishers and authors seem to share similar reasons for doubt. Bound up in the prestige-economy of the supply-side crisis are valid questions about how the substantial costs associated with processes and labor involved in quality control (which has already suffered substantially over recent decades) can possibly be borne by impecunious non-STEM scholars. Likewise, as a market-bound, sales-based proxy measure for quality in the professional credentialing process, publisher prestige has a regulatory function that scholars and publishers find relatively unproblematic. As Eve describes it, prestige “economically mirrors academic labour scarcity because it stands as a surrogate in order to avoid the labour-intensive practices of constantly reappraising academic material in every situation” (46). For the scholars, this state-of-affairs also reflects a stability they associate with hallowed institutional traditions. Meanwhile, university presses and other academic publishers have been adapting their business models for years to minimize competition by exploiting niche acquiring areas; even the smallest have found ways to carve out prestigious, financially rewarding (though rarely rewarding enough) lists in highly specialized fields. However financially untenable these markets end up looking (monograph sales, for example, continue to dip every year across the board), presses have a vested interest in resisting change, something scholars are not likely to see or care about. The processes for “adding value” that academic publishers have long brought to scholarship: peer-review, developmental editing, copyediting, layout, design, and even “list building” and promotion have become increasingly modular. As they become further disintermediated, all that remains of the publisher’s real value proposition is the basic credentialing/prestige power of its imprimatur. Eve treats these modular components as “glue layers,” and ultimately argues that prestige could and should reside in academic editors themselves (whether journal editors or book series editors).
All of this diagnosis amounts to a valuable statement of the economic problems of “scholarly publishing” in all their complexity, and it can be a real help to one (me) thinking through the likely consequences of these problems for the key definitional features of “publishing.” I’m thinking specifically here of the essential publishing functions described by authors like Simon Bhaskar and Christine Borgman; viz., filtering, amplifying, and framing of content (Bhaskar) or legitimation, dissemination, access, preservation, and curation (Borgman). Eve repeatedly, and rightly, stresses that open access has inescapable costs. Publishing and scholarship are undeniably forms of labor under capital. Like free software, which Richard Stallman famously described as “a matter of liberty, not price... free as in free speech, not as in free beer,” even libre or CC-BY-licensed open access scholarship comes with congealed costs that are hidden from different stakeholders depending on where they stand. On the one hand, “academics choose to publish on the basis of prestige... and often do not know (or care) ... how much their choice of journal or book venue costs ... [A]cademics publish and consume but it is libraries that purchase” (38). On the other hand, even though many academics are paid a salary to do their research (at least notionally), ever-swelling ranks of “contingent faculty” are almost exclusively not. Many tenure track faculty in the humanities have teaching loads that effectively render their research extracurricular. This labor situation often seems fairly invisible to librarians, open access ideologues, and even senior faculty.
A sustainable knowledge commons will never be a communitarian utopia. In order to survive and thrive in the digitally-networked era, the Humanities and Social Sciences academy and its partners (public and private) will have to find ways to continue to perform the core functions of quality control (including quality of content and frames) while also reducing barriers to scholarship and also demonstrating social relevance. This will almost inevitably require significant further disruption of the processes currently employed in performing these core publishing functions. Eve argues that lowering use/reuse barriers will actually go a long way towards demonstrating social relevance. The previously-cited Wikipedia argument provides one example, but he also makes compelling cases for greater classroom impact via cheaper coursepacks (95), community translation efforts (99), text-mining, and new modes of representation (100). Open licensing, Eve asserts, should ultimately increase rather than undermine intellectual integrity by enabling more robust chains of citation/verification (27). These outcomes are well-aligned with basic academic and intellectual values. If they can be achieved alongside more efficient (albeit alternative) modular mechanisms for filtering content and policing prestige, it’s hard to see why the whole academy (libraries and scholars) wouldn’t increasingly want to adjust in this direction. The “if” here is a big one, of course. Eve is optimistic and pessimistic at once:
One essential truth must always stand as a starting point: there is enough money within the global system to cover the current rate of publication. Certainly, under the present arrangement there is an insufficiently equitable distribution of capital among institutions to allow everyone to have access, an aspect that could just be reversed to the supply side through article and book processing charges for gold open access if care is not taken. (70)
So, there’s enough money in the system to flip the business model to one where institutions pay for universal access up front, but there’s also enough money in the system to make gold open access look like a nice market opportunity for shrewd profiteers. If we aren’t careful, current access inequities (insufficient library purchasing power) could be replaced by a different access gap (exclusion of authors working at institutions that can’t afford APCs). Eve’s proposed answer to this dilemma lies in consortial operations like Open Library for the Humanities (for which he is an academic project director)—a humanities prepublication megajournal that feeds more rigorously vetted “overlay journals,” which behave essentially as autonomous frames for specialized content. Notably, OLH does not currently position itself to address the question of open access monograph publishing. Nevertheless, the logic underlying Eve’s assessment of the various economic factors constraining the current scene of scholarly book publishing points to OLH-like solutions as the only feasible solutions in the long term.
The current field is crowded with collaborative models, some (like Knowledge Unlatched) seem designed to protect traditional publishers as integrated hubs of the core publishing functions, others (like the K|N Associates’ Open Access Network, Mellon’s recent waves of open access funding experiments, and the AAU/ARL Prospectus for an Institutionally Funded First-Book Subvention) seem less explicitly invested in protecting traditional firms without being explicitly invested in disrupting them, either. Which, if any, of these approaches will succeed obviously remains to be seen, but Open Access and the Humanities serves as a compelling intellectual basis for the applied solution Eve himself favors and leads. That said, Eve’s book is hardly an advertisement for OLH. The book should be an inspiration and, in many ways, a practical guide for those interested in pursuing related experiments at a time when change is desperately needed.
Since 2012, Aaron McCollough has been the editorial director for the University of Michigan Press and Michigan Publishing. He continues to serve as acquiring editor-at-large for the Press’s Digital Culture Books imprint, which specializes in simultaneous publication of Creative Commons licensed print and “free-to-read” digital monographs and an increasing emphasis on born digital scholarship.
McCollough was formerly the subject specialist and liaison librarian for English Language and Literature as well as Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. He holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Michigan and an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers Workshop. He is the author of five books of poems; his sixth, Rank, is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in September. Along with Karla Kelsey he is co-publisher of SplitLevel Texts which publishes two trans-genre literary titles a year.