Making Open More Open

Signing up to the Networked Researcher’s Unconference means that I’ve forced myself to do two very valuable things. The first, and probably most valuable, is to get some writing done. My PhD is taking up the lion’s share of my research time at the moment, and this means that smaller projects have tended to be pushed to the side. At the last count I had 4 conference papers that need to be written up and published, and another one to prepare for New Media and the Public Sphere that is happening in a couple of weeks’ time. Thursday is my normal research day, and so I’ve decided that I’ll put the PhD to one side for this week and spend the day trying to finish one of these other projects, and then post it on here. Saying it out loud means that I now have to do it.

What’s perhaps more useful is the way in which Open Access Week and this Unconference have forced me to think some more about the notion of Open Access itself.  I re-joined the academic world some 5 years ago, having completed my undergraduate degree at Leeds in 1998. The intervening 10 years were spent working as a television producer/director and a magazine editor, and I was appointed to a lectureship primarily to teach media production. Having spent so long in the world outside Universities, I found some aspects of academic life baffling. The lack of financial support for academic staff to pursue research activity was one of the things I struggled to understand but the strangest, by far, was the model used for academic publishing. If I wrote an article for a journal I wouldn’t get a penny for my troubles, it wouldn’t see the light of day for a year, and if anyone else wanted to read it they’d have to pay a fortune for the privilege How and why this system exists today is still a question that I struggle with.

Thankfully,  I’m far from being the only one to question the value of a publication system that seems designed to hamper the free exchange of ideas. The opening up of academic publication has been discussed extensively over the summer, especially here in the UK where the Finch Report has bought it to mainstream attention, and where the Higher Education Funding Councils have committed themselves to opening access to research outputs by 2014. Both developments are steps in the right direction, but remain wedded to a conception of Open Access which is fairly limited. What the Finch Report essentially proposes is that the process of publishing articles or papers is made free to the reader, with the author of the paper paying the Article Publishing Charge (APC), presumably using a portion of any grants that have funded the original research. There is also some valuable recommendations on how older content might be made more available, on pricing, and on the re-use of content; but at its heart, the Finch Report is about improving the current model, rather than a more radical overhaul of academic publishing. And in fairness to Dame Janet Finch and her panel, what they propose is fairly close to the Budapest-Bethesda-Berlin (or BBB) definition of Open Access. But if we’re talking about providing free online access to this material, why do we need to go through a publisher?

The answer that would conventionally be given is that academic publishers provide quality assurance through the peer-review system. We pay our APC so that the work can be read by other experts in the field, who will help test its validity, give feedback, request changes and ultimately help shape a stronger piece of research. The importance of locating academic outputs within their disciplinary contexts, and the role of communities of learning is central to how we work. What is of less importance is the current system, which replaces these communities with closed social networks. James Boyle discussed the potential for a “New Mertonianism” a few years ago, arguing for a conception of non-academics not only as passive consumers (or “consumptive users”) of scholarly work – which is the assumption that underpins the conventional Open Access model – but also as “potential colleagues”, working with us as part of the community which produces new scholarship. The irony of the situation is that we already posses the tools to allow us to embrace this New Mertonianism. Not only is the barrier to (online) publication now very low, websites which are built on blogging engines also come with extensive commenting tools as standard.  Writing a paper and distributing it to reviewers has never been simpler, in theory – Post it online and wait for the comment sections to fill up.

While there are plenty who have sought to move the academic publishing model in this direction – including Networked Researcher itself, HASTAC, or Digital Humanities Now – there is still some way to go before publishing research outputs in blog form takes the place of submitting to journals. Much of this is down to the issue of credibility, and fear of the dreaded REF. You may want to get your paper out to the world ASAP, but if you’re working for a research institution, it’s inevitable that someone in the higher echelons will warn against it. Self-publishing papers online happens, but it tends to go hand-in-hand with more traditional journal submission. David Gauntlett of the University of Westminster freely admits that he prefers blog posting (short) research findings, using the conversational nature of the medium to feed into book-length research, but that the pressures of the REF have driven him to submit to a  journal. If a member of staff at an institution which was the highest ranked media and communication research unit in the 2008 RAE feels pressured to follow the traditional journal route, then those of us lower down the academic food chain are forever at their mercy.

(What might be done to facilitate online publication as an alternative to journals is, perhaps, a more important discussion. It’s not one that I’m going to get into here, but may try later in the week).