February 16, 2018

Making Open the Default Position | Peer to Peer Review

The faculty of the University of California (UC) system have adopted an open access mandate. This is huge. Not only will it put a lot of scholarship from ten notable universities online for the benefit of all, it signals a shift in perception of what is normal academic practice.

It’s interesting that it has happened on the heels of a major scholarly society (the American Historical Association) issuing a draft statement arguing that digital open access to dissertations may harm young scholars, who should be allowed a six-year period in which to turn their research into a book contract in time for a tenure decision.

Both statements invoke the importance of choice but in different ways, and the difference has to do with assumptions about the default position for scholarship. In one case it’s open and in the other, closed. One says, “Let’s make things better for all of us,” and the other says, “Let’s make sure we don’t make things worse for those who are on the tenure track.”

I was dismayed by the American Historical Association’s (AHA) argument that open access to dissertations might harm a historian’s opportunity to reuse that research for a book, which (the association argues) is the most important format for communicating history scholarship and the normal expectation for an academic historian to achieve tenure. I also understand the complexities of the present moment for humanities scholars, which contribute to an urge to conserve one’s ideas in the hope that they can be alchemically transmuted by a publisher into prestige and a chance at a having a steady academic job that pays a living wage.

I am inclined to look favorably on student freedom of choice over blanket university policies that force a dissertation online, even though dissertations in the past had a public-facing identity as a matter of course. Insisting that finished and accepted dissertations should be theoretically public but in as inconvenient a format as possible seems absurd to me, and asking libraries to put printed dissertations on their shelves assumes (wrongly) that it will make them safely inaccessible to most people. This annoys me in exactly the way that I am annoyed when trade publishers describe going to a library to check out a book as such a lot of trouble that it’s the kind of friction that will preserve their business model. Clearly, those who are in favor of friction don’t have much experience with libraries or they wouldn’t find them so terribly difficult and blissfully underused.

The savvy proponents of the UC mandate didn’t set their sights on the ideal. They were realistic and focused on journal articles, with an opt-out clause. Though some critics, such as Michael Eisen, feel this renders the mandate useless, I disagree. To gain the consensus such a broad mandate requires, some compromises have to be made and that means allowing faculty a chance to exercise choice. What this mandate does, though, is make a joint public statement that public access to scholarship is important to the faculty of the UC system, so they will collectively favor publishers who support this goal and will avoid those that don’t. Though it won’t prevent faculty from publishing in venues that don’t support open access, it will require a conscious decision to do so, a decision that otherwise many faculty don’t make at all, because they haven’t been aware of what rights they have traditionally given up when they sign that fine print as casually as most of us click through terms of service.

The AHA, which as a publisher is skeptical about open access (mistakenly assuming it always operates on an author-pays model) and protective of the benefits its own publishing brings in terms of subscription revenue and membership retention, has taken a very different stand than the Modern Language Association (MLA). The MLA responded to concerns about junior scholars being able to have a book contract in hand before the tenure clock ran out by studying the matter and producing a thorough and well-researched report that recommended that criteria for tenure be changed. The report further questioned the nature of the dissertation, which (during a period of growth for scholarly book publishing) had become a “larval monograph,” an identity of relatively recent invention. The MLA had a transparent member-driven process that gathered evidence and made evidence-based recommendations of the sort one would expect of conscientious scholars. It was forward-thinking, holistic in its analysis of scholarly publishing, and an impressive piece of scholarship in its own right.

Six years after examining tenure practices, the MLA revised its own author agreements to give authors copyright and encouraged them to circulate their work as widely as possible. Rosemary Feal, executive director of the association, argued that their journals retain real value even if authors share articles online because a journal is an important work of curation. Having articles freely available, she believed, would raise the journal’s profile rather than threaten it. Besides, it was what the members wanted.

An interesting thing happened in the wake of the heated response to the AHA’s statement. Though some university press directors and staff said they avoid publishing revised dissertations, particularly if they are available online, several highly respected university presses indicated that open access is actually good for their business. Acquiring editors can discover promising material and assess the potential for a successful book by seeing discussion form around openly accessible precursors. That doesn’t detract from their role as curators who can improve a manuscript and distribute it widely.

When a large group of faculty as influential and productive as those in the UC system say they believe open access to scholarship is so important that they are willing to make their publishing decisions accordingly, and when the MLA throws open the door for authors to make their work open access, it casts doubt on the AHA’s assumptions that open access may be fine for other fields but won’t work for history; that tenure requirements appropriately focus on book-shaped research containers; and that these debates needn’t reflect the potential for new forms of communicating research or the reduced market for, and reach of, traditionally published scholarly books.

The ensuing debate found many historians agreeing with their association’s stance and a great many disagreeing, expressing shock, distress, and frustration. All scholars have choices to make, and choice is good. It’s also becoming apparent to me that, in spite of a climate of anxiety in an era of shrinking support for scholarship, a lot of academic authors are choosing open access, and when that becomes the default position, it will be good for all of us.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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