Open access?

This morning I quietly put the opening salvo of my doctoral thesis online. No doubt when this was submitted the hard-bound copy to my institution I signed something prohibiting such activities. Frankly, I don’t care. This is why.

As a previous post made clear, I have little love at present by the academic publishing industry. Pleasingly I am far from alone in holding these sentiments. More pleasing still is that academics and commentators are collectively going beyond the ‘they didn’t publish my work so I am bitter’ discontents. These criticisms, we might argue, fall into two camps.

The first, and as it happens the most vociferous and public faced, probably should now be called the ‘Monbiot Position’. To quote (at length):

Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose [...] What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning [...] The knowledge monopoly is as unwarranted and anachronistic as the corn laws. Let’s throw off these parasitic overlords and liberate the research that belongs to us.

Monbiot is hardly novel in decrying the egregious profiteering of academic publishers and the counter-productivity of the structures and pathways they force knowledge-makers into. Such sentiments, for example, underpinned a faculty decision at MIT two years ago to move to open access publishing. Yet where Monbiot is most successful, if simultaneously a little sensationalist, is in using comparisons with Murdoch to make his point. In so doing the ‘problem’ is released from the confines of academic debate and enters the realm of public discourse. We wait to see how far this will travel.

The second major criticism of academic publishers concerns the ownership of power over the creation and distribution of knowledge. At present, as Monbiot makes clear, knowledge-makers occupy a subservient role. Here I believe we must stretch our rhetorical wings beyond mainstream publications and enter (deep breath) the world of Digital Humanities scholarship for inspiration.

As PM on the City and Region project (phase II website launching soon; formerly Historic Rents) I take it upon myself to engage with literature emerging from the DHums community. Quite unlike the particular corner of historical scholarship with which I have been accustomed, DHums is (with a few exceptions) an open-access, egalitarian, and blogospheric space. My surprise over this lack of boundaries and firewalls can be summarised by examples such as Brian Croxall‘s #389dh class page and an exchange I had on September 5th with Melissa Terras. What I find invigorating about DHums scholarship is the extent to which practitioners are taking liberal ‘wishful thinking’ and making it seem thoroughly attainable and achievable. Take this post by Mark Sample from May 25th entitled ‘The digital humanities is not about building, it’s about sharing’:

We are no longer bound by the physical demands of printed books and paper journals, no longer constrained by production costs and distribution friction, no longer hampered by a top-down and unsustainable business model. And we should no longer be content to make our work public achingly slowly along ingrained routes, authors and readers alike delayed by innumerable gateways limiting knowledge production and sharing.

I was riffing on these ideas yesterday on Twitter, asking, for example, what’s to stop a handful of of scholars from starting their own academic press? It would publish epub books and, when backwards compatibility is required, print-on-demand books. Or what about, I wondered, using Amazon Kindle Singles as a model for academic publishing. Imagine stand-alone journal articles, without the clunky apparatus of the journal surrounding it. If you’re insistent that any new publishing venture be backed by an imprimatur more substantial than my “handful of scholars,” then how about a digital humanities center creating its own publishing unit? […] There are no limits. And to every person who objects, But, wait, what about legitimacy/tenure/cost/labor/& etc, I say, you are missing the point. Now is not the time to hem in our own possibilities. Now is not the time to base the future on the past. Now is not the time to be complacent, hesitant, or entrenched in the present.

Or the thoughts of Pat Lockely and Mark Carrigan, who have recently added to this conversation writing that:

At present the academy suffers from a pervasive crisis of over-production: ever more intellectual energy goes into producing papers for an ever wide array of journals which even fewer people read. In doing so, academic publishing is tending to inverse economies of scale. Publishing in this sense tends towards the opposite of it’s own meaning (‘to make public’) but also into smaller and smaller communities where impact becomes ever diminshed […] We need to have an ongoing and honest conversation about what academic publishing is, what it could be and what it should be. At present, academic publishing remains in meaning being published in a journal, and as such is not a meaning to which the word academic confers only the source of the content, and possibly the nature of the potential consumer. Within the phrase is no inference, or limitation of the platforms used or usable. So how did its meaning become so limited and/or specific, and how can those limitations be overcome?

For Sample, Lockely, and Carrigan the monetisation of knowledge is not of primary concern (though I suspect radical direct action will become increasingly important in forcing change, see here), rather they highlight the absurdity of retaining ‘old’ hierachies of knowledge in an age of web-based egalitarianism.

There are of course counter-arguments, not least how anyone will ever see the wood through the trees if the space for knowledge is liberated so radically. Or, to use another cliché, we might question whether such spaces will only benefit those who shout the loudest (see the history of journalism…). Yet as DHums makes clear, the present situation is absurd and must be changed.

So I present you with the first few sections of my thesis. Please download them, read them, ‘enjoy them’, and share them. I do ask however that in the spirit of be being nice that you too are nice. So no pointing out mistakes. And no copying. No plagiarism. I will notice. And I will become cross.

I’d love to hear the thoughts of the community on this matter. Not least because taking this step has led me to ask further questions. Apart from the obvious difference that this is a ‘thesis’ and not ‘a book’ (yet), why should I go through the traditional process of publication? Who does this benefit apart from me and my CV? Why is peer review only respected when it operates through traditional chains of command? Shouldn’t we all, as Matt Blaze, Associate Professor of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania, did in February, just abandon the whole thing in protest… “I will no longer serve as a program chair, program committee member, editorial board member, referee or reviewer for any conference or journal that does not make its papers freely available on the Web or at least allow authors to do so themselves”.

Maybe I’ll make some more content available in the future…

EDIT 26/10/11: all content (including thesis chapters) is now licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. See the footer for more details.