To Make Open Access Work, We Need to Do More Than Liberate Journal Articles
- 6:30 AM
In the days since the tragedy of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, many academics have been posting open-access PDFs of their research. It’s an act of solidarity with Swartz’s crusade to liberate (in most cases publicly funded) knowledge for all to read.
While this has been a noteworthy gesture, the problem of open access isn’t just about the ethics of freeing and sharing scholarly information. It’s as much — if not more — about the psychology and incentives around scholarly publishing. We need to think these issues through much more deeply to make open access widespread.
When the phrase academia is best known for is “publish or perish,” it should come as no surprise that like most human beings, professors are highly attentive to the incentives for validation and advancement. Unfortunately, those incentives often involve publishing in gated journals, which trade scarcity for the subscriptions that sustain them (and provide outsized profits for some commercial publishers). For this reason, open access has not been a high priority for many academics.
While we should partly counter this state of affairs with moral suasion, the reality is that a truly successful academic open-access system will have to be based not just on ethics … but on the narcissism of the professoriate. There have to be rewards for publicly disseminating good and useful work, in addition to shame for walling off one’s writing.
Freeing articles – or better yet, publishing in open-access journals in the first place – may help address the supply side of scholarly communication: creating open scholarly works. It does not, however, address the demand side of scholarly communication: the mental state of researchers who are considering how to publish and may see little incentive to publish openly, as well as of the audience who respects these pieces enough to “buy” them. We need to prod scholars to be more receptive to scholarship that takes place outside of the traditional closed publishing system.
One major rub with open systems of scholarly communication is that peer review essentially comes after the act of publication, which strikes many traditional academics as odd. So some early initiatives have tried to remedy this confusion: In the sciences, there is a new attempt to highlight “altmetrics” or alternative measures of an article’s impact as a form of validation (for example, by measuring number of downloads). But this works less well in the humanities.
We need a sensible shift towards an acceptable form of post-publication, rather than traditional pre-publication peer review. This is especially true given the growing numbers of digital genres and options for scholarly publishing directly to the web — multimedia scholarly sites, sophisticated digital collections, vast online paper repositories, long-form academic blogs, and the like.
Unfortunately, many journal editors are skeptical about the notion of post-publication peer review; indeed, for some history and humanities scholars, the concept is an oxymoron. To such editors, the only true form of peer review is the one that occurs before publication, because it helps determine in a binary “yes or no” way whether an article or book is published in the first place.
Yet we already have an obvious form of post-publication peer review in wide use: awards. Why not use the awards system more widely to help solve the problem of how to assess digital scholarship?
As signifiers of highly distinguished work, academic awards and prizes represent a major career achievement. As they currently stand, however, they’re just icing on the cake. So I propose that we treat awards as a reliable form of post-publication peer review. It certainly makes more immediate sense to skeptical colleagues than other, more experimental forms of “open review” or crowdsourcing.
How do we know that a professor’s blog is worthy of significant credit, that it is more than just musings and is having an impact in a field? A certifying scholarly organization or review panel has deemed it so, from a crowded field. Furthermore, like the Grammys, we need to give awards not just for Record of the Year but for Best Jazz Instrumental and Achievement in Sound Engineering. In addition to recognizing specialized scholarship, knowledgeable review panels should be able tease out outstanding individual contributions to collaborative projects, or projects with flawed overall theses but useful datasets that could be commended.
Thankfully, there are already initiatives on this front. For instance, a new slate of annual Digital Humanities Awards has just launched, with an international review committee. Now, we need scholarly societies to back a broad array of awards with their imprimatur.
Of course, we should be wary of overdone, ever-expanding awards; even the Recording Academy sensibly lowered the number of Grammy categories from 109 to 78 last year. Since it’s important for awards to have some minimum number of entries or nominations every year, peer review panels must retain the option of giving no award in a year if none of the options are deemed worthy. Awards must be meaningful, after all.
Right now, though, we need to think more broadly rather than narrowly about giving awards for digital work because there are precious few opportunities currently for online scholarship to receive external validation.
Without this validation, an open access system can never work on the demand side.
Other forms of post-publication peer review are needed as well (especially for developmental editing rather than validation), but let’s at least start with a larger slate of rigorously determined awards. Awards provide a clear, easily understood form of professional validation for digital scholarship.
But perhaps more importantly this approach mimics the psychology of scholarship behind journals’ peer review practices in the first place. We need to take into consideration such psychological motivation factors, or we won’t be able to make open access work.
Editor’s Note: An earlier, unedited version of this article appeared on the author’s blog.