Dr Caroline Edwards (above), who will delivered the School of Advanced Study’s July Social Scholar seminar, provides a first-person account of why academics should care about open access. She says academic careers might depend upon publishing in ‘the right journal’ – but that journal doesn’t need to be pay-walled, and big business should not be allowed to continue to ‘siphon off public and university funds to prop up ailing profit margins – just because that’s the way we’ve always done things.’
I became involved in open access publishing for two reasons. Firstly, because as a scholar of contemporary literature I was excited by new publishing initiatives in film and TV studies and new media studies – subjects which were producing cutting-edge online research articles in an entirely new way, which put the traditional format of Word doc-to-pdf to shame.
These were colourful, dynamic and interactive sites with articles that were accompanied by images, embedded audio and visual content, and could be tweeted or shared on social media at the press of a button. I felt that contemporary literature needed such a venue with that tangible immediacy of quick publication – and so I set up Alluvium Journal in the spirit of sites such as Flow TV and Antenna (which sadly ceased publishing in February 2016, after running for seven years). The journal grew out of a network of established and emerging scholars in the field of 21st-century literary studies, and the energy of its contributors quickly established a dedicated international readership.
The second reason was much more political. As a lecturer working at a post-92 institution (at the time that I launched Alluvium, in 2012), with very limited resources for ordering new library books or increasing journal subscriptions, I was quickly made aware of just how difficult it was to teach new material to students without full journal access. My engagement with our subject librarian made me realise that journal subscriptions were incredibly costly and basically unaffordable – diverting precious funds away from book budgets and denying students at universities with fewer financial resources the same opportunity as their peers at more research-intensive universities.
‘Legacy’ publishers’ profits higher than BP
When I started to look into this, I discovered that the profits of the so-called ‘legacy’ publishers – those giants of scholarly publishing whose monopoly has reached near oligopolistic levels over the past 30 years – have been enjoying profits of around 300 per cent above inflation since 1986; higher, in fact, than oil companies like BP. I was completely shocked – like many academics, I suspect, I had always thought that academic publishing was a vital service undertaken for small, if any, profits.
The issues surrounding the ‘serials crisis’ in academic journal publishing, in which subscription costs for university libraries have risen so staggeringly over the past few decades, has entered a fresh phase with the rise of the open access movement.
Open access means the removal of price and permission barriers to reading scholarship online – i.e. scholarship that is freely available to read on the public internet, requiring no institutional log in or access. Through my own online publishing with Alluvium, I became aware of the importance of open access publishing. It offered the chance to allow authors to retain copyright of their own material without having to sign it away via a publisher’s waiver; it allowed all kinds of communities to read this scholarship: many of whom may have a professional reason to do so, as well as anyone with an interest in the topic being able to access high quality research.
And it seemed a natural fit with new publishing platforms and innovations in open source software, which meant that we could finally push beyond the print parameters of the scholarly article (which have remained largely unchanged since the 17th century) and start to realise the exciting possibilities offered by born-digital publishing: annotative software to allow dialogue on an article; community translation software so that articles can be made available to a wider audience; embedded and integrated audio-visual content to aid textual analysis of performance materials – even video essays as an alternative to the traditional scholarly essay!
Digital publishing stakes have never been higher
My work as a founder and director of the Open Library of Humanities has allowed me to participate in the open access movement and help shape a new future for scholarly publishing in the humanities. It’s an incredibly interesting time to be a part of digital publishing and the stakes have never been higher. The complexities of the current publishing landscape present some tough challenges to a move towards a more democratic and equitable system of publishing that confronts big business and claws power back from a handful of companies, to put it in the hands of the academics, librarians, students and general readers who are at the centre of scholarly dialogue and exchange. It is my firm belief that we should not continue to allow big business to siphon off public and university funds to prop up ailing profit margins – just because that’s the way we’ve always done things. Academic careers might depend upon publishing in ‘the right journal’ – but that journal doesn’t need to be pay-walled.
The next step is confronting the big bundling deals that such publishers force upon university libraries. As publishers themselves move into an open access publishing model, many are now offering to cover the costs of open access publishing through Article Processing Charges, or APCs. That is, charges levied on authors who effectively pay-to-publish in order to recompense the publishers for lost revenues, since readers would be able to read the articles for free without requiring a subscription.
This business model has worked quite effectively in the STM subjects where such additional publishing costs are routinely built into grant applications, but they are disastrous for humanities disciplines, which receive much less funding. There has also, understandably, been an academic backlash against a business model in which individual authors (or their university departments, if they have such institutional affiliation or support) must pay-to-publish their work if they wish it to be published in an immediately open access format; rather than submitting to the publisher’s insistence upon a delayed open access format, which allows authors to upload their articles onto their institutional repository after an embargoed period of 1–2 years – also known as ‘green’ open access.
Academics have a crucial part to play in the open access movement
To address this backlash, the larger publishers have started including blocks of APC fee-waivers into large journal packages, which bundle together volumes of journal content to be sold to libraries or library consortia. This concession reveals not only the rapidly changing nature of scholarly publishing and the ensuing collapse of older business models, but also the resilience of such publishers to withstand anger, criticism and even outright academic boycotts – keeping libraries locked into long-term and unaffordable agreements.
The opportunities for confronting this kind of avaricious business practice have never been greater, or more important. It is vital that, as academic researchers, we do not bury our heads in the sand and ignore this situation as ‘just something that the library deals with.’ This funding and publishing crisis is integrally bound up with our own behaviour and practices as scholars, willingly giving our work away to publishers who profit from our academic labour and make it ever harder for our libraries to subscribe to the journals in which we publish, as well as the journals that we edit, and for which we undertake peer review. I believe that academics have a crucial part to play in the open access movement – we have much to gain, and nothing to lose but our chains.
Dr Caroline Edwards, is a lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research and teaching specialisms are in 21st century literature and critical theory, science fiction and post-apocalyptic narratives, Marxist aesthetics, and utopianism. In January 2013, she founded the Open Library of Humanities (OLH), which was launched in September 2015 as a humanities megajournal and multi-journal publishing platform. Dr Edwards is currently completing her first monograph, Fictions of the Not Yet: Time in the 21st Century British Novel, and recently co-edited two collections on contemporary writers – Maggie Gee: Critical Essays and China Miéville: Critical Essays.