When humanists say to me: you're just making us change our practices because technology has changed, I get a bit jumpy for two reasons. Firstly, the new technology of open, non-rivalrous dissemination, is much more like the things we are trying to do with scholarship than rivalrous forms. Secondly, such an argument assumes that paper, books, the codex, and other material forms are not themselves some kind of technology that has determined our practices. Nobody ever talks, really, or at least not enough, about the way in which academic discourses have been shaped by the material forms of dissemination within which they have existed for most of their lives.
Martin Eve is a Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London. He founded the Open Library of Humanities, a charitable organisation dedicated to publishing open access scholarship. He is also a steering-group member of the OAPEN-UK project, a research project gathering evidence on the open access scholarly monograph publishing in the humanities and social sciences. He is developing several digital humanities projects.
Michał Starczewski: You are the author of the book “Open Access and the Humanities”. What differences are there between the OA revolution in the humanities and in the sciences?
Martin Eve: The usual way in which open access is framed in the humanities is that it “lags behind” the sciences, but this creates a number of new problems. Why, some humanists ask, should the humanities just follow whatever the natural sciences are doing? Others ask why technological change should drive academic practice. Another set fear the influence of open licensing, which they claim may promote plagiarism (I do not believe this). Still others point to the problem of economics: far less work receives funding in the humanities and Article Processing Charges (APCs) are not readily available. Finally, others point to the fact that there isn't actually a straightforward divide between “the humanities” and “the sciences”, even on OA. Indeed, the discipline of chemistry is very poor at open access while philosophy has had a culture of pre-prints for some time.
So, there are differences in what humanists do and how it is communicated, but I often feel these are overstated. We all write because we want to be read and we know that paywalls pose a barrier to broader readership. That said, we do have a culture of monographs in the humanities that are substantially harder to make open access than articles and journals...
The discourse and practice in OA is focused on articles and journals. Meanwhile, for researchers in the humanities, monographs are often much more important than articles. One might say that the main conclusion from the Jisc OAPEN-UK final report on OA monograph publishing is that it is too early to recommend any specific model. What are the obstacles?
While I don't have the space here to go into every piece of detail, there are a set of social and economic challenges around monographs that were extremely well explored in a recent report by Geoff Crossick for HEFCE in the UK. Central to these challenges are the economics. A separate report recently issued in the USA for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that the cost was “$30,000 per book for the group of the smallest university presses to more than $49,000 per book for the group of the largest presses.” At this type of cost, it becomes very difficult to support a model such as a Book Processing Charge (borne by the author/institution/funder). There is also the thorny problem of trade books, the still-underexplored issues of how OA books are used (in comparison to print), and the reticence of some tenure and promotion committees to admit born-digital manuscripts.
You have founded the Open Library of Humanities, a charitable organisation dedicated to publishing open access scholarship with no author-facing article processing charges (APCs). Could you explain how it works? Could it be a model for other institutions across the world? Are you going to publish monographs in this model as well?
The OLH works on a model of distributed library subsidy. So, instead of an author paying us ~$600 when an article has been accepted, we instead solicit contributions from libraries around the world that look like (but are not) a subscription. Libraries currently pay around $1000 per year to support our 15 journals. However, everything we publish is open access, so libraries are not “buying access” or a subscription or anything like that. They are supporting a platform that could not otherwise exist. It is a non-classical economic model but it seems to be working as around 200 libraries have currently signed up and we have seen a 100% renewal rate in our second year. We do intend to move to monographs, but this is further off. We are more interested, for now, in flipping subscription journals away from a paywalled mode and into our model. This can be achieved by journals either leaving their current publisher, or by us covering the APCs of that journal in the future. In this way, we get around the funding problems in the humanities for OA.
After the “Finch Report” the UK turned towards the Gold Route of OA. The findings of the monitoring of this policy are as follows: the majority of articles have been published in the most expensive, hybrid journals. The Wellcome Trust reported that 30% of the articles for which they had paid processing fees, were not available when the Trust checked. What went wrong with the OA policy in the UK?
I don't really think it's fair to judge whether policies have “gone wrong” at this stage and it depends upon what you wanted to achieve in the first place. If the goal was to achieve OA and for it to be cheaper than a subscription model, then yes, there are some problems emerging here. But if the goal is to achieve open access, even if it costs more, then the policy is working well. I personally think that, in the long run, we need a system that is more sensitive to the budgetary pressures of academic libraries (and I believe that academic publishing should be a not-for-profit enterprise). But the different policies in the UK – the gold RCUK policy and the HEFCE green policy – are combining to create a culture where OA is the norm. To say that these policies haven't worked after four years (RCUK) and six months (HEFCE) is a little rash.
How do you see the future role of scientific publishers in the context of OA? Do researchers need publishers to organise peer review and ensure high quality?
I tend to think about publishing in terms of the necessary labour here. I do not support the idea that, under capitalism, people should work for free. If people are performing a service, then they deserve to be remunerated for that. The labour in publishing, therefore, is labour like any other. Publishers perform a variety of tasks that I think it would be foolhardy to discard and that requires payment: peer-review organization, typesetting, proofreading, copyediting, digital preservation, platform maintenance, marketing, legal advice, identifier assignments, curation, the list goes on. Whether or not these “ensure high quality” is something of which I'm unsure. I regard peer review with deep scepticism and believe that it is more often a panacea than a rigorous gatekeeping method. Indeed, I recently wrote about the problems of predictive excellence with a group of others.
Do you think that the open data issue is as important in the humanities as in other disciplines? Is it a feasible scenario that humanities will be based on digital data? Are we witnessing a “digital turn”?
What's interesting here, I think, is that the term “data” is not well understood in the humanities. It implies a type of processing of quantitative material that most humanists don't encounter. Yet, at the same time, we all work with artefacts that could be called “data”. So, when I'm speaking with colleagues about this, I tend to use the word “evidence” or “paratext” to refer to data. I say, if you are writing about a nineteenth-century novel and you made a series of notes on this, the novel itself and your notes could both be considered data and might be valuable to someone else. That said, data sharing is controversial in many disciplines, so the fact that the humanities haven't leapt upon this is nothing to alarm us for now.
Is openness a necessary feature of the digital environment in the humanities?
It is not, sadly. As is evidenced by the fact that people have put up paywalls online around research material, it is perfectly possible to operate a closed digital environment for the humanities. That said, there is something interesting about this that always strikes me (drawing on the astute remarks of Peter Suber in his book, Open Access, from MIT Press). Knowledge, ideas and words are infinitely copyable without the original owner every losing them. If I tell you something that I know, then you know it too and we are both richer. Digital technology that allows infinite copying is directly in line with this way of thinking. So when humanists say to me: you're just making us change our practices because technology has changed, I get a bit jumpy for two reasons. Firstly, the new technology of open, non-rivalrous dissemination, is much more like the things we are trying to do with scholarship than rivalrous forms. Secondly, such an argument assumes that paper, books, the codex, and other material forms are not themselves some kind of technology that has determined our practices. Nobody ever talks, really, or at least not enough, about the way in which academic discourses have been shaped by the material forms of dissemination within which they have existed for most of their lives.
e-Infrastructure is not always interoperable. The information often can’t be distributed among different tools. The problem is serious when researchers work with GLAM (cultural institutions such as galleries, libraries and museums) resources. Is it possible to use common standards that make e-infrastructure interoperable? What are the main obstacles to using such standards?
It is, of course, possible to create common standards for e-infrastructure. However, the challenge here is that we have a highly distributed set of actors all with different end goals. Does Elsevier see itself as benefiting from working in an open, interoperable way, in the same way as a small, born-open-access book press? Does Wiley get the same benefit from being interoperable as an institutional repository? I'd argue that different stakeholder desires condition the degree of interoperability here as much as any technological aspect.
You are working on three new books. Could you please tell us something about these projects?
Certainly. The first book that is currently in a full draft state is called The Anxiety of Academia and it looks at the ways in which the concepts of critique, legitimation, and discipline are used by a set of contemporary novels to pre-anticipate the way in which academics will read such novels. The second is called The Aesthetics of Metadata and this project, which is about 50% complete, reads a series of contemporary novels for the way in which they represent metadata-like structures. So, for example, I here look at Mark Blacklock's book on the Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer in the UK and the way in which accents, writing, and location all play a role in the hunt. I also look at the false footnotes in Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves alongside the objects from a ruined future in Emily St. Mandel's Station Eleven. Finally, the last book I'm working on for now is called Close-Reading with Computers, and this is also about 50% complete. This book is an exploration of the ways in which various methods from the field of computational stylometry can be used to advance the hermeneutic study of contemporary fiction, centring on David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. I am attempting to publish all of these books through an open access route.
- Michał Starczewski