The tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz has brought a new round of discussion around the issues of open access academic publishing. Even the field of Russian history has gotten involved in the discussion, driven by Sean Guillory’s thoughtful blog post. The post has drawn comments from editors of Kritika, Russian Review, and Slavic Review, who have chimed in with their take on the economic difficulties of open access for the peer-review journal. My co-blogger Joshua Sanborn has already written about the issue at some length here at Russian History Blog.
I heartily agree with the impetus for Sean’s original post and consider myself a supporter of the ideals of open access. Russian History Blog itself was created in part with hopes of tilting the field ever so slightly in that direction–something I have written about on a few previous occasions. I thought it worthwhile to add a few things to the conversation Sean has provoked. I consider myself far from expert on these subjects, but one simply cannot spend the better part of a decade in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University without imbibing something of the thinking about these subjects that drive the work of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM).
While I am happy to see this discussion within the framework of the field of Russian history, it is important that we recognize that this is a long and ongoing conversation within the digital humanities, and many of the arguments we see here are merely a rehash of those taking place within other forums.
First, a primarily moral argument is made in support of open access, noting among other things the various ways in which the research that appears in journals has been supported by governments, foundations, and universities only to then wall off the results of that research in subscription-based databases. The argument raises important issues like the underlying justification for scholarship and whether reaching an audience beyond the academy (or even perhaps beyond the North American/Western European academy) is a goal worth pursuing.
Then, the complications, primarily economic, are raised, in this case by the journal editors and Josh Sanborn, as they respond that online publication only negligibly reduces the cost of journal publication and thus only through the revenues from subscription services like JSTOR and Project Muse can these journals survive. Further, the open access movement underestimates the costs and the value added that come from the peer review and editing process.
By no means do I doubt either the good will of those in the conversation and or the veracity of the various costs/constraints that they describe. I can barely begin to imagine the amount of work that goes into editing a journal, and I am so thankful for the selfless labors of the many who do so. (I would certainly like to know more, though, about the economics behind the more than 8,000 open access journals that already exist.) However, I would suggest that we also at least look at the very foundation of this conversation–something that has been happening in the digital humanities. That is, the question has been posed in terms of the impact of open access on journals as they are currently published. Sanborn urges us “to make sure that we don’t destroy the funding models of our journals before we have a secure path towards ensuring their viability over the long run.”
I don’t doubt the tremendous value of journals for scholars. I read them regularly, have published in them in the past, and hope to do so in the future. However, I do think we should recognize that our journals as they are currently published do impose certain costs on the academic and intellectual enterprise. These costs are most readily apparent in the limitation of readership, the primary concern of Guillory’s initial post, but as Michael O’Malley (among others) has argued in a pair of blog posts, peer review itself imposes significant costs on the scholarly enterprise.
However, even if we leave aside the question of whether maintaining the status quo is desirable, doing so may prove impossible. Surely the major changes in the publishing world wrought by the digital revolution and the reduction of public funding for higher education and scholarship will impact our academic journals as well. No doubt, they already are. (Our academic monographs will likely change due to similar processes, but I will leave that aside for the moment given that this conversation has focused mostly on journals.) As my colleague Dan Cohen, Director of RRCHNM, has put it in one of his many writings on the subject:
…it’s a collective failure by historians who believe—contrary to the lessons of our own research—that today will be like yesterday, and tomorrow like today. Article-centric academic journals, a relatively recent development in the history of publishing, apparently have existed, and will exist, forever, in largely the same form and with largely the same business model.
Major change is inevitable, argue Cohen and many others like him who have spent years thinking seriously about the intersections of digital technology and historical/humanities scholarship. If so, shouldn’t scholars try to shape the change rather than merely react to that which is imposed upon us.
RRCHNM has been quite active in doing precisely that–experimenting with new ways of conceptualizing the journal, article, peer review, editing, etc. (Here is just Cohen’s most recent contribution to the ongoing conversation about the viability and usefulness of different forms of post-publication review. Following Cohen’s Twitter feed is a great way to keep up on emerging discussions around this subject. His forthcoming book, The Ivory Tower and the Open Web, to be available open access on the web and in print form from the University of Michigan Press, provides an extended discussion of many of these subjects. It is available online in draft form starting with the introduction here.)
I can’t even begin to rehearse all of the interesting discussions and approaches taken, but I urge you to take a look at their Press Forward project, Digital Humanities Now, the Journal of Digital Humanities, American History Now, etc., to see some of RRCHNM’s most recent models of scholarship in the open access realm.
So, where do we go in the field of Russian history? This is something I have thought a lot about but only taken the most timid of steps with the launch of Russian History Blog. (The blog was never intended, it should be emphasized, as an attempt to replace the journal. Rather the hope was to make something of our scholarship available on the open access web and to encourage some experimentation with different modes of disseminating our research.) Russian History Blog was far from the first attempt at academic blogging in Russian history. In fact, I took some of my initial inspiration from Sean’s Russia Blog where this whole conversation began. I would certainly love to see even more colleagues get involved in blogging whether individually or in group formats like this one. However, these are still but timid steps. I am watching the Press Forward project with interest to see if I think it holds promise for us, but I think we should all keep abreast of the developments in the digital humanities and constantly reassess if and how they will impact our own field.