More Developments and Debates on Open Access Scholarship…and One Outrageous Proposal

Following from yesterday’s post on open access publishing in anthropology, and thanks in part to discussions presented on the blog, I wanted to post some continuing news and discussion, ending with what may be perceived as an outrageous proposal of my own.

To start, an article published inInside Higher Ed on 13 February, 2008, by Andy Guess, titled “Harvard Opts In to ‘Opt Out’ Plan“, informs us of the following news:

Harvard University’s arts and sciences faculty approved a plan on Tuesday that will post finished academic papers online free, unless scholars specifically decide to opt out of the open-access program. While other institutions have similar repositories for their faculty’s work, Harvard’s is unique for making online publication the default option.

The decision, which only affects the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, won’t necessarily disrupt exclusivity agreements with journals or upend the academic publishing industry, but it could send a signal that a standard bearer in higher education is seriously looking at alternative distribution models for its faculty’s scholarship. Already, various open-access movements are pressing for reforms (from modest to radical) to the current economic model, which depends on journals’ traditional gatekeeping function and their necessarily limited audiences but which has concerned many in the academic community worried about rising costs and the shift to digital media.

It isn’t clear how or whether Harvard will ensure that professors who haven’t opted out will submit finished papers, and even what “finished” means. Can academics submit non-peer-reviewed work? Can they selectively upload articles and withhold others for prestigious journals? Either way, most publishers don’t seem overly fazed by the development; many contracts with scholars already allow authors to post their work independently of publication in a journal, and the Harvard plan both protects authors’ own copyright to their works and avoids forcing a decision on its faculty.

The unanimous vote gives Harvard a “worldwide license to make each faculty member’s scholarly articles available and to exercise the copyright in the articles, provided that the articles are not sold for a profit,” according to a statement released after the vote. That license will be used to post the articles free online, where they could be crawled and accessed through search engines such as Google Scholar.

“This is a large and very important step for scholars throughout the country. It should be a very powerful message to the academic community that we want and should have more control over how our work is used and disseminated,” said Stuart M. Shieber, the James O. Welch Jr. and Virginia B. Welch Professor of Computer Science, who sponsored the bill before the faculty governance group.

It is good news that Harvard is deciding to set a new standard with this decision, and it will be a source of encouragement to others, with some more radical proposals already being voiced by, for example, on the blog by cyberculture researcher danah boyd (also, see her personal website at In a posting titled, “Open Access is the Future: Boycott Locked-Down Academic Journals,” she recommends the following (parts of which have been abridged):

Tenured Faculty and Industry Scholars: Publish only in open-access journals. Unlike younger scholars, you don’t need the status markers because you’re tenured or in industry. Use that privilege to help build new journals that are not strapped to broken business models. Help build the reputations of new endeavors so that they can be viable publishing venues for future scholars. Publish in open-access journals, build a personal webpage and add your article there. You will get much more visibility, especially from younger scholars who turn to Google before they go to the library. I understand that a lot of you prefer to flout the rules of these journals and publish your articles on your website anyhow, even when you’re not allowed. The problem is that you’re not helping change the system for future generations.
Disciplinary associations: Help open-access journals gain traction. Encourage your members to publish in them….
Tenure committees: Recognize alternate venues and help the universities follow. Younger scholars can’t afford to publish in alternate venues until you begin recognizing the value of these publications. Help that process along and encourage your schools to do the same.
Young punk scholars: Publish only in open-access journals in protest, especially if you’re in a new field. This may cost you advancement or tenure, but you know it’s the right thing to do. If you’re an interdisciplinary scholar or in a new field, there aren’t “respected” journals in your space and so you’re going to have to defend yourself anyhow. You might as well use this opportunity to make the valued journals the open-access ones.
More conservative young scholars: publish what you need to get tenure and then stop publishing in closed venues immediately upon acquiring tenure. I understand why you feel the need to follow the rules. This is fine, but make a point by stopping this practice the moment you don’t need it.
All scholars: Go out of your way to cite articles from open-access journals. One of the best ways for a journal to build its reputation is for its articles to be cited broadly. Read open-access journals and cite them….
All scholars: Start reviewing for open-access journals. Help make them respected. Guest edit to increase the quality. Build their reputations through your involvement. Make these your priority so that the closed journals are the ones struggling to get quality reviewers.
Libraries: Begin subscribing to open-access journals and adding them to your catalogue….
Universities: Support your faculty in creating open-access journals on your domains. You are respected institutions. The bandwidth cost of hosting a journal would be much less than allowing your undergrads access YouTube. Support your faculty in creating university-branded journals….
Academic publishers: Wake up or get out. Silencing the voices of academics is unacceptable. You’re not helping scholarship or scholars. Find a new business model or leave the journal publishing world. You may be making money now, but your profits will not continue to grow using this current approach. Furthermore, I’d bank on academics shunning you within two generations. If you think more than a quarter ahead, you know that it’s the right thing to do for business as well as for the future of knowledge.
Funding agencies: Require your grantees to publish in open-access journals or make a pre-print version available at a centralized source specific to their field. Many academic journals have exceptions for when funding agencies demand transparency.

In response, Anne Galloway, an anthropologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, objected to the call for a boycott, and added that the distinction between “conservative” and “punk” scholars reminded her of a high school debate. I agree that there can be too much of the “hip” hype among those of us who want to see radical and rapid change, but let’s not get hung up on the labels, among which “anthropologist” is one and one with its own self-promotional hype as well. Boyd has echoed in parts of her principles above what Harvard has agreed to do, and what other scholars are already doing. She has simply added a level of determination, purpose, and a call for collective action, with which I am fundamentally in agreement. But there is something missing, and here comes my outrageous proposal.

Much of what boyd mentions above concerns journal articles. Given the option, and of course no one is barring me, I prefer book length works (as any reader can tell from the prolix nature of my postings). What to do then?

  1. Write your manuscript, however, instead of sending it to a publisher, send it to esteemed colleagues. Many of us do this anyway, as you can see from the copious and ever expanding “acknowledgments” sections of many books and articles, where it seems that some pieces have been read and commented on by a dozen scholars even before so-called “peer review” (a term deployed to disqualify reviews from peers as being peer review, if one can follow the illogic of our profession in its current state).
  2. Get their opinions, and get their permission to publish their opinions (online).
  3. Post your responses online.
  4. Indicate the changes you made to the manuscript.
  5. Publish the actual manuscript online.
  6. Open the discussion to online readers.
  7. Let the manuscript “settle” online for a year or so, while collecting opinions from online readers, and then produce a new version that incorporates this wider dialogue. Call it your manuscript 2.0.

BUT libraries often want print editions, some readers do too, and you may want a hard copy to snuggle with at night (oh right, as if you don’t do this!). So what to do? Read another list of suggestions:

  1. Get formal copyright and an ISBN number from your national library, or from the Library of Congress. Details of procedures to follow vary, as do the forms, but see these as examples: Library of Congress information for publishers (that means you) and similarly, Library and Archives Canada. Complete the process, and your book will be formally registered, with a cataloguing number, and a bar code.
  2. Go to a print-on-demand publisher, such as Xlibris, or BookSurge, which charge a fee (but also take care of some of the book registration and distribution that a regular publisher might do), follow their formatting guidelines, and produce a printable version of your book. There are print-on-demand, no fee, self-publishing companies such as CafePress and the increasingly popular Lulu, which will leave you the task of registering and depositing your book for ISBN, copyright, and cataloguing data. Then there are dual online/print-on-demand, independent academic publishing services that charge a fee to authors, such as Polimetrica (I am on the Advisory Board for Open Access).
  3. Print copies for major depository libraries such as the Library of Congress, otherwise simply advertise it online, and make an entry for the book in and, for example. Advertise the print-on-demand feature on your book website.

And there you have a cross between open access publishing, self publishing, and peer review. And in line with boyd’s very clever tactical suggestions, now that my tenure is being finalized I will certainly be considering the options above for my newest publications in the future. My online works have so far been the most widely cited, including some of those that were not peer reviewed. Print publishing reduces us to cloisters serving print corporations and a closed access, permission-based culture where knowledge is subject to monopoly ownership and control. It’s not just damaging to the dissemination of your work, I believe it to be, frankly, immoral and unjustifiable.