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The academic world in the Netherlands is abuzz with the government and the Association of Universities in the Netherlands’ (VSNU) firm position in negotiations with Elsevier. The push to open up academic literature to become freely accessible and reusable online, which is usually recognized under the umbrella term of Open Access, has become quite real for quite a few scholars. And some of them really don’t like it. What does Open Access mean for history of science, and the humanities in general? I decided to answer the call of Hans Schouwenburg and Pim Martens for ‘scientivistic’ engagement, and to write a short piece on this question – with quite a different position than Ad Maas’s last post on this on Shells & Pebbles. It is based on many of the talks heard at the symposium Rushing to Revolution: Open Access Models for Humanities Journals held at Utrecht University, and OpenCon 2014 organized by the Right to Research Coalition in Washington D.C. Laying somewhere in between a conference report and an opinion piece, I aim to give you some food for thought on what to do with the movement for the ‘open’ in the humanities.
The academic publishing industry and its dependencies are at a cusp of a change; some even call it a revolution, conjuring the images of the youthful ramparts of the French bringing down their monarchy. I shirk from such bloody comparisons, and even more so from using the future tense in this case. Finding truth in Heather Joseph’s words at OpenCon, I would say we are in the middle of it. The change is now, for better or for worse. In a multitude of ways, the open is moving from a marginal viewpoint to a default approach integrated into how we understand science. The governments, the funding agencies, some publishers, and many a scholar are attesting to that.
This, however, comes with its own baggage. The change is in the air and this, as I see it, has four broad implications.
The disciplinary context of the open movement was quite closed until lately. The money intensive disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics i.e. STEM) entered the debate first – their journals, editors, authors, researchers, and funders are in the middle of it. The journals based on open business models are quite discipline specific, either explicitly or implicitly – PloS One, eLIFE, PeerJ to name the few. The social sciences and the humanities are left on the sides, it sometimes seems, letting the boys with the big guns fight it off and impact the future of scholarly publishing. In this, I wholeheartedly agree with Ad Maas’s observation.
But, this exclusion is nowhere close to total. A good example is The Open Library of Humanities (OLH). It is trying to enter the big league of mega-journals, providing a publishing platform akin to PLoS One for journals in the humanities. This echoes Jan Erik Frantsvåg’s challenge to the Dutch scholars in Utrecht: our small disciplinary and geographically specific journals are unsustainable in the new publishing and funding landscape, and we have to think big. Recognizing that the article processing charges (APC) model is unsuitable for scholars in the humanities who usually lack the big-bucks-funding our STEM colleagues enjoy, we need alternatives – possibly something like what is suggested by OLH as the library partnership subsidies model.
Another direction to think about is to land this challenge at the government’s feet. If the Dutch government, for example, is taking such a strong position on Open Access, is it prepared to fund alternative publishing platforms for the humanities through such institutions as the NWO (The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research)?
The above is just the tip of an iceberg – and you can see how the discussion of openness requires the talk of more than what happens in particular academic disciplines. The three other nifty analytical parts I used to structure this entrée into the open – the normative, economic, and technical sides of the debate – are all layered and interdependent, feeding into each other and creating this incomprehensible mess we usually encounter when tackling this debate. The open in science is precisely that kind of a fuzzy elusive concept we in the humanities enjoy tackling. This issue is big, and involves our fundamental understanding of how science works. It was quite surprising for me then to see how little thought was given to it by some scholars in our disparate fields of humanistic studies. It’s as if scholars in the humanities stop being scholars in the humanities when they start discussing this, and become scared academics/journal editors/publishers who worry about their journals and chairs.
Where am I coming from, saying that some scholars are scared of what the change brings? For me, it sunk in at the final panel debate at Rushing to Revolution in Utrecht. The symposium organizers asked the panelists a series of highly controversial questions about Open Access. The answers were on the conservative side, the tune was “let’s not be hasty.”
The uneasiness of the younger crowd at the symposium sitting in the back was evident to me, the nervous shuffling and whispering, a derisive giggle every now and then. At one point, someone raised their hand to ask where the exorbitant costs of running the journals they were talking about were coming from, and how they could be so high – he knew some people who run a successful journal almost out of their basement!
The digital natives have rebelled, and they demand the setting they are used to? Well, I don’t think that says much except of recreating a young vs. old conflict. To me, it was a question of normativity in science – what do we think science should be, instead of what it is. What do I mean by this?
A great example is Victoria Stodden’s keynote on computational reproducibility at OpenCon. To drive the point about reproducibility and the open home, in this case of data and code, she argued from a basic understanding of science. Quoting Merton’s five norms from 1942, she argued that this is what science is – this is what it’s built on, so why are our practices so closed? It’s unscientific! Just take the norms of communism (communalism, for the touchy American audience in D.C.) and universalism – they state that all scientists require equal access to the intellectual goods produced by the scientific community, and that all should be invited to contribute to creating more, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, etc.
Criticizing Merton has been a favorite pastime for many a sociologist and science studies scholar in the past seventy years, but some of that criticism has to be repeated when Merton’s sociology is deployed in a debate like this. Using Merton’s norms in this way is declaring them to capture the essence of science. The debates of the open have been driven to a standstill exactly because of such understandings of what science is. The institutional, methodological, normative, educational, and personal networks of science practice and scientists is a mesh of checks and balances, and the current publishing system is one of the central parts of it. Saying that it is against ‘the norms of science’ doesn’t say much.
Merton’s norms are an oversimplification, and his view on science has been criticized quite a lot, for example by Michael Mulkay in his 1976 article Norms and Ideology in Science. By aligning the idea of openness in science (be it open access, or open data, or other parts of the open science movement) with a traditional view like Merton dulls the blade of its criticism. It feels like the advocates of the open are just reiterating something that is blatantly obvious, while it is really not. Today’s scientific community is not nearly as communal, universal, or open as its members like to think; it is far from obvious that ‘openness’ is essential to science.
This example boils down to one observation at two conferences: the open advocates I got to meet at OpenCon, and the uneasy digital natives sitting in the back of Rushing to Revolution have an idealized view of what science is. This idealism makes for quite a bloody ideological clash with the Vieille Garde standing guard at the closed walls of science. In my view, this ideological clash needs to be translated into a fundamental debate of how science works, and how we want it to work, instead of a normative conclusion: “This is what science is, so why doesn’t it work like that?”
The usual alternative to this ideological clash are the arguments coming from the economics of publishing. The publishers on the open side rally under the cry: “Your business models are inefficient and expensive because they are closed,” while the ones on the closed side answer desperately: “You will destroy jobs and create a barren economical desert out of the academic publishing landscape.” Let’s unpack that for a bit.
On the economic aspect of publishing I will not even try to compose myself into a position that straddles the fence and entertains both broad options (closed vs. open) as acceptable. The few days at OpenCon and a visit to the U.S. Capitol made some things blatantly clear. The publishing industry is a multibillion for-profit industry. And some of that money travels into the U.S. Capitol through lobbyists, all within the legal framework of American federal politics. And this just stinks.
Sitting at a table with a certain number of individuals working at the U.S. Capitol, and hearing the arguments advanced by the publishing industry from the mouths of state officials drives this point home. One attendant of OpenCon was quite uneasy with the activist turn the conference took, with us going to talk to officials working in the congress, the senate, and the embassies on the final day of the conference. For me, this uneasiness was yet another unfortunate consequence of the Mertonian picture: if you’re a good scientist, you will not dirty yourself with politics. Well, that’s what got us to the point where our central dissemination mechanism of scientific knowledge is straddled by a parasitic for-profit corporate culture that will not let go of their billions. By extension, this is also what got some countries to the point where their young have to sell their future to banks to be able to study at their universities.
This might sound too political for some palates, so let’s make it tangible. The first thing that I like to come back to every now and then is the graph that can be found on the Right to Research Coalition webpage showing the profit margins of academic publishers in comparison to some other companies. Sapienti sat.
The second argument comes from meeting Peter Binfield at OpenCon, the publisher and co-founder of PeerJ, and Anne Bindslev at Rushing to Revolution, the publisher behind Co-Action Publishing. Talking to them was an interesting experience: the open community often vilifies publishers, but there are publishers who build a business model around the open, trying to make a sustainable and economically feasible business out of open dissemination practices, rather than earning money as a troll under the bridge.
The question of what would be a sustainable Open Access business model for publishing in the humanities, ironically, remains open. It is not a reason for us to stick our heads into the sand and pretend Open Access is not sweeping in and changing dissemination practices. It will change them, and the funding and evaluation practices that are associated with them. We can read it in State Secretary Dekker’s letter – the STEM disciplines are moving to this model, and anybody dependent on public money will follow. If Dutch scholars in the humanities adopt the ostrich way of dealing with this, by sticking to their slow science and closed journals, they will be swept off and left to wither; not because of our favorite culprit – the changing nature of the universities and funding agencies who don’t recognize the distinctiveness or the importance of the humanities. The people to blame are us, because we haven’t come up with ways to accommodate our publication cultures to the new setting. There are possibilities, and there are alternatives, and they are so exciting! If we look at how the Public Library of Science, or Open Library of the Humanities, or PeerJ work (just to name the few) – why haven’t we come up with such solutions for our journals?
As the last and concluding chapter of this genre experiment between a conference report and an opinion piece, I draw all the strands of the discussion and the complexities of the open to one lecture at a third event – the symposium organized to celebrate the move of the journal Isis, the most prominent history of science journal in the world, to Utrecht; and the keynote there by Paul Wouters.
I could go into the technical details of making the open happen, with all the solutions of software platforms and ingenious ways how we are already doing it. I could talk of Wikipedia, the Creative Commons, GitHub, PeerLibrary, and dozens, probably hundreds of examples of people making it work. I won’t go into that though, but in line with John Wilbanks’s “open as a platform” at OpenCon, I would like to finish my long ramble with a note about the communities and how we receive all of this and what do we do with it.
The whole Open Access debate is indicative of a much larger problem that is usually swept under the rug, both by advocates and the opponents of the open (and all of us in between) – and that’s the problem of how science actually works. We are discussing how to afford the system that services scholarly work so it can be disseminated. The multibillion dollar industry behind our publication practices is the infrastructure that supports the actual practice of doing science – whether we’re working on stem cell research or the history of diary writing in the medieval Netherlands.
What is woven into this dissemination practice is accreditation and evaluation. We are judged, filed, counted, and hired or sacked in some countries and at some universities; depending on how much we publish and where. The Dutch have been debating this for quite a while through Science in Transition, and Paul Wouters has summed it up beautifully into one question at the Isis symposium in October: “How do we actually define scientific and scholarly quality?” This is a process that questions the fundamentals – the review process, but also all those practices our academic system has aligned with that very review process.
The dogmatic belief that the review process is what makes science what it is has to be opened to scrutiny. This is the open for me. The iconoclasts of the open should not only attack the infrastructure, but the very practice of our work at universities and research institutions around the world. This is something I recognized in the call issued by Paul Wouters in the lecture he gave to welcome Isis to the Netherlands. The call was issued to historians of science, but I would extend it to those involved in debating and advocating for the open:
“[Q]uality does simply not (yet) exist outside of the systems of quality measurement. The implication of this is that quality itself is a historical category. It is not an invariant but a culturally and historically specific concept that changes and morphs over time. In fact, the history of science is the history of quality. I hope historians of science will take up the challenge to map this history in more empirical and theoretical sophistication than has been done so far.”
I would add to that: I hope historians of science will lead the way in joining the debates around the open to unpack and unravel the complexities at hand, for the policy-makers, business leaders, and fellow academics to be able to make the best and informed decisions with our participation, and for our own journals too.