How Open Access Will Save the Humanities (from Themselves)

There is no single open access debate. Instead, the open access debate refers to a variety of concerns from a fluctuating body of stakeholders. As there is little hope for sufficiently addressing them all in so brief a space, this article will limit itself to the debate surrounding the role of open access within the humanities within the UK, particularly within the discipline of history. It will argue that open access can facilitate the healing of disciplinary fractures and reconnect academic scholarship to the wider public debate. It will conclude with a brief examination of the current publishing ecosystem and how open access should affect stakeholders therein.

The Fracturing of Historical Discourse

The historical profession is growing, as is the number of interdisciplinary scholars for whom historical knowledge is a critical aspect of their research. Statistics provided by the American Historical Association and the Institute of Historical Research show significant increases in the number of history postgraduates, despite growing sentiment that employment opportunities are dwindling. In order to accommodate these postgraduate practitioners, historical research has become increasing specialized, increasingly fragmented into sub-fields or even smaller groupings. This is reflected by both increasing specificity within dissertation titles and in the absolute number of academic publishing venues, the latter suggesting a need for new discursive spaces for these sub-specialisms. No longer is the historical community sufficiently served by a small number of printed journals; no longer is there a conversation through which the profession or even a field can be kept fully abreast.

Journal specialization has economic repercussions. The greater the number of specialist journals, the more difficult it is for an institution, or individual academic, to obtain regular access to the complete debate. There are several solutions to this problem, all with legitimate difficulties. The creation of electronic super-journals has the virtue of simplicity, but is thought to dismiss the importance of curation within particular niches and specialisms. Although the forthcoming Open Library of Humanities – advocated by Martin Eve in his conclusion – has already posited a number of niche curation possibilities within its super-journal framework, Paul Kirby notes that the existence of myriad independent journals allows an author’s work ‘to be read in a certain tradition, and in the wake of particular historical arguments’ and that the desire to present work to a particular audience ‘is not unreasonable’. Although a super-repository would not necessarily prevent a work from reaching its intended audience, neither would the research necessarily come to the attention of a particular society’s membership should they continue traditional, independent publication. More importantly, perhaps an absolute reliance upon like-minded audiences is an unreasonable aim. The dangers, if not the inevitability, of groupthink are well documented and by cloistering our work into ever smaller, sympathetic repositories, we risk falling into a self-perpetuating echo chamber. Thus, for the sake of the discipline, pressure towards centralization, though by no means inevitable, is perhaps one worthy of yielding to.

Read the full article (for free) at the Journal of Victorian Culture

**Image Courtesy of James F Clay

Catch and Release: My Secret Adventure into the World of GLAM-WIKI

There are countless ways to catch a fish. It can be pursued, actively, aggressively. It can be stalked, quietly, thoughtfully. It can be trapped, methodically, patiently. It can be stumbled upon, unexpectedly, fortuitously. It can be devoured, hungrily, passionately. It can be shared, graciously, equitably. It can be released, the enjoyment of the hunt and capture acknowledged, but the object itself set free to grow and mature, and to be chased and caught again.

Knowledge is a fish, and last month I made an uncommon catch.

On 12-14 April 2013, the Wikimedia UK and theb British Library hosted a three-day conference to facilitate the exchange of new technologies, innovative modes of engagement, and long-standing curatorial rigour between Wikimedians and GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) practitioners.

As a history lecturer who remains completely unaffiliated with any GLAM, and who had made only very rudimentary edits to Wikipedia in the past, I was certainly not the target audience of the event. Yet, with the surprisingly low conference fee (£15/£40), and the promise of new insights into the digital humanities, I journeyed south and hoped for the best.

When I arrived, I was greeted by a gaggle of British Library and Wikimedia staff (and volunteers), handed a not unsubstantial tote-bag full of Wikimedia goodies, and directed towards some much needed tea. As I watched, dozens of men and women from around the world ran up to each other, shaking hands (and occasionally hugging). It was clear that many of the delegates were already well acquainted. After a moment or two, I began to sidle up to on-going conversations. The room was quickly buzzing with chat over the latest GLAM digitisation projects, intellectual property and copyright law, and the newest toys in the Wikimedia tool kit.

When asked whether I was GLAM or Wiki, I shyly admitted that I had registered under slightly false pretences. Having previously heard that the event had sold out, I became oddly nervous that I had somehow denied entry to a more deserving delegate; I need not have been. Both GLAM professionals and Wikimedian volunteers were extremely welcoming to the slightly clueless lecturer wandering in their midst, and did their best to let me know, in the 30 seconds which remained before the keynote lecture, the entire history of the GLAM-Wiki project.

The event began with a magnificent plenary keynote by Michael Edson of the Smithsonian Institute; it remains the only keynote I have ever attended in which the first six minutes were done entirely in verse. In the prose that followed, Edson made a compelling case for the opening of collections through large-scale digitisation projects, bringing them to a potential global audience. He acknowledged the financial constraints of such a vision, the cost of dissemination as well as the loss of revenue from licencing, but reminded us of the potential benefits. Beyond public missions to share knowledge, placing collections online encouraged licensing revenue; when Monty Python uploaded high quality clips of their programmes on YouTube, and ceased requests to remove other instances of their content, “sales of the DVD box set had gone up by 16,000% on Amazon.” The most poignant point, however, was the simplest. “You can judge a lot about an institution by what it chooses to measure, and how it measures it.”

Over the next two days, I wandered in and out of parallel sessions, hastily noting down the vital details of dozens of projects either recently completed or currently being undertaken by museums and galleries around the world. Most notable, perhaps, was the recent reopening of the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. In her post-lunch plenary, Lizzy Jongma provided an inspiring account of the digitisation efforts of the Rijksmuseum, and their most recent efforts to make their online gallery as accessible and multi-lingual as possible. Here the question of licencing, a crucial source of revenue for cash-strapped institutions, again came to the fore. Jongma poetically deflected concerns with the problem of the ‘Yellow Milkmaid.’

‘The Milkmaid’, one of Johannes Vermeer’s most famous pieces, depicts a scene of a woman quietly pouring milk into a bowl. During a survey theRijksmuseum discovered that there were over 10,000 copies of the image on the internet—mostly poor, yellowish reproductions. As a result of all of these low-quality copies on the web, according to the Rijksmuseum, “people simply didn’t believe the postcards in our museum shop were showing the original painting. This was the trigger for us to put high-resolution images of the original work with open metadata on the web ourselves. Opening up our data is our best defence against the ‘yellow Milkmaid’.”

Likewise, Kimberley Kowal of the British Library shared her experiences of crowd-sourcing library collections. As many of you may know, this venerable institution has an expanding collection of historical maps, most of which are wholly unknown to the general public and many of which are too fragile to allow public access. In order to make these collection available, the library decided to digitise a selection of them for online access. The difficulty, Kowal explained, was that no matter how descriptive the meta data for the maps was, they would remain essentially unsearchable to a wide range of users, who were unsure of the ‘correct’ search parameters. Instead, it was decided that the maps would be georeferenced, placing them on top of modern map data, allowing for a visual search of a particular area. The problem? How to georeference thousands of maps with limited staffing resources. The solution? Allow the world to georeference it for you! The most amazing part of the story is not that the public engaged but the level of engagement. The initial batch of 800 maps, expected to take several months, was completed in just three days!

The other side of the coin, the Wikimedians, were just as engaging. Over the course of the second day, Wikimedian volunteers and Wikimedians-in-Residence explored a variety of outreach activities within the UK and around the world. Some volunteers had worked directly with GLAM institutions, coordinating on-site events and outreach programmes to encourage public engagement with their collections. One common experience was the edit-a-thon and backstage pass, where local community members were invited into back rooms of archives, museums and galleries, given a behind-the-scenes tour of the collections, and then encouraged to digitise a selection of the material (for Wikimedia Commons) or create and update Wikipedia articles related to the materials held there. Other Wikimedians improved accessibility to existing collections through the creation of QR codes that directed a user’s smartphone to the Wikipedia article on that exhibit, statue, or artwork in their own (or their phone’s) language. Rather than a plaque with the three most likely visitor languages, museums and galleries can now cater to most of the world’s languages with a single square.

Over the course of the two days, and the ThatCamp that immediately followed, I gained an almost inexpressible breadth of new knowledge regarding open-access resources and community outreach programmes. Most importantly, I have become completely enamoured with the Wikimedian volunteers. In all honesty, I have never met such a wonderfully optimistic, civic-minded, and genuinely kind-hearted group of individuals. If you have any sympathy with the idea of Open Access or the free dissemination of knowledge, I cannot recommended a finer group of people to engage with.

A full listing of the weekend’s panels can be found here ( and a selection of the presentation videos can be found at (

*Image courtesy of Flavio~

Why Open Access Makes Sense, and its Detractors Don’t

It has now been several months since Networked Researcher hosted its wonderful Open Access Unconference, and several weeks since the untimely death of Open Access Reformer Aaron Schwartz. Although my initial feelings about open access were very strong, I felt it proper to wait, and to reflect critically, before weighing in on the OA debate.

When I first entered university,  I was very confused by the concept of published research. I had, like many, believed academic authors were paid in the same manner as freelance journalists, per piece, or per word, by the publication in question; books, of course, would earn the same scale of royalties as popular fiction. Having attended university in the States, where relying on the library a key textbook was madness, academic publishing seemed a very lucrative side business. Little did I know.

When I began to prepare my first article for submission, I learned that although the publication of peer-reviewed articles was vital to your career, this work was done, essentially, gratis. Your university, I was told by my supervisor, paid you to research and publish as part of your salary. It was, as I understood it then, a product produced by the university by its employees, for prestige–a way to secure grants and student tuition–as well as the grand, humanitarian ideals associated with the furtherance of human knowledge. Fair enough, I supposed, so long as salaries were commensurate with the work. Little did I know.

It was only when I began my graduate studies that I finally understood the true cost of the current publication regime. I had, in many ways, been spoiled as an undergraduate, having easy access to a wide variety of hard-copy and electronic journals through my university, and even more through the American Antiquarian Society, the legal deposit library down the street from my flat. When my undergraduate access expired, before my graduate account was activated, I was suddenly faced with the prospect of paying for access to JSTOR and ProjectMuse.

Over the next few years, as I moved from department to department, I found myself constantly barred from some journal, some database, that I desperately needed. When I begged my librarians for subscriptions, I was politely informed just how much electronic subscriptions cost. As the only researcher in my department who needed this particular publication, how I could I ever justify such a recurring expense?

Journal publication must be an expensive endeavour; that was the only explanation. A few informal chats with journal editors, who all worked for free or for very small honorariums by their scholarly societies,  soon convinced me it was all a racket. Research was done gratis, as was authorship. Peer review was done gratis (without even the small perks available to STEM researchers, such as free colour pages for your own submissions). Editing was done for very little, if not for free, and certainly well below the market value of such efforts. The only process that seemed to genuinely ‘cost money’ was hard-copy production and distribution. Surely cutting out the middleman, and publishing electronically, was the obvious answer.

But there seemed to be a large amount of resistance to free electronic publication. Some of it came from expected, vested interests, such as Elsevier and JSTOR. Others objectors were more surprising, such as the presidents of scholarly societies and a large proportion of academic researchers. This gave me pause. Was there something I simply had not understood? Was I just a spiky, adolescent researcher with no concept of the difficulties Open Access faced. After a great deal of reflection, I must say no. I understood. They are wrong.

But rather than generalise (a cardinal sin in academic writing), let me address what I have found to be the main arguments against moving towards electronic, open access publication of all scholarly research.

Scholarly Societies

The Argument:

Scholarly publications within society journals provides a centralized space for researchers within a specialism to share their research as well as develop a scholarly discourse. Moreover, the subscriptions support the societies other activities, such as meetings and early career support.

My Rebuttal:

I am an advocate of scholarly communities, especially as part of a development process from undergraduate to emeritus professor. However, what I find most valuable about these organisations is not their journal. In previous generations, when meetings and contact was more difficult, journals provided a single point of convergence, of conversation, for all members of a field, regardless of their ability to attend meetings or otherwise communicate with the wider community. This is no longer the case. On the one hand, the majority of researchers now use search or other facilities to obtain research from a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary publications. My own collection of hard copy journals remains in remarkably pristine condition as I usually search the electronic archives of key publications rather than break the spine on my own copies.

However, I do find conferences, and meetings, very valuable experiences that I would not want to lose. I, therefore, think that rather than have journals subsidize meetings and grants, conference fees and institutional contributions should finance these grants and gatherings. When I organised workshops and conferences for the History Subject Centre, I relied on a small budget (less than £1000 for an event). This covered catering, travel expenses for speakers and some bursaries for postgraduates. Everything else was accomplished through the good will of academics (speakers) and institutions (venues and HEA subscriptions for the initial £1000).  Surely, this sort of good will and responsibility can make the much larger budget of a conference (where fees are typically paid by attendees) support the other activities of the society and allow its publications to be set free. It is much simpler, moreover, to obtain funding for conference attendance than for Gold Open Access publication.

Providers and Curators of Electronic Databases

The Argument:

Providing a robust and accessible collection of materials, available electronically throughout the world, through a simply authentication system, costs money.

My Rebuttal:

Although server fees are certainly a factor in the provision of electronic materials, a surprisingly large amount of money is lost through duplication. Individual databases, from publishers and repositories, duplicate core functionality as well as technical services. Although I am reluctant to tell these engineers that they are redundant (and thus increase unemployment) their services would surely be more useful in other growing fields, such as working with less technically competent academics attempting to engage with the digital humanities. Moreover, subscriptions by institutions and especially individuals are in no way representative to the actual costs associated with making these material available.

The ‘other’ Argument:  

Digitizing millions of pages of hard-copy publications, performing optical character recognition on each, and making this information available through a robust search facility, costs money.

My Rebuttal:

For publishers, this argument simply does not hold water. These resources are digitised as part of the production process (and easily replicated by any copy of Word or Adobe) and this does not require extensive outlays of capital. For repositories such as JSTOR, the argument is stronger. However, as JSTORs acquisitions shift from scanned hard-copies to documents that already exist in digital form, the rationale for inflated subscription rates diminishes. Moreover, have not the subscriptions of the past decades already compensated the initial costs of digitisation? Could institutions such as universities not receive reduced subscriptions costs in return for making using their own digitisation processes to complete the back catalogue?

Hard-copy Publishers

The Argument:

We are a dying industry. Give us your money!

My Rebuttal:

This is a tad simplistic, I grant you. But just because an industry is finding a shift in technological difficult does not necessarily require us to save it when doing so contradicts our (and our stakeholders) best interests. I love books, and there will always be a place for hard-copy publication. I just do not feel that scholarly journal publication is one of those places. Do we need to distribute hard copies? Are those locations that have the resources to obtain, store, and make these copies available not the same places that can afford internet access and basic computer terminals? With the growth of eReaders and tablets, when was the last time you chose a hard-copy publication of a article that was available electronically? Indeed, in developing countries, internet access is a far better use of limited resources than a curated collection of key journals.

(Early Career) Researchers

The Argument:

Promotion and recognition relies on publication within specific journal spaces, which, through their audience and established peer-review structure, validates research as being of a particular quality.

My Rebuttal:

Nonsense. I mean this one. Although there is certainly prestige attached to printing in selective journals, this does not mean it is a system worth maintaining. Should young scholars not be judged on their own merits, rather than if generalist journals (as most flagship journals are) deem their work relevant to their particular (and rather wide) audience? Should not niche, but very detailed and scholarly work, not be considered as worthwhile? Are committees so overburdened that they must rely on the judgement of others to determine worth and value? What would we tell our students about thinking for themselves? Reputation should be earned by the work, not simply by the stamp of approval of an editor and a small selection of (anonymous) peer reviewers.  I value the open comments and dialogues I have with my post-publication reviewers far more than the scribbled paragraphs I receive anonymously pre-publication.

The second point, often raised, is that journal publication prevents researchers from embarrassing themselves. In a recent response to the Open Access debate, Anthony Grafton apparently “compared the peer review process to P.G. Wodehouse’s character Jeeves—assuring that authors are not out “wearing their magenta socks”. Although I was not at this year’s AHA Annual Meeting, I have certainly heard similar sentiments elsewhere. Indeed, my own students are generally forbidden from using non-peer reviewed works in their scholarly endeavors. Am I courting disaster? No. As I said previously, these checks are done without the benefit of payment by an army of researchers whose main aim, it seems, is to further human knowledge and prevent magenta-sock-wearing. As for other forms of embarrassment, such as grammatical and typographical errors, these services are rarely provided by paid individuals, and certainly not by the publishers with whom I have worked. Indeed, publishing now often seems to be merely printing and (occasionally) promotion. If we do not want to be caught wearing magenta socks, we must simply be more diligent in our research and composition. Not too great a request I should think.

Funding bodies

The Argument:

Research must make an impact in your scholarly community and be validated as quality by appropriate (established) mechanisms.

My Rebuttal:

Much like the argument from researchers, I have heard some funding bodies raise concerns about open access journals (as opposed to Gold publication). They are, perhaps rightly, concerned that funded work will not be taking as seriously by those it is meant to impact if it does not have that seal of academic approval. They are almost certainly right, but this not a justification for continuing the current model. It is justification for changing the environment in which scholarly work is consumed.


I have made several points here today, many of which I expect will draw complaint. I encourage it. I would love nothing more than for these debates to continue, for our reasoning to be refined and our solutions made more robust. I have surely shown off my magenta socks, my ignorance, in some regards, but only because the processes and reasoning for continuing subscriptions is so often whispered and complaints so defensively dismissed. I therefore ask, beg you, my reader, to give me your reasons for the continuation of the subscription model and let us work together to see how these problems can be addressed.

I do not wish, as one friend advised me, to simply wait until the dinosaurs die off.

I believe fervently in the free dissemination of knowledge. I also demand accountability. In my ideal world all articles would be published in a single, free repository, the servers paid for through very modest subscriptions by public and charitable institutions, including governments, who maintain a vested interest in the furtherance of knowledge and research. Like Zotero, topics and themes would evolve organically as communities and individuals compile groups and links. Peer review would be done dynamically, and openly. I trust a criticism of a scholar whom is willing to risk their own reputation on that criticism far more than anonymous gatekeepers with little personal stake in getting it right. Good scholars almost always ask for pre-publication reviews from colleagues. This would not change. The reason a work becomes seminal, perhaps, would.


**Image courtesy of biblioteekje