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

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