Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Open Access and the Humanities

Martin Paul Eve

Open access (OA) – the idea that digital copies of peer-reviewed research should be available to readers without them having to pay, while also giving readers greater re-use rights – is not going away. The benefits of such open dissemination are simple to articulate across the disciplines. At the very least, an educated population with access to the latest research is surely a better environment for an informed citizenry. Above this, it seems important that researchers can also read all the relevant research literature, even if their institution’s budget is slim. At the most extreme end, in some disciplines, such as the biomedical sciences, but also for those researching migration and refugees for example, there can be life or death consequences based on who can afford access to research.

Even when we agree that this might be a good idea, though, it is not always easy to achieve open access. There are continued misconceptions, for instance, that open-access work may be of a lower quality (as though the publisher’s business model determined the rigour of the scholarship). There are also debates about licensing and profiteering in the OA space, mostly due to (bad) models that charge authors or institutions to achieve open access.

But there is a problem for the humanities. Open access is happening in the sciences and will very likely be the dominant mode of dissemination for the future of research publishing in these spaces. The question then becomes: are we happy with a world where every piece of scientific knowledge is available to anyone, free of charge, while every piece of humanistic knowledge requires readers to pay often-unaffordable subscription or purchase charges? I do not think that this would be a good world.

Since I wrote about the contexts, controversies, and potential futures of open access in the humanities disciplines in my 2014 book, much has changed.

First, in the United Kingdom at least, green open access – where authors deposit their accepted manuscripts or later versions in an institutional repository – has become entirely normalised as a result of funder policies associated with the Research Excellence Framework. An exponentially greater volume of material here, and in other countries around Europe, has become available in repositories. This has not led to the collapse of the subscription ecosystem but has meant that many more people are able to access research work.

Second, powerful international funder mandates, such as ‘Plan S’, have accelerated the schedule for OA. Importantly, for the humanities disciplines, guidance on a mandate for monographs will be forthcoming in 2021, so the timescale for implementation is emerging. We need to use this time to find business models that will allow for sustainable and perhaps scalable OA for books (hint: it’s not book processing charges). To appropriate the words of a prominent figure in other spheres of European politics in recent days: ‘please do not waste this time’.

Third, many humanists have realised the benefits of OA for their work, although they remain stymied from pursuing the ‘gold route’ because of the prevalence of article processing charges, which they cannot afford. New models such as those pioneered by my own Open Library of Humanities, but also Open Book Publishers, punctum books, and others, though, point the way towards business models that could achieve full access to the version of record, without author-facing charges. We now need other publishers to adopt these models themselves. The desire of humanists to publish openly is becoming more and more widespread, when the conditions are right. Fostering this positivity while working to make OA possible – rather than just relying on the coercion of funder mandates – is vitally important if we are to have a world that values humanistic knowledge.

Fourth, there is an increasing dialogue around global inclusivity in scholarly communications in general. While article processing charge models for OA have been criticized for excluding scholars from the Global South (to use a contested term), for instance, this has opened a broader dialogue around who is allowed to read and write within our academic publishing processes. For example, one might ask, what does it mean that English remains the lingua franca of scholarly publishing, derived from colonial legacies?

Some things remain the same, though. The USA is still a difficult space for the advance of open access because of its decentralized funding structures and devolved governance principles. There are also scholars who have never heard of open access and end up advancing the same questions that have been addressed for at least fifteen years.

Overall, though, while progress has been slow, there has been slow progress. I still dream of a world where all of our cultural and humanistic knowledge is accessible online to anyone who is interested, not only to those who are able to pay or to those who are physically well enough to reach an academic library. That dream feels as though it might be moving closer to reality.

Open Access and the Humanities by Martin Paul Eve

Open Access and the Humanities by Martin Paul Eve

About The Author

Martin Paul Eve

Martin Paul Eve is Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing and the Strategic Lead for Digital Education at Birkbeck, University of London. Martin is also Visiting Profes...

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