Saturday, December 20, 2014

Gregory Crane: Junior Scholars, Publication and the Challenge of Open Access

Junior Scholars, Publication and the Challenge of Open Access
Gregory Crane
Draft -- please send comments to
December 20, 2014

Several colleagues and I recently had occasion to speak with a number of very promising junior scholars, each of whom had undertaken work in a very challenging field of Classical Studies. I was struck by the fact that these conversations would not have sounded much different thirty years ago when I was starting out. A couple of the scholars did bring up digital projects but all assumed that the only way to publish was to produce the same kinds of articles and books that we have been producing for generations and to publish them -- if they could -- with the most prestigious commercial venues possible. And, of course, I understand entirely why they think this way -- they are fighting to survive and the academic programs of which they are a part still focus on scholarly communication as a private conversation among professionals.

For now I set aside the major challenge. We will ultimately get to Open Access because we need Open Data, because we need, in turn, to be able to compute over both primary and secondary sources, even if we continue to focus on scholarly exchange for and among professionals. It may take a few years for this understanding to percolate through the field and for classicists to begin taking advantage of methods that already exist in 2014.  But even if there are battles to be fought, the war is already over. The world has already changed. We are just trying to figure out how to catch up and adapt to the many changes already around us.

And, of course, those who will change this world will be a group of junior scholars who realize that they have the great good fortune to live in a completely new field -- one where we have not a single up-to-date edition, lexicon, grammar, or other reference work, where we can support the understanding of Greek and Latin in a global context, and where we can have a completely new, open conversations about what work the lucky few of us who are privileged to serve the study of Greek and Latin can pursue. I am old enough to remember when young students of English literature brought literary theory into the field and, to the extent that they were able, buried their predecessors with no small pleasure. The tools are already here for the next such generation to transform the study of Greek and Latin.

Here, however, I want only to focus on economics and to produce some simple factoids. The Bryn Mawr Classical Review (BMCR) has been publishing “timely open-access, peer-reviewed reviews of current scholarly work in the field of classical studies.” Having begun in 1990, the 2014 reviews mark 25 continuous years of operation and cover a generation of scholarship. Of course, BMCR can only cover a tiny subset of the publications in our field -- our bibliographic database, L’Année Philologique, reports on its current (December 2014) homepage that it produced 17,000 bibliographic records for 2012. But the subset is an important one: in effect, BMCR publishes peer-reviewed reviews of all the books that members of the field are willing to review for it. If you want to review a book and your review passes muster, then you can publish it in BMCR. Our print reviews need to stay within page limits. For BMCR, the limiting factor is scholarly energy.

So I wrote a very simple program to scan BMCR web pages for prices (which BMCR regularly includes in the bibliographic record). The program simply looked for a “€” or a “$” followed by a number. If it saw a “€”, it multiplied the sum by a December 2014 exchange rate, $1.25 for each euro. It then reported the total number of sums that it detected, the total amount in dollars, and the average cost per book. There was an occasional error in the data (somehow the 2010 version of BMCR included the number “$9780754667254”, so I ignored sums greater than 100,000). I also tracked the number of times the string “Reviewed by” occurs to get a sense of how often reviewed books did not have a price. I have not checked the data carefully but I believe that the results provide a reasonably accurate overview.

total in $
average in $

We should not forget that the figures above do not include any journals. We should also remember that these figures may over-represent books published in English (although that certainly does not represent the intention of the BMCR editorial board: reviews cover books, and are themselves composed, in multiple languages). But the set of books about which someone cared enough to produce a serviceable review gives us a pretty good base for what a library should contain.

We should also consider the investment that the 3,425 books represent. How much time went into these books and what sort of an investment did that work represent by the institutions that pay for professional students of Greek and Latin -- costs that include not only their salaries but the space in which they work and the libraries upon which they draw? Even if we assume that each book on the average represented $10,000 in salary and expenses (a gross underestimate), we have an investment of $34,250,000 over five years (or more than $6,430,000 in the 2014 books). The real investment by universities is surely much larger.

How many students of Greek and Latin have libraries that can pay more than $50,000 a year to pay for books in classical studies?  Of course, students in degree programs and professional academics manage this with interlibrary loan and that works if you are willing to wait days (probably weeks) and you do not mind running a scanner (or paying someone to run a scanner) to make a permanent copy. If our goal is to reach other professional specialists -- or, at least, the professionals who are likely to write letters to help us get jobs, get tenure, get promoted to full professor and so on -- then this system works quite well. Or, it works well as long as institutions choose to replace retiring students of Greek and Latin and do not allocate that line to the STEM disciplines, replace it with a non-tenured position or do away with it altogether. And those outside the field may wonder what contribution  a closed network that benefits specialists and enrolled students in Greek and Latin actually makes to intellectual life.

But if our goal is to advance the role of Greek and Latin in the intellectual life of humanity, this system of intellectual exchange, propped up by interlibrary loan for enrolled students and professional specialists, is, by itself, irrelevant, trapping ideas in a closed network that cannot directly advance this larger goal.

And, of course, the closed network of commercial publication is unnecessary. Some traditional prestige publishers have begun to offer Open Access tracks at ruinously high prices (e.g., $10,000) -- charges that reflect their commercial branding at least as much as any real services that these publishers claim to provide. But there plenty of alternatives. The BMCR showed the way decades ago, and a 2012 blog post already listed more than a thousand open access journals for the study of the ancient world. The Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard has been a leader in open access publication. The Topoi Excellence cluster on Greek and Latin in Berlin severed its ties with its commercial publisher and now offers an open access venue for articles and books. My colleague at Leipzig, Charlotte Schubert, has received support from the German Research Foundation (the DFG) to begin a new journal in Classical Studies, Digital Classics Online, and Charlotte’s journal will be the first to build on the Canonical Text Services protocol and to include truly machine readable citations to classical sources. The Digital Library of Latin is developing a publication channel for editions of Latin, while our work at the Humboldt Chair of Digital Humanities focuses particularly on the challenges of scholarly communication and especially digital philology in an age of open data and we are developing a publication channel, the Perseus Online Publication Series, that will focus on particularly tricky forms of publication that involve machine actionable data (e.g., publications that build on data about language, social and geospatial networks, text reuse and other topics that draw upon annotated texts). The trend will accelerate but only if individuals make the decision to support these new venues.

Of course, if you think that the study of Greek and Latin is flourishing and enjoys firm support from students who choose their majors and from the administrators who decide whether or not to renew our contracts (if we are not tenured) or to replace us when we retire (if we are tenured), then the system as it stands may be adequate. But if you feel that the study of Greek and Latin must, on the one hand, fight for its existence as a viable intellectual enterprise and, on the other, has in fact a chance to flourish as never before, then simply replicating the past is not an option.

Do not forget that in handing over your work to commercial publishers, you will probably have to hand over the rights to your work -- rights that will extend seventy years after your death. So if you publish something in 2014 and live another 30 years, neither you nor your heirs will have the right to share your work until 2114. Some commercial publishers may provide licenses for third parties to analyze your data (here Jstor has been very helpful to our collaborators) but you don’t have that control. Commercial publication paradoxically restricts access to your work -- and that restriction will become particularly burdensome as the amount of open material grows and the center gravity shifts to an open space.

I end this blog with a suggestion to scholars who are planning new publications. Do not assume that the people who review you really want you to publish in the same, expensive venues that conferred prestige in the twentieth century. You may be an institution where every journal and publication venue has a formal score associated with it and your work is assessed by rigid bureaucratic rules. But you may be surprised at how flexible and receptive those who evaluate you (and especially those who evaluate your department) may be. While your institution may have what looks like a very rigid format for assessing your academic output, it will also probably have an evolving Open Access policy, one that can support you opening your work. What are the risks and what is, in your view, really the right thing to do? You can be conservative and follow the practices of the 20th century -- even a few years ago, you really had few alternatives. But the situation as we enter 2015 is very different than it was even in 2010. Of course, you have to fight to make a career out of the study of Greek and Latin but what are you fighting for? Is it just an academic position? Or is your goal to serve the study of these ancient languages? And if so, what is the right thing to do? That is a decision that each of us must make on their own, but you should make a decision and not simply follow what your mentors advise.

1 comment:

  1. It is a big issue, especially considering how dire the employment prospects most junior researchers face. While open access is clearly the ethical way to go and reduces overall costs to all scholarship, our current situation sees most money locked up in commercial STEM publishing. There is very little left to underwrite open access, especially in the humanities. Grad students, adjuncts and the like will likely get no support if we have mainly "Gold Open Access" with author side fees. Thus, when we do transition to open access, I worry that only senior researchers, with access to university publication supports (UC Berkeley had a program to offer $5000 for open access publication costs to each faculty member per year), will have the support to publish. I think the humanities needs more "Diamond Open Access" (no author-side fees) otherwise we'll open access will get associated with harming junior & contingent scholars (who make up the vast majority of researchers these days).

    Secondly, senior researchers still largely invest their social and intellectual capital into established closed venues. If we want OA to succeed, we need to make OA a source of prestige. We need more big-shots will to make very public stands, serve on editorial boards of OA venues, etc.

    Last, lots of the rhetoric around Open Access mainly concerns how much more "efficient" and "productive" it makes research (especially in STEM). That harms the case in the humanities, since I think it makes humanists worry it means a further erosion of how institutions value their contributions. Open Access needs to also be cast as an intellectual and academic freedom issue. I wrote about some of this in a chapter in this book: