A variety of open access models is needed to be truly inclusive of all research

Open access requirements for arts, humanities and social sciences need to reflect the distinctive nature of those disciplines, writes Sarah Kember

十月 6, 2019
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The brainteaser about getting a fox, chicken and bag of grain across a river may be a dangerous one to employ, but it springs to my mind when I think about the risks of going on a policy journey without thinking about those metaphorically left behind – and how academic hierarchies might leave some scholars as prey to unintended consequences.

Open access brings many benefits, but current policymaking – at least in the UK – is failing to address the differences between disciplines and the risks associated with enforcing major structural change on academic publishing without first reflecting on the potential impact on a fragile scholarly ecology.

In particular, many scholars in the arts, humanities and social sciences are concerned about the risks of a wholesale adoption of the same policies being applied to STEM research.

This is not about protective exceptionalism: our fields of study are radically different, and open access policy should recognise the centrality of monographs within AHSS and the lack of funding relative to STEM.

A one-day conference held at Goldsmiths, University of London in May sought to explore these questions, bringing together 150 academics, librarians and policymakers to try and put the horse back in front of the cart in ensuring that open access policy serves the scholarly endeavour, rather than vice versa.

A wide range of perspectives were expressed. But it is clear that a large number of serious questions remain around the potential impact of open access policy – particularly mandates enforced without additional funding – on AHSS.

Even under current constraints, few universities can afford to cover the cost of a complete shift to gold open access publishing. It is important that policymakers acknowledge this in order to avoid a consolidation of the existing hierarchy within the sector. Compliant institutions would have to draw on existing budgets and would be left with the difficulty of devising open and fair procedures for allocating funds. The fear for AHSS scholars is that we will always be near the bottom of the pile, relative to our STEM-based peers.

Fee-based models that lack adequate funding point to a future dystopia for scholarly communications in which researchers inside – and on the margins of – the academy will be forced to pay to publish their own work or self-publish on Amazon.

Open access monograph publishing is a mixed blessing for retired and unaffiliated academics. While removing paywalls for reading, it presents financial challenges that may preclude participation. Of course, these issues are not confined to AHSS, but the relative importance of monographs (and the associated time required to produce them) sharpen the impact on our disciplines.

As has been argued in Times Higher Education before, it is also necessary to reflect on open access in a global context and consider how decisions made, for example, in the UK, have global effects which may deepen inequalities.

The research excellence framework has come to dominate UK research in AHSS but is not of itself a good reason for undertaking and publishing research. The REF is not why universities exist and open access can and should matter outside of the REF. A REF mandate for monographs – set to be in place by 2028 – could drive researchers to a limited number of publishers that in turn are likely to charge high book processing charges.

My own view is that recommendations would work better than mandates for AHSS. The best incentive for encouraging open access is adequate funding and a greater degree of ownership and control across the academic community.

What is needed is a variety of models – business and otherwise – not least to avoid becoming reliant on a system of processing charges that is potentially unsustainable.

A model based on international collaboration rather than competition would also facilitate the inclusion of BAME, LGBTQI, working class and other academics who sit outside the traditional “mainstream”.

As well as looking beyond the limited gold and green models for open access, as Goldsmiths Press already does (by migrating our titles from our institutional repository to an extended book platform), we should prioritise values of inclusion, equality and diversity over the current refrain of monitoring, compliance and efficiency.

There should be a commitment to publicly funded, institutionally based infrastructures to support open access monographs, and more attention needs to be paid to the overlooked middle child of scholarly publishing, the university presses, that have always sought to serve the scholarly community and the wider public over commercial interests.

In a similar vein, policymakers currently considering open access for edited collections should consider carefully the potential impact on knowledge exchange if skilfully woven chapters – intended to be read as part of a whole – were to be packaged independently of each other. I would caution against such moves, particularly if the main purpose is to levy chapter processing charges and create the book equivalent of the mega journal. Books are not journals. Chapters are not articles. Back to those radical differences.

A report drawing together the various perspectives articulated during our event earlier this year is available on the Goldsmiths Press website. I hope it will help inform policy formation across the UK and beyond, in order to ensure that the AHSS scholarly endeavour is considered first and foremost before any attempt to race across the river.

Sarah Kember is the director of Goldsmiths Press 

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