Thinking about Open Access in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Katie McGettigan & Jo Taylor, Keele University

JISC Conference: Open Access Monographs in the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1-2 July 2013

So you spend three or four years chained to your computer. You read so many books and articles that your dreams start to conform to the MHRA style guide. You have moments of pure excited joy and (usually longer) moments of unadulterated despair. And at the end of it all, you produce your thesis, your article, or your book.

And no one reads it. No one can, outside a very small group of fellow-academics whose institutional affiliations mean that they can access your work. Even institutions are not operating on a level playing field; say half of your colleagues are from small institutions whose libraries just don’t have a big budget, or they specialise in a subject area very different to yours. A huge proportion of your intended audience is already locked out from being able to discover your work. The problem is even more acute if you’re publicly-funded. Almost everyone you walk past in the street is contributing something to your research – but they can’t read it, unless they’re willing to pay extortionate amounts of money to access it. And, remember, they’ve already paid for it; their taxes are the reason you could carry out your research to begin with.

The open access debate is not a new one; it’s been brewing for nearly two decades. But, to talk specifically to the UK context, at a time when we’re being increasingly asked to demonstrate the worth of our research to a wider audience which reaches outside the academic bubble, the conversation about open access is heating up. This week’s JISC conference, ‘Open Access Monographs in the Humanities and Social Sciences’, amply demonstrated why this is not an issue we can ignore, and why it’s a conversation that should and must be engaged with across all subject disciplines and about all academic publishing.

The conference, held at the British Library on July 1st-2nd, provided a rare opportunity for academics, librarians, publishers and policy-makers to come together, providing a space for dialogues which seem long overdue. If open access is based on collaboration, this conference set the right tone; the very active Twitter feed indicates the kinds of conversations being had, and the need for these dialogues to continue as the open access movement progresses.

It’s nearly exactly one year since the Finch report suggested how open access publishing might work in the UK. (See this blog post from Helen Rogers for an idea of some of the issues this report raised.) It identified two routes by which open access publishing would work: gold, where the author or institution pays the publisher for open access rights, and green, where the work is subject to an embargo for a set time before it is made open access. Open access policies so far have only applied to journal articles, but the conversation now is beginning to consider the future of monograph publishing. Although HEFCE confirmed at this conference that there is unlikely to be a formal requirement for the next (c.2020) REF, they are in the beginning stages of a consultation to consider how open access monograph publishing might be brought into effect.

At the heart of this conference was a dilemma: how appropriate are monographs for publishing research anyway? Jean Claude Guédon asked this question in his opening keynote, suggesting that we now need to find ways to go beyond the monograph. He argued that we need to recognise that all of our research is collaborative; even the monograph is not the work of one lone researcher, but is instead one document entering into a ‘society of text ’. Building on D.F. McKenzie’s theory of the ‘sociology of texts’, Guédon suggested that the concept of the author-centric text is flawed; it implies ownership over an idea that was, in fact, not developed in a solitary mind, but in conversation with others – whether that be with other academics, or with your partner, your friend, your mum, all of whom will contribute something to your thinking. And anyway, he continued, the single-author thesis does not train us sufficiently for the jobs we’re likely to get after it, when we will be working collaboratively with other people. Why not collaborate on your thesis, then? An exciting, innovative and witty talk, , Guédon set the tone for a conference that challenged established boundaries in scholarship; asking us not only to reconceive of how we disseminate our work, but also our relationship to and ownership of our research.

Guédon was openly indebted to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s study Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy (2011), and indeed she reiterated many of Guédon’s points in her own keynote later that day. Fitzpatrick went further to suggest that the academy is organised by a vertical hierarchy, whereby established scholars self-propagate their own ideas. In other words, if all our new work is being assessed by the same outdated ideas, it will never get very far. Fitzpatrick argued for a move towards a ‘horizontal’ order, whereby we are all assessed on our trustworthiness and skill rather than out credentials. She stimulated the discussion on the peer review process by comparing the two peer review methods undergone by Planned Obsolescence: ‘traditional’ review, and open peer review, in which work is placed online for comment by anyone who is interested (similar to the comments on newspaper articles) and some examples of which you can see here. She was not arguing for a complete switch to open access peer reviews, but she did demonstrate how the two approaches might work together to produce a better final product. She also indicated how this approach might be used for teaching at all levels; students from across disciplines and institutions can comment side-by-side on the same text, diversifying their conversations and engaging them with a much wider social and critical field. Fitzpatrick this employed her own experiences and examples to support a persuasive theoretical argument for the virtues of openness, and how it might dispel some of the resentment that festers around the blind peer review process.

These keynotes highlighted the broader issues at play in humanities and social sciences publishing in the international market, and the sessions between them illustrated the specific ways in which open access publishing might be approached. As Martin Hall noted as he introduced the first panel, ‘to Finch’ might not yet be a recognised verb, but it’s role as a noun has certainly expanded since last year’s report. Panel 1, ‘HSS after Finch’, provided an opportunity for a diverse range of companies and policy makers to articulate their responses to open access publishing of monographs. Rupert Gatti, the Director of Open Book Publishers, received a lot of Twitter praise for his enthusiasm over the course of the conference, and he asked the event’s key question: how can we prove our relevance if our main outputs are not being read by the majority? It was a question with which HEFCE are demonstrably struggling; they confirmed that there would be no mandate for open access publishing in the next few years, despite the growing support for it at government level in the EU, as Carl Buhr explained. As Caroline Edwards suggested in the afternoon session, we risk falling into a ‘prestige trap’, whereby young scholars can’t publish open access because it isn’t as well-recognised – but it never will be if there are no mandates for it. Her comments returned to Guédon’s earlier response to a question on the role of ECRs in the open access debate, in which he stressed the need for established academics to participate in the OA movement; ECRs, who are trying to shape careers, should not be made to innovate, and thus bear all the risk, alone. These dialogues seemed to indicate that policy makers and academics are stuck, to a degree, in a loop, whereby academics won’t publish open access until there’s equal prestige attached to it, and policy-makers won’t mandate it until academics are seen to be doing it.

The majority of day 2 saw delegates split into three different strands: one for researchers, one for librarians and one for policy-makers. The researcher strand explored practical ways researchers might explore the possibility of publishing their monograph open access. Ed Pentz, the Executive Director at CrossRef, introduced us to ORCID, an online researcher identity; Ernesto Priego guided us through Creative Commons and CC-BY licenses; Janneke Adema suggested how to find a reputable open access publisher; Ellen Collins explored issues surrounding funding, mandates and embargoes; Will Brooker (aka Dr. Batman) made the case for actively promoting your work; and Lucy Montgomery provided an introduction to altmetrics. The main message from this strand is easily summarised: you have the power to control your research destiny. Get on ORCID – provide your own information so that people looking for you know who you are and what you’ve published. Get keyed up about Creative Commons so that you know how, and where, to publish open access. If you don’t ask for funding, you won’t get it (publishing OA with Palgrave currently costs £11,000), and you should discuss your own embargo lengths too. Don’t leave it all to the publisher or institution to promote yourself, and get online to track the impact of your work. Open access may put more emphasis on collaboration, but it also highlights the need for self-determination. Your work isn’t finished just because it’s published.

The two day conference did not reach any hard and fast conclusions on when and how open access monographs might become, if not the dominant publishing model in the humanities, then an equal with the traditional book format. The ubiquity of the term ‘freemium’ over the two days – a model in which a basic version is available free, whilst premium content is paid for – suggests that the paid for and open access will likely exist alongside one another for some time, if not permanently. Proposed changes in publishing models also raised further questions, notably about the role of libraries (who are often positioned as “subscribers” to paid content, and thus a source of funding): are libraries really moving from the role of ‘collector’ to ‘connector’, as Dr Frances Pinter of Knowledge Unlatched argued? Some book historians present may have been unsettled by assertions that ‘readers don’t care what format information comes in, they just want knowledge’, and ‘two libraries next to each other don’t need two copies of the same book’; assertions which seemed in opposition to the theories of D.F. McKenzie, with which the conference began. At this moment of transition, it might be pertinent to remind OA publishers that ‘knowledge’ resides in books (material objects) as well as texts (the words themselves), and that we don’t want to lose this.

However, the conference did emphasis that we are at a transitional moment in humanities publishing, and humanities research more widely. The move towards digital content and to more (if not completely) open access to research is irreversible. The Wellcome Trust’s mandating of open access for its funded research has been seen as a game-changer in the sciences; for a large humanities funder (the British Academy, the AHRC) to require OA monographs would likely cause a similar shift in thinking. What this conference demonstrated above all is that humanities researchers must be listening to and participating in these conversations, or risk their research being closed to access altogether.

Useful Links:

Here’s just a few of the resources mentioned at the conference. For a more in depth idea of the content and context of the event, check out the Twitter feed at #oabooks.

Open Book Publishers

Open Library of Humanities

Knowledge Unlatched



Open Electronic Publishing



Creative Commons


Impact Story

Katie McGettigan is a third year PhD student at Keele University, writing a thesis on the material text and the literary marketplace in the novels of Herman Melville.  Her research interests also include transatlantic literary relations; she has published on Melville’s  and Thomas Carlyle’s responses to the marketplace, and on the British reception of Putnam’s Magazine.  She can be found on Twitter at @KatieMcGettigan.

Jo Taylor is in the second year of her PhD at Keele University. Her research focuses on the use of spatial metaphors to express anxieties of influence in the Coleridge family’s poetry between 1798 and 1898. She blogs at and can be found on Twitter at @JoTayl0r0

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