18 January 2013

Quality Research and Real Access: confronting the myths of the OA Evangelists

Readers of the Guardian's science blog have been told that "Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral".  The writer, ,  makes an impassioned case for Open Access (OA),  but a number of his premises simply don't hold water in the fields of humanities and social sciences.  Indeed, they reveal a remarkable level of naivety about how academics 'sink or swim' in the gamble that is a modern career.  If the utopia that is described here really existed then we wouldn't need to worry.  Maybe it does in the sciences -- certainly they are more used to the idea of paying to publish -- but I'm afraid it's not like that for many scholars. 

A lot of the issues that I want to raise have already been discussed in the 'comments' section, so right now, I just want to focus on two inter-related points:  how to best promote scholarship and the role of learned societies.  A number of us have flagged concerns about the impact of Gold OA on the broader academic environment.  Mike says that "the purpose of a scholarly society is to promote scholarship, which is best done by making that scholarship available".  That's hard to disagree with. But is 'availability' really the best way of producing quality work?  To my mind, this is at best naive, and at worst, neo-liberal.  It presumes that every scholar has an equal opportunity to produce good work, and that all that 'good work' needs is to be published.  

But that may not bear much resemblance to the experience of early career researchers. Those of us lucky enough to be educated at top-notch research intensive institutions will have been nurtured in fertile environments -- invited speakers at research seminars, conferences held on site, or travel funded to them, networking with high-level scholars, and a stimulating environment full of other post-grads.  Hopefully, we also have supervisors who give unstintingly of themselves, provide us with support in designing our research, and feed their wisdom into our draft papers.  But for others, lacking this stimulating and supportive environment, the decisions about how to draft papers, where to submit, and how to develop a research portfolio seem like a very strange world indeed.  And this is where learned societies can and do play a fantastic role - through post-grad networks, workshops, and networking opportunities.  All of these contribute intangibly but very substantially to enabling students to navigate the murky waters of early career scholarship.  

One of the drivers of the OA evangelicals is the assumption that scholars are prevented from contributing to academic debate because of their inability to access journals. But, while access to the most recent journals is essential (and many commercial and not-for-profit publishers do enable this in developing countries), a focus on this over-simplifies the process whereby we are initiated into the arcane rituals of scholarship. 

For those who have 'made it' it is perhaps hard to imagine just how puzzling our little world seems to outsiders, or those just peeking in.  But having run workshops for students and recently completed doctoral candidates as well as many 'meet the editors' events at conferences, I can assure you that the rumours and innuendo and half-truths that circulate about how journals really work are manifold.   

In a reply to one of my comments, Mike says " who ploughs three to five years of their life into a research project, but doesn't bother to take three to five hours to investigate the journal they're thinking of sending the paper to?"  It's not that people don't look into these things, but that 'we' pick up on many many clues that we can 'read' because we've been circulating around, chatting with other PGs and that we 'know' the names in the field.  That comes from familiarity with a certain discourse, which is only achieved by access and inclusion to it - and that's more than just reading the journals on-line (although that sure helps).

So, if we really want journals to publish the best research, and stimulate the best debates, that means enabling everyone to participate in it - and that 'participation' starts way before the paper is submitted to the journal.  As a journal editor everyday I would receive papers by bright, motivated students and young academics which were often not even fit to be sent for peer review, much less published.  This is not a reflection on the ability of those students, nor simply a result of their limited access to recent academic work.  For the most part, the problems were much more fundamental and related to the research design, the understanding of how to engage in an academic debate -- the sorts of things that are picked up through circulating in an academic milieu. 

My experience as a journal editor convinced me that the best scholarship comes from supporting a diverse mix of scholars from as wide a background as possible to make their contributions, Learned societies play a crucial role in this, and disregarding it, as the Finch report did, risks making scholarship less inclusive, in the name of 'openess'.  

OA is coming.  Learned societies will adapt, and we can only hope that some funding will come through so that networking sessions, workshops, conference travel grants etc continue to enable a wide range of new scholars to join our ranks. But let's stop pretending that Open Access will  miraculously solve the problems of publishing, library budgets, and access, because - in the real world - access is about more than just being able to read what someone has written. 

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