On the Oxford Dictionary’s Choice of “Post-truth” as the Word of the Year.

What a mess: Turns out my enthusiastic use of Facebook over the last years ended in a semantic cul-de-sac. Like millions, I handed over my personal interests, preferences, and personality traits (“which Sherlock Holmes are you?”) to an invisible data-glutton who diligently digested all my information and spewed it back at me in the form of a tailor-made feed where I found little to disagree with. Recently, my time to read newspapers became ever more scarce, while the convenience of finding “all I need to know” on FB lulled me into a false sense of security. Now it is clear that what I had considered to be “the situation” turned out to be an incredibly skewed vision of reality. Like so many after Trump’s election and Brexit, I am shocked to realize that I have no idea any more what is true and what isn’t. As of today, the jargon expression I’d been using for a while to describe this state of affairs has become an official word with a pedigree: post-truth.

What does this mean for scholarly communication? Here, too, the foundations of what is and what isn’t true have been shaken. Peer-review has taken a hit as a bastion of quality control; the reproducibility crisis put a dent into the credibility of STEM research. The humanities and social sciences have been grappling with the post-modernist legacy of “there is no truth” for decades.

What is left? Technology? Possibly, but we need to ask ourselves whether we are building things for the betterment of life or because we want to hand over more and more tasks and thus responsibility for our lives to non-human intelligence. What is at the end of that rainbow? The discussions will have to continue!

Perhaps truth (absolute or otherwise) is over; nevertheless, if we want to co-exist peacefully, we will have to agree on what we consider important and beneficial to all. Rebuilding a social consensus is going to be very difficult and a lot of work. We will have to reestablish the meaning of concepts such as “democracy”, “freedom”, “security”, “privacy”, “community”, or “accountability”. We will have to continue to improve the way we disseminate and vet information and research results. And, as I argued yesterday, we will have to get better at communicating our work to everyone – not just those within our algorithmically curated information-bubbles.

Help Us, Academia, You Are Our Only Hope.


Yesterday, The Scholarly Kitchen’s David Crotty reflected on the presidential omnishambles in his piece “The US Election, a Need for Curation, and the Power of Story”. He offers two points: the first – which is well taken – tackles the role of Facebook and its information bubbles built by algorithms.

Crotty’s other point is the lack of a narrative for scholarly publishing. He writes:

We are notoriously poor at telling our story. We know we do something valuable, but what we do is often subtle and unseen, and when we start describing it, we get lost in the details and the caveats. At that point, we’ve lost our audience.

For the last decade and a half, we have been trying to counter an argument that all publishers are greedy corporations, reaping massive profits, and bent on stopping cancer patients from reading about their conditions. Or one that publishers steal the hard work of researchers and then sell that work back to them at exorbitant prices. Neither of these arguments is particularly true, but both resonate emotionally. That’s hard to counter with wonky charts showing declines in cost-per-use or cost-per-citation or an in-depth explanation of the peer review process. Rooting for a self-declared Luke Skywalker over someone they’re accusing of being Darth Vader is much easier to get behind than understanding the subtleties of a complex service industry.

While the bit Crotty describes as “not particularly true” is, well, debatable, the rot in scholarly communication runs much deeper. “People of this country have had enough of experts”, opined Michael Gove just before Brexit. At that moment, scholarly communication was handed the bill for failing spectacularly at making itself understood, relevant, and persuasive. This is not just due to pay walls or too many facts to make a convincing case; the bitter truth is that an increasingly incomprehensible ivory tower – and the academic publishing industry is part of it – has utterly disconnected from the wider public.

The thing is, good writers are incredibly rare in academia and editors are by now seen as a luxury most publishers cannot afford. Both exist almost in spite of a system that on the one hand is insatiable when it comes to new content but on the other considers rhetorical skills and the craft of writing to be a given. Yes, there are writing programs here and there, additional courses offered by graduate academies and the like, but the fundamental skills of communication have not really been at the core of our education for a long time. And now it shows. We get lost in technicalities, unable to clearly convey the bigger picture and relevance of what we do. We cannot thrill, excite, and stimulate a wider audience with our discoveries because we never really learned how to formulate and produce a good story. Our tales are boring, disjointed, and more often than not a stylistic nightmare. Who wants to read this stuff?

While the hour is late to own up to this, it is good that we realize the problem not only in the US and Britain but also in Europe. Here too the concern over a missing narrative is manifesting itself. In yesterday’s Forward the Commons! A unifying political vision for Europe the authors call for a positive counter-narrative:

The crisis of the European Union begs for new, unifying and constructive narratives – alternatives to the right-wing populist and nationalist wave that is getting fiercer every day. A commons approach holds the potential for a unified vision towards an alternative economy, a Europe from the bottom up and an ecological way of life.

It remains to be seen whether such a vision will convince those Europeans who are already under the spell of the fear-mongering, anti-intellectual tales of “us vs. them” that characterize so many of our right-wing demagogues. The would-be authors need to remember that a good story needs conflict and a hero, a familiar structure and a touch of magic. Take Trump’s slogan “Make America great again”. Its disconcerting genius lies in the fact that it distilled all these elements into four words.

But finding these crucial structural ingredients will not be enough. To quote Pulitzer, the authors of an alternative narrative will have to:

Put it before them briefly so that they will read it,
Clearly so they will appreciate it,
Picturesquely so they will remember it,
And, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.

It is foolish to think that such skills just somehow appear. They need to be learned. Enter another crucial element of any good story: the mentor. Who other than academia can fill the role of the Merlins, Gandalfs, and Obi Wan Kenobis? If scholarly publishing once more considers the readability of content as an important hallmark of quality and academia rediscovers its duty of preparing folks with the communicative tools for a reflected, well-informed life, then we may be able to at least adjust the narrative and look to brighter days ahead.

The Dust Still Hasn’t Settled. Reading the Results from Science Europe and Global Research Council Surveys

Last month Science Europe published a survey report on Open Access Publishing Policies in its Member Organisations. Based on two surveys conducted in 2012 and 2014 respectively it casts light on the progress – or lack thereof – in the implementation of #OA across the disciplines.
The data for the report is based exclusively on information provided by Research Funding Organisations and Research Performing Organizations who participated in both surveys. While methodologically this is a sound decision, it considerably limits the representative value of the exercise. A glance at the participants shows that most information was culled from (Western) Europe. With the exception of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary, Eastern Europe is absent from the survey. Considering that the 2014 survey was of global scope, the reach of the results shrinks even more.
Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction. Considering the ongoing fluctuation of the publishing landscape, the breakneck speed of technical developments, and the recent political upheavals that may yet play a role in the further pursuit of transnational open access to research, it is helpful and encouraging to see the first steps toward an overview coming from the very organisations who, in my opinion, hold the key to the success of the transition.
The report conveys a sense of direction and awareness of pressing issues, such as supporting new initiatives or establishing technical standards, which are crucial in the steps ahead. On the other hand, it also becomes clear that the mills do grind very slowly indeed: there is little more than encouragement and suggestion – we are still a far cry from a pan-European (leave alone international) Open Access Policy with bite.

Outsourcing Editing? Part II

Last fall, I wrote about the financial challenges of quality copy editing. The post grew out of having to develop a new editing workflow and a sustainable business model for our local publications. My plan was, as I wrote in October, to pursue contracts with some of our long-time freelancers and one or two additional providers. They arranged for a series of editing samples that tackled an excerpt from one of our typical texts. The quality was good and the price seemed fair but while we were negotiating, my erstwhile strategy was overtaken by developments within the university administration, which made outsourcing a lot more complicated.

With this change of administrative goalposts came the realization that we would have to produce Issue 2/2015 of our e-journal Transcultural Studies completely in-house because we would not be able to reorganize the outsourcing workflow in time for publication. It was only the second time we had to handle everything from submission to publication without the assistance of a freelancer. However, we did well: When we went live just before Christmas it had become evident that our team, consisting of two copy-editors, one layout-specialist and two assistants (all on part-time student assistant contracts except for one copy-editor who holds a 50% editorial assistant position), had grown enough to accomplish the production (read: from copy-edit to publication) of a book-length project (130 and 289 pages respectively) in about seven weeks. This includes two rounds of changes by the authors, as well as the production of pdfs (InDesign) and an html version.

After some internal discussions with the powers that be, we decided to shelve all negotiations with freelancers and instead test our internal workflow further with a larger manuscript. The project that became our next guinea pig contains some 25 essays of varying length and uneven linguistic quality, written—like most of our submissions—in English by non-native speakers. In short, this project was several times the size of the e-journal issue we had just tackled.

The task really stretched our capacities: First, we learned that our project management needs fine-tuning. There were redundancies due to oversights and varying competencies. We format according to the Chicago Manual of Style and some team members are more familiar with it than others, which translated into repeated rounds of checking. This is no big deal for an essay or two, but when there are two dozen essays to edit, this can consume many hours. Further developing copy-editing skills is therefore high on our agenda.

Second, there are divergent approaches to editing within the team. Some edit with a more pedagogical bent because they usually deal with student papers. Others come from a publishing background and approach problem solving in a more fait accompli way. The former may tell the author the nature of their mistakes, while the latter offer a take-it-or-leave-it alternative formulation instead. Both approaches have their merits and we will have to find an editing style that combines the best of both without prolonging the overall publication process.

Last but not least, we grappled with the question of how perfect a manuscript can get before it goes into layout. It is part of a good editor’s skill set to know when to let go and come to terms with the fact that no manuscript will ever be flawless. All editors have to weigh between production costs and perfect formulation and formatting. In all my years on the job, I have never been in a win-win situation when it comes to this. Something always has to give. How much that is or when the right time has come to let go is something that as a team we have to agree on.

In the end we took too many hours for the copy-edit. It would have been undoubtedly cheaper to outsource the task to a freelancer for a fixed price. But I consider the difference as an investment. As we hone our skills, we will get better and faster and thus more cost-effective. Since the next excellence initiative is around the corner and the tremendous challenges of publishing competitive English-language output in the humanities and social sciences by non-native authors is unlikely to go away, an experienced resident editing team will be able to offer indispensable support not only to in-house  publication projects, but also to resident scholars who wish to place their work with high-profile international publishing houses.

We received the next book manuscript a couple of weeks ago for copy-edit. Let’s see how much we have improved. Part three on this topic will follow.


Outsourcing Editing? Part I

I recently tweeted a question:

The question came to me after resurfacing from several intense months in the editorial office, where my team and I had been working at a fever pitch to complete an array of challenging publishing tasks: We produced two very demanding issues of our flagship publication Transcultural Studies, developed the content for Heidelberg University’s first MOOC, built the workflows and much of the website for heiUP, the university’s open access publishing house, which will be launched this fall. There were workshops and courses, conferences, one book series to be set up and another to be maintained, manuscripts to be edited, layouts to be created, reviews to be written, funding to be considered, not to forget business models to be tested.

Particularly the latter brings up the issue of whether editing academic manuscripts is necessary and affordable. While I firmly believe that good editing is at the core of good publishing (as I have argued elsewhere), the fact that most publishers, open access or for-profit, offer little of it, is irrefutable. (See for example the recent article by Lorenz M. Hilty “What do academic publishers still offer?”). But if publishers do not engage with the content they publish, how can they produce quality?

Hence my tweet. However, as I lifted my head above the parapet to survey the academic publishing landscape, I noticed that something was slightly different. It seems there has been a recent increase in the number of editing companies offering to plug the hole in the publishing workflow where in-house editing once took place.

This development is interesting insofar as it suggests that the need to secure quality control remains undiminished, while the financial responsibility for ensuring it is being thrown around like a hot potato. Many publishers let their authors pay for editing, either to maximise their profit or because they cannot stem the costs. The rationale is often peculiar: they may be shouting “we are the biggest,” or “most ethical,” or “most prestigious” publisher, but do not wish to pay what it costs to ensure those claims amount to more than posturing. So the solution is to saddle the authors with the bill. Some funding bodies may help cover some of the costs, if that kind of quality control is part of an APC for an open access publication for example, but if an author needs their manuscript edited, even after it was accepted for publication, chances are they have to pay for it out of pocket.

There are some exceptions: initiatives like Language Science Press or The International Journal of Dream Research recruit the community of a discipline into the production of their output. Then there are models where some editing is done on campus by students who are schooled and employed as assistants by the institution’s publishing branch, like Athabasca University Press. Heidelberg University is investigating this latter possibility, too. Last, but by no means least, it will be very interesting to see how The Open Library of the Humanities will fare with their new model. Most manuscripts, however, are edited during countless unpaid hours invested by journal editors, researchers, colleagues, and students.

Enter the editing companies. They make big promises, such as “quick turnaround,” “editors with university degrees,” “seasoned editors,” “guaranteed quality,” and feature countless exuberant, 5-star reviews along with impressive lists of customer names. That sounds amazing, not just to the lone author who is trying to get her book or article into the best possible state, but also to those managing journals, book series, or small publishing ventures, who consider outsourcing this aspect of quality control.

Editing, particularly copy-editing, is hard, time-consuming, at times soul-destroying work, so for those of us, who have some budgetary wiggling room, the often reasonably priced offers promised by these companies are a welcome option in a world where publishers no longer assume, or even give a damn about, the responsibility of editorial quality. It so happens that developing a sustainable business model falls within my remit as managing editor, which means I will find out more.

Starting this week in Hall 4.2 at the 2015 Frankfurt Bookfair, I am contacting some of these companies to see what kind of offers I receive. My sample will be a projected turnaround of several books and 4-6 journal issues that need editing work of various depth: from thorough copy-edits (including non-Latin script materials, bibliographies, and the like) to quick proof-reading.

I will analyse editing samples, engage in price negotiations, and discuss delivery times to form an opinion about whether editing companies can be trusted with some of our workload in the future.

I also hope to get input from colleagues and you about experiences with outsourcing editing, so I can place my results in a wider context. Once I have numbers, samples and feedback, I will write Part Two. Should be informative. Stay tuned!

Are We Trading Quality for Affordability? Concerns for Open Access Gold

During the recent #OAT14 in Cologne, the 8th annual Open Access Days of the German speaking countries, a niggling doubt crept into my overall impression of progress and streamlining in Open Access undertakings. Regardless of the distance we may have covered over the last decade or so, I am beginning to wonder if we are all too ready to trade “quality” for “affordability” when producing Open Access Gold publications.

The conference’s contributions demonstrated that open access is growing up. And that is good! The panels may no longer be filled with starry-eyed calls for change. Instead, discussions now focus on issues of long-term prospects and feasible (read: slow) next steps.

And yet, and yet. As open access gold takes these next steps I wonder how much is left behind to accomplish them. Take books, for example. There has arguably never been a comparable opportunity in the history of mankind’s pursuits in the humanities and social sciences to expand and redefine its preeminent genre. And arguably, the very raison d’être of all academics is to produce the best possible intellectual work based on the most thorough research that in turn follows the most rigorous analytical standards. I assume, perhaps naively, that those involved in open access gold publishing are not only aware of these two premises but that it informs their work. I further assume that this includes the custodians of knowledge, i.e. librarians, who now face the tremendous challenge and opportunity of giving academic publishing a home on campus again. But something about this conference gave me the impression that my assumptions are just that: assumptions.

What I realized during these two days in Cologne is that frugality may very well end up overriding quality standards. Most open access pursuits in the publishing of books seem to include everything but content: platforms, layout, metadata, DOIs, archiving, distribution, amazon – it is all there, except editing, which, apparently, is no longer the job of publishers, but authors, book-editors, or series-editors. They are the ones who are supposed to look after “publishability” (if there is such a word), peer-reviews, copy-edit, and proof-reading. And while this is certainly one way of imagining it, my experience tells me that it cannot work. Again, it may be a case of naivity, but editing is – at all these levels – not something anyone can do on the side; it is a profession. A good editor is crucial if a text is to reach its full potential.

Besides, today’s academics already have to wear too many hats: they teach, research, are in committees, publish articles, books, funding-applications for projects (which, if the bid is successful, they also have to run); they convene and participate in conferences, review, evaluate, advise, administer and, sometimes, they even get the time for field-work or explore a new field. At the same time, the pressure to get a job is getting increasingly intense as is the pressure to perform outstandingly in all areas if you want to keep the job you have (beyond the expiry date of your contract) or to get the next gig. Can we seriously, on top of all this, expect academics to also perform as their own editors (press-, series-, book-, managing-, copy-, and layout-)? That smacks of passing the buck and ignoring the elephant in the room: publishing is not just broken in terms of pricing. It is also broken in terms of production and quality standards.

Many trade-publishers have shaved off editing not because the manuscripts have, miraculously, become flawless but to maximize profit-margins. Today, most “editors” are merely making sure the cogs of the (mostly automated) publishing process stay oiled and cheap. The development of the content has fallen by the wayside in favour of profit. Astonishingly, this amputation has apparently remained unnoticed judging by the fact that academics, somewhat sheepishly, accept this lack of engagement with their texts along with the ridiculous over-charging and the loss of their rights as authors. Somehow we bought into the deal that if we want a well edited text, we need to organize and pay for it ourselves while the publishers ensure the happiness of their share-holders.

What troubles me is that it seems as though this fiscally motivated lack of quality assurance is now being adopted by our new open access publishing-models, the main objective being: keep the costs as low as possible, even if that means replicating the abysmal editorial quality that we have grown accustomed to. What concerns me extremely is that very few in open access gold publishing seem to question any of this.

We are at a turning point not only in the technology that informs our research and the way academic communication functions on an infrastructural level; we are also at a crossroads regards the standards that we want our academic output to fulfill. Books are but one example. As Wolfgang zu Castell showed in his #oat14 contribution “Open Access – mehr als nur eine Frage der Kommunikation,” (Open access – more than just a question of communication) comparable issues plague the very data that we base this output on. He pointed back to Anthony Chang’s “The Dangers of Cargo Cult Data Science,” warned of the pitfalls of opaque data-analysis, and called for transparency of the entire data-pipeline; in fact, he reminded everyone in the room of the scientific method for good measure, something I found equally appropriate and shocking.

Our age should not be remembered for missing the opportunity to combine technological innovation with excellence in publishing quality. It will take boldness to avoid such a legacy. Academics must be bold and publish their work in open access and funders must be bold by providing the funds necessary for the transition (don’t forget the Willinsky doctrine: the money to publish open access is already in circulation). Last but not least: the libraries have to be doubly bold: not only to redirect their budgets to house new publishing outlets but to also invest enough in producing excellent works.


Staring Into the Generational Gap: Munich’s Panel Discussion “Junior Researchers, Publishers, Libraries, and Open Access. Contemporary Publishing in the Humanities,” 11 February 2014.

Last week, the panel discussion “Junior researchers, publishers, libraries, and open access”, which was organized by the Bavarian State Library (BSB) and LMU’s Graduate Center, took place in the lecture hall of the Catholic Academy’s Kardinal Wendel Haus in Munich. The event was attended by more than three hundred people. The BSB’s Lilian Landes delivered a concise opening statement about the current challenges facing young humanities and social science researchers when it comes to the decision where to publish their dissertation. She posed a few juicy questions to the panel, about quality management and who picks up the tab; about how trade publishers will face the oncoming sea-change of information and publications; what services will become publishers’ unique contribution to the communication process and for how much money; how the growing scepticism among young researchers towards the publishing system can be met; how the notion of “if it is not online, it does not exist” can be dealt with in the humanities, where we are not yet facing as much pressure as in the STEM fields; what role will the prestige factor play in the open access development; how or whether universities are changing their rules and regulations about PhD bestowal to allow for open access. In short: Landes offered the panel plenty of threads to discuss an issue that concerns an entire generation of young researchers and that is in desperate need of a serious approach.

Munich Panel

Panel discussion on publishing options for junior researchers in the humanities. Munich, February 2014

What followed was a lacklustre exchange of polite opinions, most of which were based on relatively modest familiarity with the issue of open access. The notable exceptions were Hubertus Kohle (@hkohle), an art-historian and active supporter of open access, and Klaus Ceynowa, the deputy general director of the Bavarian State Library. The rest of the decision makers, who sat at a long desk flanked by Jesus on the cross and a modern art impression of divine light, exchanged half-baked truisms, seasoned only with a couple of references. One was the irksomly ill-informed article by Juergen Kaube in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of February 5th with the slightly sensationalist title “Academics face threat of being coerced into self-publishing“.  Also, last year’s OAPEN’s report was reassuringly waved about by the representative of the publishing industry, Stefan von der Lahr, happily pointing to the report’s finding that the publication of open access books does not lessen revenue of print versions. This proved that von der Lahr was neither controversial nor concerned enough to throw down the gauntlet to Kohle or anyone else harboring pro-open access opinions. To the contrary: he works for C.H. Beck, a traditional, German-language, family owned publishing house in Munich, which just began collaborating with Open Edition Books – a sure sign that this publisher is willing to explore the changes afoot in the industry. Still, von der Lahr did not really know how to respond to the chair’s question about the pressure on young scholars to publish in English, or their need for visibility. It is not part of his daily business and so he could not address it with conviction.

This was true for most of the panel. Bernd Huber, the president of the LMU (Ludwig Maximilian University Munich), admitted that he knew very little about the issue at hand. He did opine, however, that open access gold would probably raise the costs for authors and be ultimately unaffordable; Ceynowa offered some helpful numbers about the library’s journal subscription (62500 journals in total including OA, cost about 7 million Euros per year), but also thought that hybrid publishing will be too expensive. Martin Schulze Wessel, historian and president of the Association of German Historians, spoke of how historians weave great narratives and insisted that such narratives will always require a bound book to hold them. The chair, Thierry Chervel (@chervel), co-founder of the internet culture-magazine Perlentaucher, not only refused to push these gentlemen out of their comfort zone, he came across as surprisingly fuzzy, if not to say ill-prepared, about open access issues.

The general impression was that this conversation could easily have played out in a cigar-smoke filled club somewhere. A benevolent, collegial, non-committal chat amongst peers.

Then Chervel invited questions from the floor and things changed. One question about whether it was possible to install a GitHub repository for the humanities at the state library, made it obvious that most of the gentlemen on the podium were incapable of grasping such questions and that they had extremely little in common with the young scholars whose professional publishing career they were supposed to discuss. Just the odd silence following this question made the trip to Munich worthwhile!

At the reception afterwards, one young art-historian mused: “What will they do, when they get hit by the wave of data and publication that is currently building momentum? They have no idea that it is coming their way!” She also told me that she and her colleagues (from a variety of disciplines) do not really want books anymore. Instead they are looking for communicative possibilities that allow for a completely new way of building knowledge with open review, possibilities of remixing, reusing, and expanding information in a variety of directions.

Despite the relatively superficial discussion, this event impressed me. Not for the things that were said – there was nothing new for me to learn – but because it was the first time that I witnessed with such clarity the considerable generational gap between most decision-makers who still think of e-mail and pdfs as newfangled communicative formats and those young scholars who are ready to altogether abandon linear narrative with its distinct authors and individual contribution to the field. In other words, the latter no longer wish to formulate their contribution to universal knowledge in that 600 year old genre that the former see as an indispensable hallmark of serious intellectual endeavor, which, should it bear the prestigious stamp of a recognizable publisher, must be “good”. This is is hard to swallow for a younger generation, whose research is often interdisciplinary and contributes to complex, digital information and research architecture not only with writing and data but also with coding. Try and explain such accomplishments to hiring panels that include decision makers who openly admit that they judge the quality of a young academic’s work at least partially by the name of the publisher who printed it.

Munich illustrated some strong positions on both sides of this generational divide. On the side of the establishment there is a significant fear-factor. Van der Lahr rightly pointed to some of the highly allergic reactions of (particularly smaller) publishers to the open access development because it may well become an existential threat to them. I also think that Schulze Wessel has a point with his great narrative needing an appropriate genre, although it certainly does not have to be a bound book. I do believe that building a linear argument, to support, sustain and prove it over the course of a long-form genre is a skill that is important for any academic. At the same time, there is no doubt whatever that the plethora of current digital humanities undertakings and explorations in new digital genres can be of indisputable scholarly merit and open up an entirely new way of creating and communicating knowledge. The only person at the table who was savvy enough to recognize this was Hubertus Kohle.

It will take academics like him to keep the conversation going. With a little less revolutionary fervor on the side of youth and a bit more openness, interest, and consideration on the side of an unknowing establishment, scholarly investigation in the humanities too will be able to create and appreciate a richer landscape of academic communication, a hybrid, if you will, that is truly worth building.  Munich’s discussion was an excellent start to the many discussions that are needed to get Germany’s humanities moving in the right direction.

The Next Obstacle for OA Publishing in the HSS: More Costs? Or the License?

Serendipity brought about three discussions this week that showed me just how tricky it will be to pull off building high-quality open-access outlets for the humanities and social sciences. Interestingly enough, these were not arguments with OA-opponents about fundamental pros and cons but discussions with supporters of the cause.

The first conversation was with an editorial board member for a new OA-gold book series which we are building for junior researchers here at the University of Heidelberg. We have a potential submission of a very fine dissertation as an opening volume. The EdBoard member raised an issue that to him was vital in deciding whether to accept this manuscript: a guarantee that open access books get reviewed in the central journals of the discipline.  “It is of paramount importance for young academics that their works are reviewed. Do we have any empirical values that show that this happens for open access books,” he asked.

So I started firing off e-mails to colleagues who are further into this adventure than I am. A most useful reply came from Rupert Gatti (@rupertgatti) who pointed to the separate tab on Open Book Publishers’ online book pages. Both conversations showed me how important it will be to have exact numbers of and access to reviews of the books we produce. Knowing how strangely uncooperative authors can be when it comes to relaying information like this, I also realized that if we want this information, we will probably have to hunt for it ourselves. This means investing time and thus will cost money.

The second conversation was with a young and successful academic in archaeology, who has been a supporter of open access for years. He chose to publish his dissertation in green and substantial articles in gold rather than with trade-publishers and when I approached him with the offer to publish his next edited volume with our new book series, he was immediately enthused.  However, he insisted on the clarification of two issues. The first concerned the availability of hard-copies for the contributors. He said – and I know all too well that he is right – that most authors really expect to receive a copy of the book that they submit their essay to. Not to supply them with that is considered bad form on part of the book-editor.  And fair enough – if we recall that authors do not get any money for the contents they deliver, then one copy for their shelves is not much to ask. For our production line, however, this means one thing: it will cost more money.

The second issue my potential book-editor wanted clarified is copyright clearance for images. He told me that this is becoming increasingly difficult (not to say absurd) in his field because certain important museums and archives now charge more money for copyright clearance if an image goes into an open access venue than they ask for the same image if it goes into a pay-wall outlet.  In the humanities and social sciences that adds up!  Archaeologists, media-antrhopologists, or art-historians will quickly look at four-figure numbers in clearance costs, if they want to show the images and media- sources that they analyze and work with. So my enthusiastic book-editor told me point-blank that these costs cannot be shouldered by the authors or indeed by him. Would the book-series pick up the tab. I said I would look into it while a frantic voice shouted in my head: now we are starting to talk serious money!

The third discussion was with Peter Murray-Rust (@petermurrayrust). Since it happened on Twitter, it was brief but nonetheless perhaps the most significant and it went like this:

Andrea Hacker 

In 1 week: new issue of our #openaccess e-journal http://www.transculturalstudies.org  with contributions by O. Sela, Y. Zhuang, M. Wakita and A: Dagnino!

Peter Murray-Rust

RT @ahacker: In 1 week: new issue of our #openaccess e-journal http://www.transculturalstudies.org  PMR does it have an Open licence?

Andrea Hacker

tricky issue. Loads of copyrighted images and media. Cc by nc.

Peter Murray-Rust

thanks, identify 3rd party inclusions and make the rest cc-by

Now this goes right to the heart of the open access debate in the humanities and social sciences. It also highlights the fundamental differences that have developed – for better or for worse – between the publishing conventions in the STEM fields and those in the HSS.

I want to point to three immediate concerns, some of which (and more) are well documented elsewhere:

1. Third party exclusions are not going to cut it. Not only are the museums and archives petrified of losing control over their materials (see the mad pricing example above), they also doubt that any CC-license is strong enough to protect their interests.We know of instances where images are not displayed because the institution holding copyright will not grant it for open access publication. Now that is like publishing a paper in chemistry and having to withhold the formulas!

2. What about the original media that the researcher themselves put in? An archaeologist, for example, may carefully photograph ancient pottery or with painstaking accuracy draw the scenes of a frieze. For weeks. She may not want that image to be re-mashed, re-mixed, altered, or commercially used with a cc-by attribution. That would translate into losing control over what gets changed. Also, will an unsuccessful change reflect on the quality of their original work? Not to forget: revenue will play a part here too: an image is quickly taken, as is music, or 3-D information (why not print out that reconstructed vase?) and since applications of IP in the HSS is far more limited than in STEM, this is not a concession that authors make lightly.

3. Quoting and paraphrasing are part and parcel of academic writing. The rules for indicating either are relatively strict: you quote the original source or you are a plagiariser.  But if we open HSS texts up to commercial use, these rules no longer apply and, unfortunately, indicating the degree of modification that a mashed-up text (in the widest semantic sense) may have undergone is not unequivocally covered by CC-BY.

After these three conversations I am left with this: An amazing network has grown over the last couple of years including authors, libraries, colleagues, funding agencies, and developers of infrastructure. And as we are getting ready to produce our first open access book-series here in Heidelberg, propelled by all this good will and spirit of adventure, I am realizing that the clincher in the whole endeavor may very well be the issue of licenses. Hunting for reviews and offering author-copies costs money, but may be doable. Financing copyright clearance and running CC-BY, however, may be well beyond our means.

I don’t know what to do about the copyright clearance yet, other than support efforts such as AHRC/RCUK as they are trying to engage with image libraries and negotiate a workable deal. As far as CC-BY is concerned: A history or political science book that will not include all possible narratives for fear of being ripped off is no use to me. And an art-history book without images is a toothless lion.

But I want to produce killer-books that show the world that we can do this and do it well! So CC-BY-NC is the best I can do at the moment.

In Defense of the Edited Book

In his post “3 simple distinctions your government should eliminate from its research financing system“, Curt Rice recently wrote about the merits of publishing essays in anthologies and called for their equal recognition by funding instruments vis-a-vis those published in journals. He writes:

I still think it’s a lot harder to get published in a good journal than in a good book. But I’m far less certain that it’s just as hard to get published in a bad journal as in a good book, even if the weighting system the government has adopted would make you think so.

The gist of the post lies, as the title suggests, not in the nature of the anthology or edited volume, but in the counting policies for research output that funding bodies devise. However, it is uncommon to find such clear support for a genre that has become somewhat of a step-child in the family of academic writings.

The situation of the edited volume is grim: As Rice shows, funding bodies, in their recently found penchant for accountability, don’t treat the academic input into making such books very favourably. Furthermore, the submission policies of many traditional trade publishers and prestigious UPs clearly signal: we don’t even look at edited volumes. Harvard is the first example that comes to mind. Even academics themselves who frequently publish in such collections or edit them are often dismissive of these products. As one high-profile professor once put it to me as I showed him a couple of newly printed examples: “no one reads these things anyway.”

Over time, such negative attitudes will inevitably be reflected in the quality of the books themselves.That is a great shame because a well-edited volume is ideally suited to thoroughly investigate a subject from a variety of viewpoints, be they disciplinary, methodological or theoretical. This can be a great enrichment to any field or a discussion across academic disciplines. But, as Rice rightly points out, if funding bodies and other instruments of academic score-keeping do not appreciate the work that is needed to make such a book “good”, why should anybody bother?

Take, for example, introductions. Rice writes:

Contributions to anthologies earn points. Unless they’re entitled “Introduction.”

It is common for editors to write introductory chapters to their volumes. These introductions position the subsequent chapters and argue for a conceptual perspective motivating the book. Introductions are works of scholarship and they convey research results.

As the system currently stands, an introduction that is actually entitled “Introduction” does not get points. By now, most of us have learned to give our introductions different titles, and we thereby collect points.

How could it come to this?  How can it be that the collection of “points” determines the direction of academic work? Moreover, how can it be that in this “game” that allots “points” the writing of “introductions” is not deemed score-worthy? The heart and soul of any “good” edited volume is the introduction: it provides the conceptual framework, the methodological parameters, and demonstrates the congruence of the contributions. An introduction is to the edited volume what a conductor is to an orchestra – it unifies the contributors and shapes the output of the ensemble.

Academic communication is often likened to an ongoing conversation. The edited volume is an excellent forum where scholars can conduct such a conversation on a specific topic. The question is how it can be rehabilitated?

As an unwanted step-child of the publishing industry, it is relatively unencumbered by the ubiquitous and persistent craving for some prestigious UP stamp on the front cover. That makes it a perfect genre to explore the possibilities of open access book-publishing. And since it is not a monological but inherently dialogical form, it would lend it self readily to new forms of open review and composition. We already know that much of the needed yet often neglected exchange among contributors and editors can happen online – Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Gary Hall are boldly showing the way. What needs to happen now is – as usual – the necessary persuading  a wider editor- and authorship to invest their time and writing in Open Access edited volumes . Oh and we must remind the score-keeping purse-holders that this genre is not just worth their “points” but a crucial part of the communicative landscape in the academy.

On the Cost of Open Access Publishing

The recent discussion “The future of open access research and publishing” on the Guardian Higher Education forum (#HElivechat and @GdnHigherEd) touched on a few familiar points. The first was, unsurprisingly in light of Science‘s recent “sting” kafuffle, peer-review and how it can and must be improved.

However, once the discussion went on to “gold” vs. “green” some feathers, including mine, got not exactly ruffled but at least mildly tousled. There still is a significant lack of clarity within the community about what responsibilities come with the different paths of open access publishing and this lack breeds  misconceptions, which can turn out to be counterproductive. One of them, which refuses to go away, is the notion that “open access publishing” will lower costs of production. Continue reading