Tag Archives: Open Scholarship

The AHA and Open Access Scholarship

Since my earlier post today, the debate over what the Twitterverse is now calling #ahagate has heated up rather than cooled down. Former American Historical Association president William Cronon has weighed in, as has the Harvard University Press. I’ve spent a good part of my Friday afternoon reading through the various responses on both sides of the debate about the AHA’s statement on embargoing dissertations and feel as though I’ve gained a much clearer understanding of the issues at play.

Having said that, I stand by my criticism of the AHA statement in my previous post. In fact, I feel even more strongly about that criticism, having read back through the history of the AHA’s position on open access scholarship. Before I explain why my feelings have gotten stronger rather than more forgiving, I want to stipulate one thing: I agree with the AHA that authors ought to have control over the ways in which their work is published, and so I agree that PhD students should be able to decide how their dissertations are published, with one caveat.

First, my caveat on authorial control. There is a reasonable question to be asked whether or not universities, especially state universities that are funded by the taxpayers, have the right to decide how doctoral dissertations will be published and disseminated. I can make a strong argument for the fact that dissertations written at state-funded universities can be considered public property, given that the university (i.e., the taxpayers) provides a venue, a faculty, a library, an Internet connection, and in many, many cases, multiple years of scholarship funding to doctoral students. With all of that financial investment in the dissertation, why should dissertation authors be able to lock their work away for some number of years? [For a dissent from this position, see Adam Crymble’s blog post from July 23.]

If a state legislature were to mandate digital publication of dissertations, prospective doctoral students would of course need full disclosure prior to enrollment that their work would be published online upon completion. Then they could decide, in advance, whether to enroll at a university imposing such a requirement. Don’t agree with that requirement? Enroll somewhere else. While some might see this as in infringement on academic freedom, I do not, just as I do not see it as an infringement on academic freedom when the NIH demands that federally funded medical research be made available to the public.

Now to my strong disagreement with the gist of the AHA statement that launched so many tweets and blog posts. As I wrote earlier today, I see that AHA position on this issue as part of a continuum of opinion on open access scholarship that has ranged from temporizing to outright opposition. Implying, as the statement on dissertation access does, that making one’s dissertation available online risks ultimate failure in the race to tenure and promotion, the AHA statement on this issue fits nicely into that tradition of opposition to open access. After all, if enough PhD students can be frightened into embargoing their work, then academic presses won’t have to worry that potential readers might have already read the dissertation and so will take a pass on the book. But, as Rebecca Rosen writes at TheAtlantic.com, it’s not at all clear that academic press editors are worried about the digital publication of dissertations.

Given that academic journal editors are, as a group, not that worried about digital dissertations, and that the entire issue as framed by the AHA is only relevant to those few PhD students who get tenure track jobs at R1 universities, what’s really going on here?

The answer, it seems to me, is that for the past eight years the AHA has vacillated between temporizing over and outright opposition to open access scholarship. Last September, the AHA offered a statement on open access journal publishing in which the association expressed significant concern about the implications of open access for the field and for scholarly associations like the AHA. Dan Cohen’s thoughtful response to that AHA statement offers a succinct summary of the AHA’s shifting back and forth on the issue. Similarly, in his last article for Perspectives, Rob Townsend explains, with data, what the financial impact of the AHA’s experiments with open access has been.

As Dan points out, the main concern in both the AHA statement and in Townsend’s essay  was on the economics of the American Historical Review. As Townsend put it, “the AHA has yet to find a happy balance between our revenue needs and our desire to reach the widest possible audience.” And so we get to the nub of the problem. As a membership organization, the AHA derives most of its operating income from two sources — individual and institutional memberships and the revenue (subscriptions and advertising) from AHR. Without that journal revenue, the association might just be in serious financial trouble.

So, yes, I think it’s true that the AHA Council was trying to do the right thing. And yes, I think that, with my one possible caveat, PhD students ought to be able to decide when and how to publish their dissertations. But, yes, I also think this statement on dissertation publication, like so many others from the AHA over the years, is both a defense of a financial model that the association can’t find alternatives to and a defense of a way of life that is fast fading from the academic earth.

As AHR editor Robert Schneider put it in a panel discussion on the future of the academic journal at this year’s annual meeting in New Orleans, peer reviewed journals are “the embodiment of tradition.” If that doesn’t sum it up, I don’t know what does.

[For more on this issue, see this web collection.]

The Rear Guard Makes Its Stand

Having been in the mountains and off the grid for a few days I missed the publication of this statement by the American Historical Association when it first came out on July 22. Now that I’m catching up on what I’ve missed, all I can do is avert my gaze from yet another rear guard action by the AHA.

Over the years I’ve watched the AHA and many of its members struggle to come to grips with the realities of the digital revolution. Way back in 2008 (almost a century in Internet years), I wrote a series of posts I called “The Future of the AHA” in which I castigated the Association for making this assertion in a report on the future of the AHA:

“Thus it is incumbent on the AHA to both understand and utilize all the cutting-edge possibilities of these new technologies, while transferring its traditional role as gatekeeper and authority for the discipline to this new medium.”

At the time I argued that for the AHA to claim some sort of gatekeeper role on the Internet was evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding of how the open exchange of information works online. This new report by the AHA Council urging universities to embargo the digital publication of new history dissertations unless the author chooses otherwise is, to my mind, of a piece with that earlier position, because it is but one more attempt to hold onto a series of past practices that are increasingly irrelevant in the modern scholarly landscape.

That portion of the Internet that is about the exchange of ideas and information functions best when access to that information is free, open access, and timely. Urging universities to embargo the digital publication of dissertations — and through such urging helping to frighten PhD students into keeping their dissertations behind a wall of silence — undermines all three of these pillars of scholarly exchange in the world we live in, not the idealized past described in the AHA statement, where dissertations were circulated by hand. Were I a doctoral student today, this bit of the larger statement might send chills down my spine:

Presumably, online readers will become familiar with an author’s particular argument, methodology, and archival sources, and will feel no need to buy the book once it is available.  As a result, students who must post their dissertations online immediately after they receive their degree can find themselves at a serious disadvantage in their effort to get their first book published…

If those chills I feel turn into actual fear, I might just follow the implied advice here, despite the vagueness and the evidence-thin assertions, and embargo my dissertation so that no one out there in Internet-land will have any access to my ideas for, say, six years — another whole century in Internet years. By the time my books comes out, I’ll be largely irrelevant to the discussion on my topic of interest, but so what? I’ll have a book from a scholarly press and will have a shot at tenure!

Imagine a biologist taking such a position? Or a physicist? Or a nuclear engineer? Or an economist?

Has the AHA heard, perhaps of the Public Library of Science (PLOS), whose mission is to “accelerate progress in science and medicine” through the rapid and open access publication of new findings? Or, perhaps, the Social Science Research Network, whose 179,000 authors have uploaded more than 380,000 papers, which have been downloaded more than 50 million times, mostly for free?

This latest salvo by the AHA’s rear guard can only be seen as another example of what is an essential hostility to open access scholarship.

All I can say is, good luck with that.

[For more on this issue, see this web collection.]

THATCamp Switzerland (7)

In the afternoon the first session I attended was “How is the writing of history changing?”

The session began with a Ted Talk by Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel on Google’s n-gram viewer and what we can learn from 5 million books (500 billion words), a topic I’ve also played with here in the blog.This was a way of raising the question of “data driven history” and will this change our writing?

A second question was how has the process of writing changed (or is changing)? A third, are we going to keep writing books anyway? What are some of the truly new forms of writing? Does this mean we are thinking differently about history? Are ePubs going to be something different in the sense that 35-40 pages is an article, 200 pages is a book, but what about 100 pages, which is neither? Who is doing the writing? What is the future for collective authorship?

I raised the issue of what happens when writing is taking place in real time in public as in the case of my current research project? What does it mean that I’ll be getting comments–are those who comment co-authors, for instance? How does my writing and thinking change as a result of their input and what does that mean for authorship?

I’m also thinking about this because in my short term plan, once my book on teaching history in the digital age comes out, is an ePub tentatively titled “Edwired: The Book.” My plan is to take a selection of half a dozen or so larger issues I’ve raised in the blog that also elicited a higher degree of engagement from readers, pull them together in a sort of chapter form, add some commentary at the beginning of the chapter (new content) including a reflection both on where the issue is today and what I think about that commentary now that I’ve had more time to reflect on it.

One of the issues batted around in the room for a while revolved around the question of authorship in the digital world. If work is collectively authored, or includes comments, or other input from others, what does that mean for authorship? So, for instance, to what degree can McKenzie Wark claim authorship of Gam3r Th3ory if he incorporated content from the website where he wrote the book in public?

Another question raised was about narration in digital media. How do we tell stories differently in these new media? How is the new media working its way into our writing if writing is the core of what we do in the humanities? Does the writing process change? Does imagination change? Does our sense of time change?

Another question was related to the issue of what happens to us when we create a digital publication like Docupedia? To be specific, authors for this project were generally resistant to taking “interactive responsibility” for things they wrote, because they wanted to be done once they had submitted their work. It seems to me this is a point well worth keeping in mind, because there is certainly a danger in taking on too much interactive responsibility over time. I know journalists who speak of this issue with respect to having open comments on their stories and being glad that there is a point when the comments are closed so they don’t have to keep monitoring them.

Projects discussed were Hacking the Academy and Writing History in the Digital Age and what projects like these mean for things like the authorship question raised above?

Hello DHNow

On Wednesday, the first of the four forthcoming PressForward publications launched: Digital Humanities Now. This publication is a re-launch of an older attempt to aggregate what digital humanists were discussing in real time…the prior version was focused primarily on Twitter feeds and for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t a huge fan.

My criticism at the time was that there was too much posting of “re-tweets” and so a lot of interesting stuff was getting lost under the weight of the most tweeted items. [You can see an early 2010 version here, but need to realize that the WayBack Machine didn’t capture the page formatting.] The new version of the publication has not only solved that older problem, but has also substantially upgraded what is on offer.

Now there are “editors’ picks,” which are selections from many hundreds of blogs concerned with the digital humanities. There are categorized news items, and a “top ten tweet” list. In addition, you can see the entire “river” of digital humanities information flowing into the site’s back end and can sign up to join the community of digital humanists whose content is being considered for publication. These enhancements, in my view, make Digital Humanities Now a real go to site for anyone interested in the field.

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s more than a little possible that I’m biased in favor of this project for three reasons. First, I work at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, which is home base for the project. Second, I am one of three executive editors of another PressForward publication, Global Perspectives on Digital History. Third, I’ve completely lost control of my RSS feeds of late and so Digital Humanities Now is like a lifeline being thrown to a drowning man.

Here’s what neither Digital Humanities Now nor Global Perspectives on Digital History is going to solve: neither publication is going to eliminate the need for human intervention in the process. Where the original version of Digital Humanities Now was intended, at least in part, to be an algorithm-driven publication requiring little to no human intervention, these new publications will continue to require a fair amount of editorial effort. We still need/want someone to sort through the river of content flowing into the sites to select “editors’ picks” or “top ten tweets” for us, because that means we can be more efficient in our reviewing of the information. It’s possible to imagine an algorithm that will learn from what the editors on the back end are doing, eventually mitigating the need for quite so much human intervention, but (a) we are a ways off from that, and (b) it will be a long time before an algorithm can decide on an editors’ pick. That kind of choosing is much more complex and driven by intangibles that algorithms still aren’t very good at.

Until the machines get smarter, humans will still have an important role to play in the publication of digital content online (good news for me!), but PressForward and other similar projects bode well for a future where the river gets wider and deeper and struggling digital humanists will need platforms like these to help sift through all that content for them.