Sunday, March 24, 2013

Voluntary Article Processing Charges for Scholarly Journals

The Article Processing Charge (APC) has started to rear its ugly head in many academic fields and it's threatening to spread wider, particularly in Britain as the government moves towards mandated open access publishing of research. This move means that publishers will lose out on subscription revenue and have instead turned towards APCs to compensate for that lost revenue. The idea here is that the author pays an APC (which could be anything from a few pounds to tens of thousands depending on the journal) and the publisher agrees to provide open access to the article.

The model isn't perfect, but it is realistic for many publishers, provided that no one is turned away if they cannot afford to pay. It turns out at least one not-for-profit journal has been able to adopt just such an idea that protects those vulnerable, while raising funds at the same time. The Journal for Open Research Software, run by the Software Sustainability Institute (of which I am a fellow - though I am not affiliated with the journal) offers a voluntary APC:

If your paper is accepted for publication, you will be asked to pay an Article Publication Fee of £25 to cover publications costs...You will be able to pay any amount from nothing to full charge, as we recognise that not all authors have access to funding, and we do not want fees to prevent the publication of worthy work. The editor and peer reviewers of the journal will not know what amount (if any) you have paid, and this will in no way influence whether your article is published or not.
I'm not sure how well this policy has worked for the Journal, but I have to say I'm incredibly enthusiastic about it for a few reasons. Firstly, it acknowledges openly that publishing - even open access publishing - DOES cost money. That money needs to come from somewhere, and APCs, like 'em or hate 'em, are one such solution. Secondly, it acknowledges that not everyone has a research budget - students, emeritus scholars, independent scholars - and that these people should not be squeezed out of the system of research publishing because of their career status. And thirdly, it's a creative solution that's taking on the challenge of raising money for publishing that thinks a little outside the box.

We're all going through changes in terms of publishing and academic funding. I for one am pleased to come across examples such as this that are facing those changes with optimism and ingenuity.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Two Data Visualization Skills Historians Lack

Four Stages of Data Visualization, by Tobias Sturt at the Guardian
To create a great data visualization you need four skills. You don't have all of them. That was the message of Tobias Sturt and Adam Frost of the Guardian at a recent masterclass on data-vis held in London. The pair both work for the newspaper's "Digital Agency", a for-hire data visualization consultancy company run by the paper. Frost's role is to work with the data and find the story. Sturt determines the most appropriate chart style and the design that will help the reader interpret and engage with that data. That doesn't mean Frost knows nothing about the strengths and weaknesses of certain types of charts, or that Sturt runs away shrieking when he sees a spreadsheet. It does mean they each bring strengths to the table which allow them to create engaging visualizations that are true to the underlying data. That's what good collaborations achieve and anyone that's seen the outputs of the Guardian's team knows they're an incredibly talented group.

Where do historians fit in? I'd say most of us are like Frost. We can handle our data, be it numbers or words, or images, or material culture. We interpret what we see. And we find the story that adds the context to that data. According to Frost and Sturt, these two steps bring the integrity and meaning to the audience. But when it comes to data, words aren't always the best way to present them, and raw data in tabular form (as we've all seen so many times in journal articles) is what Frost refers to as "clarity without persuasion".

That means we need to find and work with the Tobias Sturts of the world. We need to collaborate with those with an eye for colour and form, who can take numbers and turn them into understanding. Without people like Sturt, the above visualization would be nothing more than it's raw data:
  1. Data
  2. Story
  3. Chart
  4. Design
But we get so much more from his visual representation of those four ideas, and few of us have the skills to compete with the creative power of designers. They know things we don't. They know how colours make us feel or what they imply. They know you're more likely to believe a statement written in Baskerville than Comic Sans font. They understand how your eye scans a page, what it's looking for, and how the location of certain elements on the page or the size of those elements change the way we interpret them. They know what we don't.

The question is: where are these people and do they want to work with us?

I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you and admit: I don't know. Sturt is likely out of the price range for most academic historians. His clients tend to be corporations looking to develop their brands, or large non-profits trying to reach huge audiences. But we all know there are artists out there looking for work. It seems to me the issue may be that we havn't yet realized we need each other, so we havn't yet had to build those relationships. We could say those artists have failed to market themselves to us, but unless we let them know we're interested, we can hardly blame them for ignoring us.

So maybe the best way is to ask. Artists: how do we find you? What should we be looking for in an artist? And what would you look for in us?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Making Open Access and the UK's Scholarly Society Work

This past Friday at a one-day colloquium on Open Access I learned why academic publishing is so expensive, and I was disappointed to discover that resistance to open access from scholarly societies is not linked to the costs of publishing, but to the cost of non-publishing activities. The UK is in the midst of a heated debate about Open Access, following the Finch Report and an incoming policy that will require all research funded by the taxpayer to be published open access. For this to work, publishers are to be paid up front for lost revenue in what has been called the "Gold Model" of author pays for publication.

Nearly everyone agrees open access is a good thing, but how to pay for it is a matter of contention. The government's policy works much better in the sciences where large research budgets are common and a few thousand quid for publication costs is a drop in the bucket. The Wellcome Trust's representative Simon Chaplin argued at the colloquium that they've been funding this practice for years and thought it was a great use of money.

I don't disagree with Chaplin, but few historians will ever see a grant the size of a typical Wellcome Trust award that can run hundreds of thousands or millions of pounds. Many historians operate entirely without funding, but those working in academic departments will have to find the money to publish in an open access format, else their work will not "count" towards the 2020 REF (the UK's program of counting up who does good research, used to disseminate future research funding). The government's proposal is also potentially disastrous for early career researchers who will find it difficult to secure funding to publish and who may have to choose between paying for food and "investing" in their career by paying for publications. Why would a department give a temporary employee (eg, Post Docs) access to funding for publishing that could go to permanent staff, when there's a good chance that employee will be contributing to another university's research outputs by the time the tallies are next taken?

While I did symapthize with many of the positions speakers took at the colloquium, it was the position of the scholarly societies in particular that I found most frustrating.

Let me first say that I think scholarly societies are wonderful. In particular I think they have been instrumental at supporting promising early career researchers through funding, bursaries, prizes, fellowships, and opportunities to publish. I should also note that I have been employed by a scholarly society since 2008 and take pride in the work we do.

What I do not like is how many scholarly societies get their money, which became clear to me this past Friday. Jane Humphries, President of the Economic History Society, spoke on the business model of her society. According to Humphries, 1/3 of their income comes directly from the subscriptions raised by the society's journal. These subscriptions are then used to fund the activities of the society rather than to pay the costs of publication alone. Humphries argues that without these subscriptions the society could not continue to function, which is a major push behind resistance to open access because most societies and publishers assume they will be forced to take what amounts to a paycut under the proposed models.

One of the activities of the Economic History Society is to fund 5 postdoctoral fellowships at a cost of £70,000. This fellowship scheme is a wonderful one and it's something I'd be very sad to see discontinued. However, it is NOT a publishing cost. Instead, the subscriptions are increased well above the cost of publication in order to participate in non-publishing activities. That means libraries are being charged a surplus. And libraries get much of their money from the pockets of students paying tuition who are indirectly funding these postdoctoral fellowships without a say in the matter. While the scheme is entirely and undoubtedly good intentioned, the society is not working as hard as it could to reduce the costs of publishing because it has a vested interest to constantly increasing its income and expanding its activities. They are effectively robbing Peter to pay Paul. And I'm Peter.

The problem therefore is not that publishing is expensive. It's not that open access is bad. It's that publishing in its current model pays for other good things which will not be supported under the new model. But that does not mean these wonderful extra activities need to cease, or that open access will not work. It means we need to get behind scholarly societies to find a new way to fund these activities.

So what can we do about the lost income? Well we might need to get creative, but here are two ideas.


I've yet to see any scholarly society attempt to fund a postdoctoral fellowship through crowdfunding on Kickstarter or a similar service. No one likes to pay taxes, but many people are willing to support a specific initiative. A £50 annual membership fee to a scholarly society feels much different than does a £50 donation that I know will go directly towards a fellowship.

Many societies also have natural connections to certain types of businesses, which could surely be approached for donations. In particular I'd imagine the Economic History Society, based near London's financial core, and peopled by many a former London banker-turned-historian could make use of its personal network to solicit donations from their sector. Saying you don't like to ask people for money is not an excuse, particularly if the alternative is to continue taking it from unwilling students.

Wikipedia runs entirely on a fundraising drive and I've never thought ill of them for it. In fact, I gave them $50 last year to support their continued activities.


Ads are entirely under-used in academia. The Old Bailey Online is one of the few academic projects I've seen that freely uses Google Ads to cover some of the project's ongoing costs. There is absolutely nothing immoral about allowing someone to underwrite a society's activities in exchange for some exposure. Even if it is only a partial solution, it's one every society owes it to their communities to pursue.

* * *

Scholarly societies need to acknowledge that open access is not the problem. They need to be honest about what the REAL costs of publishing are, and they need to be open to ideas that can reduce those costs. Open access is good for nearly everyone. So let's embrace it, and then let's work together to find ways to continue to support the great activities of the scholarly societies. The future may not work the same as yesterday, but that doesn't mean we can't make it work.