Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Students should be empowered, not bullied into open access

'Bully Free Zone' by Eddie-S
The American Historical Association (AHA) has just adopted a resolution in support of recent graduates, encouraging them to feel empowered to keep their dissertations offline while they seek a publisher to turn that dissertation into a scholarly monograph.

Surprise, surprise, open access advocates everywhere have started snivelling.

No! they cry. We shouldn't support a resolution passed in good faith to protect the career progression of new scholars against scholarly presses that are allegedly refusing to accept manuscripts based on openly available dissertations. We should be burning books and the organizations that publish them. Down with books, up with free information on the Internet!

Lovely, but you can't eat free information. Makes a shit shelter as well.

Now, I certainly understand, sympathize, and even agree with the complaints of the open access community. Trevor Owens posted some great suggestions last night for ways to amend the AHA statement into one that recognizes some real flaws in the publication / promotion / tenure model that is over-reliant upon books. I certainly agree with Owens that it makes no sense to leave career progression of historians in the hands of acquisition editors at famous scholarly presses.

I'd also suggest that the AHA's claim that history is a "book" discipline is a bit too narrow. From where I live in London England, hundreds of thousands of people make their living either directly or indirectly off of history. That can be anything from freelance tour guides who offer historic walks through the City, to the cafeteria workers in the museums and historic sites, the actor who draws you into his theatre for a rendition of Richard III or the actress who portrays Elizabeth Woodville in a television series, or even her Majesty the Queen whose very presence and connection to a historic institution draws in millions of tourists every year.

The AHA's perspective is probably flawed in terms of the negative reaction of presses towards open access of dissertations. A yet to be published (and open access) article Do Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertations Diminish Publishing Opportunities in the Social Sciences and Humanities suggests that the vast majority of publishers are willing to consider submissions based on openly available theses.

With all of this in mind, let's give the open access community what they want: You're right.

But dear God you're obnoxious.

The decision of the AHA to support this measure is nothing but a well-intentioned gesture designed to protect and empower those at the most vulnerable point in their career from a perceived threat. How could anyone could criticize them for that? The AHA and scholarly societies like it are not the enemy, and they don't operate to keep scholarship in the 19th century. They exist to promote the interests of their members, and that's exactly what the AHA has done with this resolution. If you want to change their direction, join them. Run for positions of power within their ranks, and influence the opinions of their membership. The historians who belong to these organizations aren't stupid, so if your ideas are good and your models sound, there's no reason we can't expect gradual change towards open access.

Both scholarly monographs and open access have their merits. We shouldn't be pushing for either / or, just like we havn't driven actors from the stage because we have television. Scholarly monographs are an effective way of preserving historical knowledge; they're in a format that the vast majority of us understand and even appreciate. We don't need to give that up.

And while I can appreciate the advantages of open access, its advocates often ignore the problems of an open access model. We live in a society in which things that have no cost have no perceived value. You wouldn't expect your lawyer to work for free, so why your historian? The scholarly presses defend their (failing) business model because it keeps their friends and family employed, their kids fed, and their bills paid. This isn't just a matter of profits funneling into the pockets of the rich. It's the way people like you and me make modest and honest livings.

If we start giving everything away we're promoting a model in which certain professions operate without the security of a paycheque while others doing important work continue to charge for their services. It's all well and good for open access advocates to tell us the benefits of their model, but until they come up with some solutions for its failings, they won't gain any friends who are sitting on the fence. Especially not if every well-intentioned effort by a scholarly society is met with a hostile barrage on Twitter by an extremist perspective that ignores the fact that we're all on the same team: We love history and we want to spend our careers sharing it with others.

If you want to give your dissertation away online, by all means do so. But it is your dissertation. You should feel equally empowered to bury it in a hole in the back yard, or throw it off a bridge. Anyone who tells you that you're bound by some moral obligation to give it away has a job, or a trust fund, and has no business putting any demands on your labour. Even if your scholarly book never earns you a cent, it's your prerogative to try and flog it any way you like. That doesn't make you a bad person. Neither does withholding your thesis from the Internet if you think that will help your pursuit towards a career that allows you to provide for your family. I hold my right to support my family far above your right to read my ideas for free.

I wholeheartedly want to thank the AHA for standing up for and empowering new scholars. No good deed goes unpunished, but there are many of us out there who appreciate your efforts and look forward to continued progress in what we hope becomes a civil debate and progression towards increased open access.