Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Some thoughts on the AHA's statement on Open Access

This is just a brief note on the AHA Statement on Open Access (with a special hat-tip to Jason M. Kelly’s insightful point-by-point response).
Though I’m writing from a standpoint within academic publishing, I won’t comment on whether we deprecate works published open-access as dissertations (for various reasons I'm sure you can imagine). I want to pull the focus back a bit and point out a few obvious things. (Hey, somebody has to!) The AHA’s statement is quite pragmatic in working within the status quo: publishers have a lot of power, especially over young academics’ careers.

However, publishers have that power because departments (and, perhaps more crucially, university administrations above them) have given it to them: hiring and tenure are not, cannot be done in today’s university, on the basis of a departmental decision. Rather, there needs to be outside evidence, measurable evidence!—checklists and scores and quantifiably lawyer-proof mountains of Why we hired X and not Y. This is a fact of life, and the AHA is wise not to take on the ABA (and that ain’t the booksellers’ association here).

But the AHA could have done more. Let me quote one point from the AHA and Kelly’s counterpoint.

AHA: By endorsing a policy that allows embargos, the AHA seeks to balance two central though at times competing ideals in our profession–on the one hand, the full and timely dissemination of new historical knowledge; and, on the other, the unfettered ability of young historians to revise their dissertations and obtain a publishing contract from a press.

Kelly: It is important to protect the interests of early career historians.  But, this statement seems to understand their interests narrowly.  What kind of academic community should we help craft with them?  I would suggest that we help craft a community of openness and collaboration — one that embraces technologies that are likely to expand our impact and reach wider audiences.  This may mean remaking the conventions of the profession and likely requires that we abandon ad hoc attempts to protect the status quo.  This will likely mean confronting the habitus of our profession and disrupting the institutions that we have been working in for over 100 years.
(my emphasis)

The “ability of young historians to revise their dissertations and obtain a publishing contract from a press” is not by any possible stretch of the imagination an “ideal in our profession”—it’s a means, a practical stepping point to keep future scholars in business. But far more importantly, academic publishing is exactly the business of “full and timely dissemination of new historical knowledge.”

And here’s where the AHA erred. They should have called out both publishers and their own membership for slowing down the timely publication of new scholarship. “Confronting the habitus of our profession and disrupting the institutions” is another way of saying, “We need to raise our game to a new level, and fast, or we're going to be looking for a new game."

Young scholars--don't just "obtain a publishing contract," make that diss into a manuscript. 
Senior scholars--turn around your goddamn manuscript reports.
Publishers--you know how complicated this is and the gazillion things that can derail or slow publication.

Everyone: Do it better.