Welcoming the new Journal of Open Humanities Data

After some months in the making, I am delighted to be able to draw attention to the new Journal of Open Humanities Data. I’m particularly pleased to be a member of the editorial board.

Fully peer-reviewed, JOHD carries “publications describing humanities data or techniques with high potential for reuse.”

The journal accepts two kinds of papers:

“1. Metapapers, that describe humanities research objects with high reuse potential. This might include quantitative and qualitative data, software, algorithms, maps, simulations, ontologies etc. These are short (1000 word) highly structured narratives and must conform to the Metapaper template.

“2. Full length research papers that describe different methods used to create, process, evaluate, or curate humanities research objects. These are intended to be longer narratives (3,000 – 5,000 words) which give authors the ability to describe a research object and its creation in greater detail than a traditional publication.

For more detail, see the JOHD at Ubiquity Press.

Understanding the web of faith: forthcoming book chapter

I’m very pleased to say that an essay of mine has been accepted for a forthcoming volume: The Web as History: the first two decades. It is edited by Niels Brügger and Ralph Schroeder, and will appear Open Access with UCL Press in 2016.

Here’s my abstract:

‘Much of the discourse that historians of contemporary religion until recently tracked in correspondence, periodical publication and print ephemera has migrated online. But the task of understanding religious discourse in the UK web space has hardly begun. The task is hard to undertake at the highest level since there are no second-level domains that serve as useful units of analysis — there is no faith.uk to match nhs.uk or ac.uk.

‘This chapter represents a first step towards understanding the evolution of the UK religious web space, by means of two interrelated case studies, which between them point to the agenda and content of a larger research project. Both studies utilise the JISC UK Web Domain Dataset for the period 1996-2008, as held by the British Library.

‘Firstly, it will examine the web archive footprint left by the public controversy in 2008 over the comments made by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, on the matter of sharia law. Using both the link graph and a direct qualitative analysis of archived content, it will explore both the shape and the content of the controversy and show the degree to which religious debate had not only migrated from print to the web, but in doing so had engaged different actors and lost others, and changed in its tone.

‘Secondly, it will consider the growing tension in religious discourse between faith groups and organisations with a secularist agenda. Again, using the link graph and some qualitative analysis, it will explore the patterns in which linkages grew and shifted between the web estates of key but opposed organisations in relation to issues including faith schools and creationism, the reform of the law on blasphemy, and the place of the bishops in the House of Lords.

Interview on Open Access for theology and religious studies

[Last year I gave an interview to Omega Alpha, a splendid blog on Open Access for theology and religious studies. I republish it here with the kind permission of Gary F. Daught, with thanks. It is slightly edited for flow and style, but it still clearly shows its origins as an interview. The substance remains the same.]

Omega Alpha: Thank you, Peter, for this opportunity to talk with you. How did you first learn about open access? How did you become a “convert” to OA, if this is the right way of putting it?

Webster: My becoming a ‘convert’ to open access isn’t an inappropriate way of putting it, in some ways. My exposure to open access came mostly through being in charge of the institutional repository at the School of Advanced Study. I became drawn into open access over time through dealing with management policies, talking with faculty, etc. The IR served primarily the humanities with a bit of social sciences on the edge. It was very interesting to see how scholars responded to it, and hear what they thought about open access within that quite dedicated humanities space. Incidentally, I think it’s fair to say that the Humanities are a significant distance behind, certainly behind the natural sciences, regarding open access.

I don’t think very many people, if pushed, would dispute the general principle of open access—that academic research ought to be freely available for anyone who might conceivably want to read it, especially if it is publicly funded. I think I would probably stop short of saying there is a moral obligation for open access, though I do agree with the idea of supporting open access as a ‘public good.’ There are benefits to the scholar having their work available to even a lay readership in this way. The material that scholars write about in the humanities (including Religious Studies) is (in theory) more easily accessible to the average reader than, for instance, most of microbiology. One might expect humanities scholars to be more engaged in open access, precisely because of what there is to be gained from it in terms of getting ideas out for public discourse—knowing that their research has relevance. So I’m surprised by this reticence. Is it a lack of confidence that what we do is too specialised to be of interest to anybody?

I suppose I have it relatively easy, though, because no one pays me to do the research I do. I’m not dependent on it for tenure, or anything like that. But almost all my existing research (for which I can get permission) is in the repository I used to run. Having seen the usage statistics, I know that it gets the kind of traffic that one couldn’t possibly expect if it were only still available in print. You will have a sense, Gary, of the average use of a typical theological monograph. I’m pretty sure my stuff has at least been found and the PDFs opened by a much larger number of people. This usage has yet to present itself in citations, but that’s partly because my material is quite new. I would expect to see the ‘citation effect’ build up over time. There are studies suggesting there is this demonstrable ‘citation effect’ for open access.

The other thing I would add is the whole international dimension. The traffic to the material in the repository is coming from all sorts of places around the world, not just western anglophone countries as you might expect. So, if you want your work to be read as widely as possible this is an obvious way to go. If you can get past the ‘professional drivers’ there’s a lot to be gained.

Omega Alpha: How did you learn about Open Library of Humanities? Tell me specifically about your interest in this project, and why you decided to join one of the advisory committees.

Webster: I follow Martin Eve on Twitter, and back in January after the project idea first got going he put out a call for interested folk to get in touch. I tweeted back, saying that I’d be interested to be involved somehow. He wrote back inviting me to join the Academic Steering & Advocacy Committee.

What is very interesting to me about the project is the way in which peer review may be dealt with. I’ve become more and more convinced that the current system of peer review is an accident — that it is actually the product of a particular historical confluence of a technology (print) and a particular way of rewarding or assessing where academics are in relation to each other. OLH is examining the approach used by the Public Library of Science, which very helpfully separates out two quite distinct functions of peer review. First is a basic level of gatekeeping to check for basic competence in method, and expression, and documentation, and for genuine engagement with the field of scholarship as it lies. That’s a useful filter to have. It’s relatively fast and light-weight to do. It can be reasonably objective. You can tell if someone’s footnoting is right, whether there’s engagement with most of the work in the field, and if there’s a coherent argument involved.

We’ve also allowed peer review to carry the weight of trying to establish how important something is. It seems to me, that were I a journal editor, I shouldn’t think my judgment, while informed, should necessarily be authoritative in determining whether or not something should be published, based on my assessment of how ‘important’ it is. It seems to me that it is the readers who are in a better position of determining whether or not a piece of research is important. I believe ‘the cream will rise to the top.’ There is now no issue of capacity (referring back to the technological ‘accident’ of print above with its inherent limitations of space.) We allowed the rationing of scarce space in a print journal to become a proxy for importance. I believe anything that is defensible in scholarly terms should be published, and the genuinely important stuff will be found — it will rise to the top. This second function, which includes various kinds of ‘altmetrics’, is called post-publication peer review. I don’t see any reason why this approach shouldn’t work in the humanities.

Omega Alpha: What do you think about the “mega-journal” and multi-disciplinary format of OLH compared to traditional subject- or association-focused journals in religion? How might this format compare to subject-focused gold open access journals in religion?

Webster: At the pragmatic level, I don’t see lots and lots of open access journals utilizing the PLOS model springing up in the various disciplines. The strength of OLH is in the platform itself, which can serve as a common technical backend for the various disciplines and sub-disciplines within the humanities. The platform gives us economies of scale. Having a multi-disciplinary platform doesn’t preclude the creation of discipline-specific journals within it. We may find, over time, that the users of the platform are in a position to curate their own subject subsets of material. Or over time, as we build up a large amount of content, we may find we can create special issue ‘journals’ retrospectively edited, bringing together ‘the cream’ of most significant and important research. A looser structure at the beginning will give us greater flexibility as things develop and mature. Being able to search across disciplines may enable us to to make research connections we might miss in a more siloed environment.

Omega Alpha: What would (or do) you say to fellow scholars in religion and theology who may be reluctant to embrace open access as a viable and legitimate scholarly communication venue?

Webster: I don’t now have that many opportunities for ‘evangelism’ in that way (going back to your question relating to my ‘conversion’ to open access). But I would simply come back to all the benefits that we were talking about before. I think the various objections to open access come down to getting the implementation right, rather than issues with the principle of freely available access to this work that we’re all doing. I would major on the opportunity to get material out fast to wide audiences, including lay audiences, and of course, the international dimension. You would hope that a healthy Church or faith community — if we’re looking at this from a religious point of view — would be an organization or community that engages with its own history, and with scholarly thinking about what it is that it believes and practices. You would think there would be a greater than average gain for theological scholars in being able to reach those audiences directly.

Omega Alpha: Do you have any final thoughts?

Webster: For scholars who are used to traditional print-form research outputs, engagement with open access will lead necessarily to greater engagement with the digital environment and the use of digital methods of research production and communication, such as blogs and other social media, enabling us to interact more directly with our audiences. Relatedly, this ought to make us think harder about how we write, how clearly we write, and the audiences for whom our research material is written. It’s a cliché to say that academic writing is often opaque, but there is enough of it that is just so to make it a truism. I do not think it should be impossible to write clear and accessible prose that also conveys difficult ideas. These two things need not be incompatible. It strikes me that communicating with all the groups that have a stake in what it is we do (that is, not just scholars but also interested lay persons) is a good place to test that hypothesis.

Omega Alpha: Peter, thank you so much for your time and your participation in this conversation. Perhaps you will allow me to check-in again with you as those developments touch on the impact of open access on Religious Studies research communication.

Is the quality of humanities book production falling ?

[I review a lot of books, and have noticed a falling-off in the quality of the published text in the kind of humanities books I review. In this post I ask: is this a general trend, or have I been unlucky ? If it is a trend, what are the causes?]

Part of the debate about Open Access centres on the value that traditional academic publishers contribute to the process, for which they should rightly be rewarded. The argument has played out something like this. By and large, scholars produce academic writing without significant financial reward; they edit journals, similarly without payment, as well as performing peer review. This much we know, and hasn’t changed all that much.

Ah yes (is the response): but the publisher’s unique input is in the stages after this – in transforming an accepted manuscript into a pristine typeset version of record, and in the marketing and distribution of that article to the readers who want to read it. This is the value added to the process.

I don’t need to elaborate here on the impact of online delivery and Open Access on the last of these. The tools that social media provide to journal editors and authors to market their own work have levelled that part of the field greatly as well. No; here I’m interested in the value that publishers add to the process in copy-editing, and then in the production and correction of typeset proofs, and then versions of record.

I do a good deal of book reviewing. I like it; it forces me to read the book properly. But in the last few months and years, I have needed to draw attention to several books in which the standard of production has dropped to an alarmingly low level.

Most academics could write better, and if someone were to argue that the standard of written English in academic work has been dropping, I wouldn’t argue with them. And so, there is probably more that authors and their peer reviewers could do to present better copy. Errors of fact must remain an academic responsibility. However, I am simply seeing far too many more basic errors making it into print.

Which errors ? Some are tpyos or erors of speling; others are in spacing and formatting, such as missing italicisation, or   extra or missingwhitespace. I’ve also seen phantom footnote markers that lead nowhere (1); other pages show signs of an amendment half-made, leaving some of the debris behind, resulting in nonsense debris behind.

I won’t name names of publishers here, although readers would be able to find plenty of evidence elsewhere in this blog. I would simply like to start a debate on two issues.

Firstly: is my experience matched by that of anyone else ? It may not be, and I should be delighted to be told that all is well, and that I have simply been unlucky.

If my experience is matched by that of others, why might this be ? There are several possibilities:

(i) are the manuscripts that authors submit getting messier, leading to a greater number of errors slipping through the net (a simple matter of probability) ?
(ii) are some copy editors being less careful ? During copy-editing I recently made some major changes to a paragraph of mine, tracking changes in Word. I can be pretty sure that the editor did nothing more than simply accept all my changes with a single click, since the errors in the proofs were the kind that you miss when you track changes in this way, in the mass of red. Had they been accepted one by one, they could not have got through.
(iii) are copy editors doing less work (a slightly different point) ? That is, is the apparent crisis in the business model for monographs and edited volumes in the humanities such that publishers simply can’t afford to do as much work as they might and still turn a profit ?
(iv) Or, finally, is it that time-poor academics are failing to check proofs properly ?

I have no answers to this; but I’m sure we need to be asking the question.

Book review: The Future of Scholarly Communication (Shorley and Jubb)

[This review appeared in the 24 July issue of Research Fortnight, and is reposted here by kind permission. For subscribers, it is also available here.]

Perhaps the one thing on which all the contributors to this volume could agree is that scholarly communication is changing, and quickly. As such, it is a brave publisher that commits to a collection such as this — in print alone, moreover. Such reflections risk being outdated before the ink dries.

The risk has been particularly acute in the last year, as policy announcements from government, funders, publishers and learned societies have come thick and fast as the implications of the Finch report, published in the summer of 2012, have been worked out. It’s a sign of this book’s lead time that it mentions Finch only twice, and briefly. That said, Michael Jubb, director of the Research Information Network, and Deborah Shorley, Scholarly Communications Adviser at Imperial College London, are to be congratulated for having assembled a collection that, even if it may not hold many surprises, is an excellent introduction to the issues. By and large, the contributions are clear and concise, and Jubb’s introduction is a model of lucidity and balance that would have merited publication in its own right as a summation of the current state of play.

As might be expected, there is much here about Open Access. Following Finch, the momentum towards making all publications stemming from publicly funded research free at the point of use is probably unstoppable. This necessitates a radical reconstruction of business models for publishers, and similarly fundamental change in working practices for scholars, journal editors and research libraries. Here Richard Bennett of Mendeley, the academic social network and reference manager recently acquired by Elsevier, gives the commercial publisher’s point of the view, while Mike McGrath gives a journal editor’s perspective that is as pugnacious as Bennett’s is anodyne. Robert Kiley writes on research funders, with particular reference to the Wellcome Trust, where he is head of digital services. Together with Jubb’s introduction and Mark Brown’s contribution on research libraries these pieces give a clear introduction to hotly contested issues.

There is welcome acknowledgement here that there are different forces at work in different disciplines, with STM being a good deal further on in implementing Open Access than the humanities. That said, all authors concentrate almost exclusively on the journal article, with little attention given to other formats, including the edited collection of essays, the textbook and — particularly crucial for the humanities — the monograph.

Thankfully, there’s more to scholarly communication than Open Access. The older linear process, where research resulted in a single fixed publication, disseminated to trusted repositories, libraries, that acted as the sole conduits of that work to scholars is breaking down. Research is increasingly communicated while it is in progress, with users contributing to the data on which research is based at every stage.

Fiona Courage and Jane Harvell provide a case study of the interaction between humanists and social scientists and their data from the long-established Mass Observation Archive. The availability of data in itself is prompting creative thinking about the nature of the published output: here, John Wood writes on how the data on which an article is founded can increasingly be integrated with the text. And the need to manage access to research data is one of several factors prompting a widening of the traditional scope of the research library.

Besides the changing roles of libraries and publishers, social media is allowing scholars themselves to become more active in how their work is communicated. Ellen Collins, also of RIN, explores the use of social media as means of sharing and finding information about research in progress or when formally published, and indeed as a supplementary or even alternative method of publication, particularly when reaching out to non-traditional audiences.

Collins also argues that so far social media have mimicked existing patterns of communication rather than disrupting them. She’s one of several authors injecting a note of cold realism that balances the technophile utopianism that can creep into collections of this kind. Katie Anders and Liz Elvidge, for example, note that researchers’ incentives to communicate creatively remain weak and indirect in comparison to the brute need to publish or perish. Similarly, David Prosser observes that research communication continues to look rather traditional because the mechanisms by which scholarship is rewarded have not changed, and those imperatives still outweigh the need for communication.

This collection expertly outlines the key areas of flux and uncertainty in scholarly communication. Since many of the issues will only be settled by major interventions by governments and research funders, this volume makes only as many firm predictions as one could expect. However, readers in need of a map to the terrain could do much worse than to start here.

[The Future of Scholarly Communication, edited by Deborah Shorley and Michael Jubb, is published by Facet, at £49.95.]

Wikipedia, authority and the free rider problem

[This post argues that historians have much to gain from getting involved in making Wikipedia authoritative, in spite of the many disincentives within the current ecology of academic research. However, to make it work, historians would need to embrace a more speculative and more risky model of collaborative work.]

I am a selfish Wikipedian. By which I mean, that while I am very happy to use Wikipedia, I have not been very serious about contributing to it. There are a small handful of pages for which I keep the further reading (reasonably) up to date, and correct if a particularly egregious error appears.  But it is sporadic, and one of the first things to be squeezed out if life gets busy.

And I wonder whether there aren’t real gains for historians from helping Wikipedia become truly authoritative, but which are obscured by natural disincentives in the way in which our scholarly ecosystem works.

Firstly, the disincentives. One is a residual wariness of something that can be edited by ‘just anyone’. I myself have dissuaded students from citing Wikipedia as an authority in itself, as part of what I am teaching is the ability to go to the scholarly article that is cited in Wikipedia, and indeed beyond it to the primary source. But my experience is that, in matters of fact, Wikipedia is very reliable unless it concerns a highly charged topic (the significance of Margaret Thatcher, say). And even the making of that judgement is an important part of learning to think critically about what it is we read.

Perhaps more significant is the fact that Wikipedia appears to be edited by no-one in particular. One of the contradictions of modern academic life is that most scholars would, I think, assert the existence of a common good, the pursuit of knowledge, towards which we work in some abstract sense. At the same time, the ways in which we are habituated to achieve that end are fundamentally about competition between scholars for scarce resources: attention, leading to esteem, leading to career advancement.

We write books and articles, which help us get and then keep a job. A smaller but growing number write blogs like this one, and tweet about those blogs. Part of this is about ‘impact’ (that is to say, increasing our share of those scarce quanta of public attention). And all of it depends on being identified as the creator of an item of intellectual property: tweet, blog post, article, book, media interview. Few, even at the wildest edges of the Open Access movement, propose licensing of scholarly outputs without attribution, even if a work may be licensed for the most radical of remixing. All depends on being known.

But Wikipedia doesn’t credit its authors, or at least not in a prominent and easily reportable way. And so the question arises: even though contributing to Wikipedia is to the common good, what is in it for me ?

The answer may depend on a more speculative and more risky model of collaborative work, but one which holds out the prospect of a genuinely authoritative resource, made by authorities. And that in turn should reward the best published work, in the good old-fashioned and citable way, by channelling readers to it. (It would be even better for works available Open Access.)

But it depends on everyone jumping together. As long as some contribute, but others only consume, there remains a classic economist’s ‘free rider’ problem. When people use a resource without ‘paying’ (in the form of their own time, and their own particular expertise) then the cost of production is unevenly spread, and the quality of the product denuded. But if editing Wikipedia became a genuinely widespread enterprise amongst scholars, then even if my contribution is not recognised with each and every edit, my ‘main’ work (if it is any good) will be cited and integrated into the fabric of Wikipedia by others. And we might get a more informed public debate about each and every matter, which looks like impact to me. Perhaps I should get more serious about this now.

Open Access and open licensing

Much of the recent concern about Open Access in the UK, at least for the humanities, has not been about the general principle, but rather about the means.

In my hearing, however, perhaps at least as much consternation was in reaction to the prospect of subsequently licensing those outputs for re-use using one or other of the Creative Commons suite of licences. CC allows various degrees of redistribution, and re-use, without further recourse to the author, but with credit given. Commercial use can be restricted (or not); the making of derivative works can be provided for (or not). You can Meet the Licenses here.

As an advocate of greater Open Access in the humanities, I suspect that Research Councils UK made a tactical error in suggesting that it intended to enforce the most liberal of these licenses. CC-BY ‘lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.’ Here’s why I think the focus on CC-BY has been a mistake, at this point.

Personally, I have never quite been convinced that ‘full’ or ‘real’ OA was dependent on maximally open licensing. I see free availability of the content for reading and citation as quite distinct from the subsequent reuse of that content in other ways. Both are desirable, but can be decoupled without damage. A move to any form of OA represents a major cultural change, albeit one that is necessary. Given this I would rather see an OA article with all rights reserved (as a staging post) than to not see that article at all. And to couple the two too closely risks the first goal by too strong an insistence on the second. Over time, cultures can and do change; but we ought to practice the art of the possible.

More generally, it isn’t yet clear to me what re-use of a traditional history article looks like. Quotation (with a reference) is a mode historians understand; so is citation as an authority in paraphrase. Both are possible from an article with all rights reserved. Compilation of readers and anthologies would be made easier by CC, but doesn’t require CC-BY. It also isn’t clear what ‘remixing’ of traditional historical writing looks like if it doesn’t involve quotation. Historians are also well used to acknowledging a seminal work in a footnote (or even once only in foreword or acknowledgments) without quoting it directly, but is this all that giving ‘credit’ for ‘remixing’ an idea really means ? If so, there is little to fear; but I’m not sure we know, yet.

Over time, there will be possibilities for data-mining in corpora of scholarly articles, but we ought to think on about whether this can be accommodated without full CC-BY. Much turns on the question of what counts as a derivative work in the context of an aggregated database, and what the output to the user is; and whether an insistence on  non-commercial re-use shuts down important future possibilities that we can’t yet foresee.

It may be that CC-BY is the right default option; my feeling is that it probably will be. But I think we should probably take more time to document some of these use cases, in order to plan a movement towards licensing for historical writing that is neither more restrictive nor more liberal than it need be, and allows scholars to dip in their toes without plunging in up to the neck. For now, there are horses we should avoid scaring, lest they bolt.