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.

In defence of pseudonymity

Pseudonymity has had a bad press recently. A moral consensus seems to have formed that there is a problem not merely with behaving badly online while not under your real name, but with adopting a pseudonym at all. Pseudonymous authors “hide” behind their noms de plume; they lack the courage of their convictions; they are in some sense cowardly.

I don’t want here to get into the powerful imperatives of self-preservation that make pseudonymous writing a necessity when resisting a tyrannical government. I’d like to explore the particular reason why I myself blog elsewhere, and tweet, under a pseudonym (which I am clearly not about to disclose here).

I write for a living, more or less. I publish academic works, and blog here and elsewhere on the areas in which I am either directly professionally concerned, or on those subjects in which I am expert enough to make some observations. As more and more historians start “doing history in public”, this hybrid model of communicating what we as scholars do will become more and more important. And, as more and more of the web is routinely archived by the Internet Archive or the UK Web Archive, all of that communication which might previously have happened in person or in conferences, will now persist in the digital record. And since all these various utterances are linked together in various ways, such as Google Authorship, it will become easier for readers to trawl back through them all, and to put them together.

Given this, it is increasingly difficult to keep open a space in which to express an opinion just as a citizen without it becoming part of a professional profile. There are many issues in contemporary life on which I have views, but without any particular expertise. I’ve written elsewhere on the reasons I just write, and some of those thoughts are clarified in my own mind by the discipline of putting them online. And so my “other blog” gives the space to work out those off-piste ideas without them becoming mixed with my more “professional” writing.

And (incidentally) this is why I am not a “public intellectual”. The concept, at least in the UK, seems to involve the bringing to bear of a general intelligence, honed in one field, to matters of more general interest. Stefan Collini and others have already pointed out the tensions in the role. I have no view on whether or not the specific professional reputation of (say) David Starkey in relation to Tudor England is compromised by taking part in The Moral Maze. My point is simply that maintaining a separation between professional and pseudonymous selves in public means the question does not arise.

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.]

What did modern theology look like in the Sixties ?

What did modern theology look like ? An odd question perhaps; but I’d like to look at some of the cover designs of books of theology aimed at a popular readership between 1963 and 1970. This is no exhaustive study (being based mostly on the books on my own shelves), but it would seem that at least some of those responsible for publicising the ‘Death of God’ theology thought there was a connection between it and modern art.HonestToGod-cover-blog

Undoubtedly the most famous such book of the period was John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God, published by the SCM Press in 1963, in its series of cheap pocket paperbacks. Its cover is a minor masterpiece of cover design, showing a young man deep in thought, wrestling perhaps with precisely the kind of radical rethinking of his religion that Robinson was proposing. Image and message seem to be in perfect interplay. Interestingly, the image is of a rather older work, and from a different context. ‘Seated Youth’ (1918) is by the German sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck, and Lehmbruck’s experience of working in a wartime field hospital is translated between nations and over time to become a symbol of a more spiritual crisis.Lloyd-Ferment in the Church - cover 1964 - blog

After Honest to God, ‘Seated Youth’ seems to have become iconic of Robinson’s book, such that it appears again on a follow-up book from Roger Lloyd, The Ferment in the Church, published in 1964, also by SCM. This time the sculpture is overlaid on a background of Winchester Cathedral, signifying the clash of old and new.

Ramsey - Resurrection of Christ - fourth imp 1966 - blog

I must stress again that this post captures an impression, and is not based on a systematic study. As such, there isn’t much in the way of a control group – of works of more mainstream theology published for a mass market, for which the economics of a cover design with an image added up. But there were some, such as Michael Ramsey’s The Resurrection of Christ, first published in 1945 but reissued by Collins in the Fontana imprint. The impression here is the fourth, from 1966, and whilst it too uses a work of art, Collins’ designer opted for an unidentified work in a much older style. This perhaps matched Ramsey’s work, which was by no means conservative in the broader scheme of things, but looked to be so when set against Robinson.

Newbigin - Honest Religion for Secular Man 1966 - cover - blog

There was one artist who seemed to appear often, and that was Jacob Epstein. Lesslie Newbigin’s Honest Religion for Secular Man (SCM, 1966) featured ‘Risen Christ’, a work made between 1917-19 and, like ‘Seated Youth’, an imaginative product of the First World War. A sepulchral Christ shows the viewer his wounds, against the backdrop of the type of multi-storey office building in vogue at the time, although the particular building is not identified. Modern Man needed to work out the appropriate response to the call of God in a secular, “technological” environment.

Laymans Church - 1963 - cover - blog

All three SCM titles I’ve discussed so far were in the same series; but other publishers were not slow to see the connection, and at about the same time. In the same year as Honest to God, the Lutterworth Press published Layman’s Church, a collection of essays introduced by Timothy (later Lord) Beaumont, and including essays from several of the figures associated with ‘South Bank religion’, including Robinson. Its cover features Epstein’s ‘Christ in Majesty’, made for Llandaff cathedral in 1954-5. The new Coventry cathedral has on the exterior of its porch Epstein’s ‘St Michael and the Devil’ (1956-8), featured on Stephen Verney’s Fire in Coventry (Hodder, 1963).
Verney - Fire at Coventry - 1963 - blog
So it would seem that publishers of popular theology in the early Sixties thought there was a connection between the kind of modern theology that seemed to be leading the market and the kind of modern sculpture (and it is mostly sculpture) that was finding its way into churches. Or, at the very least, those publishers thought that their likely readers would find the designs meaningful. I doubt I will have the time to pursue this idea any more systematically; but there’s a great Ph.D. subject in here for someone.

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.

Just how important is the monograph for history ?

Back in January I posted about the visibility or otherwise of collections of edited essays, suggesting that whilst this form of publication may be as good as invisible in the sciences, we need to view the humanities (or at least history) differently.

In reply Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee) gave some intriguing numbers from an analysis of her citation patterns. In a recent review article in neuropsychology, she had cited 84 journal articles, 3 chapters, and one book. What’s more, she finds herself now very reluctant to cite anything that isn’t available online (which includes most books and edited collections.)

By way of a counter-example, I here extend the analysis of my own citation patterns that I began in that post. (For details of the data, read it here.) Here I’m interested in the balance between journal articles, books, and edited collections.

There has been much debate about finding a viable business model for Open Access monograph publishing in the humanities. Anecdotal evidence abounds, which chimes with my experience, that the ‘big book’ remains the Gold Standard for senior scholars; the once-in-a-decade intervention that changes the game. Lower down the food chain, the perception still rules that it is impossible for a young scholar to secure the vital first academic job without the book-of-the-thesis.

So much, so familiar. But there remains a real lack of data to back up this near-universal intuition, and to establish whether readers think as highly of the monograph as authors, publishers and research assessors think they do. And so, I looked at my own citation behaviour over the last few years, to answer the questions: how much do I cite monographs, as opposed to journal articles or papers in edited collections, and how old are those books when I cite them ?

The answer to the first of these even I found surprising. Here are the numbers:

Category Proportion of citations (%)
Books 59.4
Edited collections (and individual articles therein) 23.4
Journal articles 11.7
Theses 2.0
Other 3.5

I had expected the monograph to loom large, but not to the extent revealed in these figures. I was also very surprised that I cited more chapters in edited collections than articles in journals, which were an amazingly low proportion of the total.

It’s also interesting just how old some of these monographs I cite are. The mean age of a monograph (at the time I cited it) was 17.5 years, with a median of 14.5. Some, in specialist areas, are still current after 40 years. This would suggest that any embargo-based scheme of Green OA for monographs would have to include very long embargoes indeed to satisfy publishers, which suggests that Gold would seem the way to go.

On historians’ electronic ‘papers’

[This post was written for inclusion in the blog of the Institute of Historical Research's winter conference on History and Biography]

I should say straight away that I am neither an archivist, nor a specialist in digital preservation (in its strict sense.) But I am an historian, and professionally interested in the impact of the digital on our working practices; and during the working day I am on the staff of one of the UK’s main memory institutions. And I’m pleased to have been asked to write this piece by my former colleagues at the IHR, as while there is much going on at present relating to the management of research data, there is much less (that I know of) about the private papers of scholars. What is the infrastructure for preserving these materials, of historians, for historians? Is there even an infrastructure worth the name?

Straight away, there is a problem of definition – of distinguishing between what we might call research data and private papers. In the physical sciences, it is easier to spot the data; lots of numbers in tables, on computers, as opposed to the reams of transcribed or part-transcribed primary sources that I still have from my own Ph.D. And in the physical sciences there has been a much stronger culture of the re-use of data by other scholars. In order to test and refine a hypothesis, it helps to be able to repeat experiments, and for that you need the data. And so that data tends to be ‘cleaner’ – well-defined and structured, with appropriate documentation – and thus easier to share. And so there are services such as Dryad, a discipline-specific data repository designed for specifically this purpose.

Historians have been much less accustomed to this way of working. This is partly because our ‘data’ tends to be angular, asymmetric texts that resist being squashed into anything so restrictive as a table. And there is an attachment among many to the thick description of each source and all its meaning, particular to a time, a place and an individual, and a resistance to abstraction. (To paraphrase J. H. Hexter, the splitters tend to dominate the lumpers.) There are exceptions, but the cliometric urge is not as strong as once it was.

This attachment to the particular is something to be cherished, but I would argue that there is yet more scope for historians to think of their working materials as data, and thus as something that may be shared and re-used. The Old Bailey Proceedings Online is a fine example of a corpus of freely composed texts that has within it a dataset. Not all sources have the degree of regularity of structure that a set of court records has; but there is still much material that languishes on desktop machines that might be set free. But it would require us to think about reuse at the beginning of a project, rather than at the end.

And as well as primary sources that might be shared and reused, there is the question of an historian’s intermediate working materials, that mark the stages by which primary sources are digested and turned into writing. The London Review of Books recently published Keith Thomas’ account of his own working method, thousands of bulging white envelopes full of notes; Christopher Hill was famous for his system of index cards. As evidence of the working practices of a discipline, these paper systems are an artefact to be preserved. As scholars increasingly move to digital systems of managing notes and bibliography, some using proprietary software and some the cloud, we also need to think about how these are best preserved as evidence of how the discipline worked at a particular point in time.
matthewtlynch-flickr
And finally, there is writing. Historians of a certain age will remember a device commonly known as a ‘typewriter’ which impressed characters on a sheet of paper, by a mechanism operated by the pressing of keys. (You can see examples in museums sometimes.) And the use of the typewriter meant that, for every iteration of a piece of writing, there was a physical record. (The typewriter was, as it were, sub-optimally featured for corrections.) The ease of emendation of a word-processed document probably means that these intermediate versions no longer exist. But where they do (and I myself tend to keep numbered versions of articles to reflect each revision), they are a valuable record of the evolution of a piece of writing and the thinking that supports it, and part of intellectual biography.

But who should be preserving these materials? In the past, for the most prominent, an existing connection with an institution tended to lead to their papers being held there: the papers of Noel Annan now reside at King’s College, Cambridge, of which he was Fellow and later Provost; those of E. H. Gombrich at the Warburg Institute at which he spent most of his career. The British Library also receives a certain number of digital archives, but mostly from prominent literary figures, such as the recent deposit from the poet Wendy Cope. But there is a need for a more scaleable solution. Part of this is certainly the recent ventures in services that enable personal digital archiving. But these tend to require a certain level of skill in the issues involved (and for one to be not yet dead) and so there is a place in this new ecology of preservation for organisations, such as the IHR, with an established presence as a repository and clearing-house for a discipline. And as collections of discipline-specific materials grow over time, those collections would become in themselves more than the sum of their parts – part of the stuff of a laboratory for the history of history.

[Picture via matthewtlynch on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA]

On the invisibility of edited collections

Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee) last year argued that (at least in neuropsychology) ‘if you write a chapter for an edited book, you might as well write the paper and then bury it in a hole in the ground’. The issue is accessibility: (to paraphrase a little) most books aren’t available online as journals are, and no-one goes to libraries any more. (Read the post on Bishop Blog or as republished in the LSE Impact blog.)

Bishop admitted that things might be different in the humanities and social sciences, and something about her argument didn’t quite ring true with my own experience in history. Opinion on Twitter and amongst colleagues was divided: one eminent colleague had reached the point of refusing to contribute to edited volumes, so fast did they disappear from view; another thought that publishers were in collective flight from a format that had previously been fundamental. Others thought history one of the exceptions to an otherwise useful rule.

We are rather short of useful data on this. But my impression is that the format works in a different way to the (mostly online) journal. Granted, few of them are available digitally, and so no-one will find them by search. However, for as long as at least one article in the volume remains current, then readers will be picking the volume from a shelf; and so the other articles in theory at least remain visible – more so than in a journal issue. I’ve heard it often said that if a piece of work isn’t online, it may as well not exist at all; I think historians do still spend a good deal of time in libraries, picking books off shelves. I certainly do.

And then, as @tjowens pointed out, a coherent volume stands a good chance after a few years of becoming in effect a textbook, standing as a recent summary of the state of a particular field. I can certainly remember such volumes as an undergraduate; and my memory is that I read more of these than the weighty monographs listed alongside them. And although it isn’t properly recognised and rewarded, editing a text that influences a whole generation of younger minds should be an important part of what scholars do.

“But they’re not peer-reviewed!” Well, yes, if one accepts only one mode of peer review as legitimate – blind peer review, brokered by a journal. I would argue that some edited collections go through a different process, that is at least as creative of better work than the traditional system. Two years ago I was an invited plenary speaker at a tightly themed conference, leading to an edited volume. I responded to the theme as proposed; the paper was discussed at the conference, not least with one of the protagonists who happened to be living in retirement not far from the conference venue (the joys of contemporary history). A revised draft then went through two series of revisions with the two editors who organised the conference, influenced by an exchange of drafts between the contributors. It is now inproved far more than as a result of two or three vague paragraphs from a journal review. Does such a system place too much power in the hands of the editors ? Possibly; but it is at least open and transparent.

But so far these were only my impressions; and so I decided to create some data of my own. I looked at all the works that I myself have cited in the past six years: data from ten article-length pieces published since 2006, including two unpublished items at the copy edit stage. The field is the recent religious history of Britain, including writings on the sociology of religion, musicology and the history of the plastic arts and drama. (I’d be happy to expand on methodology if anyone is interested.)

Three interesting patterns came from the data.
(i) Citations of chapters in edited volumes formed a (to me) surprisingly high proportion of the whole, some 23%. (More later in another post on the humanities monograph and the invisibility of the journal article.)

(ii) These papers have a decent longevity. I looked at the time elapsed between the date of publication and the date at which I was making the final revisions to my own paper (ie. when I was actually citing it). Far from it being the case that a two or three year old paper is outdated, the median time was ten years.

(iii) I looked at the overall age profile of the volumes, the mean average of which was 14.9 years (to 2013); and there were few that I would not cite again if I were writing today.

All this would suggest that the edited volume continues to play a role for history, or at least for the kind of history that I write; and that Bishop’s observation doesn’t hold true. I should admit that my field is thinly documented –  several of my own pieces broke almost completely virgin soil – and so it may be that for scholarship on areas such as (say) Nazi Germany that are rather more densely overlaid with written work, the picture may be different.

Finally, what of the future ? The timescale of the data didn’t allow me to see whether we are indeed seeing the beginnings of a flight by authors from edited collections. Without data from publishers on the number of approaches they receive, that would be hard to establish empirically. However, data like mine would start to show that effect in a few years’ time. For now, rumours of the demise of the edited collection seem a little premature.