On the interstitial scholar

Part of the concern  in the humanities about author-pays open access concerns the impact on the ‘independent scholar’ – those individuals who produce academic writing of the highest standard whilst independent of the universities. It is a baggy classification, defined only by a negative; and it encompasses all sorts, from recently minted post-doctoral people looking for a job, to established figures who earn a living by their writing as journalists, critics or novelists, but who happen also to produce work that is recognisably ‘within the fold’. It also includes a host of retired academics, who may yet  have in them the crowning summation of a lifetime’s work. And the objection is raised that, if publication costs are to be covered by the author or their employer, then few of these figures will be able to publish at all.

Whilst there is collateral damage that needs to be avoided here, I see it as a problem to be overcome, rather than just another reason why the current system cannot change. But my concern here is wider, and is with the notion of the ‘interstitial scholar’ and the intrinsic value there might be in the fact that not all scholarship is produced from within a research-and-teaching institution. What of any importance would actually be lost from our scholarly ecology if the interstitial scholar was allowed to die out ?

I need to be clear about whom I am not talking. I am not concerned with the author of historical works who is purely a synthesist; my interstitial scholar is one whose work is clearly primary research. Neither do I mean the lone scholar who is disconnected from the ecosystem of academic publication, conference-going, peer reviewing that surrounds ‘professional’ scholarship (although I dislike the professional/amateur distinction.)

No: my concern is with the scholar who is engaged in some other profession but has maintained a lively contact both with the individuals and the published work in their field. Figures are hard to come by, but my impression is that there are many in this position; and I include myself among them.

Where are they ? They are to be found in every corner of the universities but the academic departments: in administration, or policy, or communications, or alumni relations. Universities have long mopped up some of the excess supply of able doctoral graduates, and universities provide in many ways a congenial berth. You also don’t need to dig very deep to find research-active people in the library and archives sector, as five minutes with the British Library’s Research Register will show.

But why bother ? What makes people continue with the slow and painstaking task of academic research if they can and do put bread on the table in other ways ? I should love to know what others think; but can only speak for myself. It is partly because I still feel that there are  more important matters than the few the state can support scholars to study. I also continue to write history because I find it hard to imagine not doing so. Before starting my doctorate, my soon-to-be supervisor laid out just how difficult it can be to sustain three years of relatively solitary work without ‘an itch that you can’t scratch’ – a burning desire to know the answer to some question or other; and fifteen years on, I’m still scratching that itch.

But isn’t it an indulgence, to hold back the development of a new kind of scholarly communication for a handful of hobbyists doing obscure work in dark corners ? In a time of austerity, perhaps it is. But I would argue that these scholars represent something that is not spontaneously generated in the normal course of university-based research.Their very location in-between the functions of universities, libraries and archives  allows them to bring important alternative perspectives. My own research has been influenced in many subtle ways by having worked in and around digital provision for research; and I’m sure that archivists and curators bring a distinctive and important perspective to the interpretation of the material in their care. I would want particularly to read a history of universities written by a university administrator; or a history of scholarly publishing by a historian working in publishing; or legal history by a barrister. They would have of course have their blind spots; but they would be different blind spots.

Interstitial scholars are also able to pursue different topics as a result of their situation. When I go to conferences, I sometimes detect just a hint of envy if I mention that I am in no hurry to write this or that article because I have no REF deadline to meet. In the interstices, one has a freedom from any kind of external direction in one’s research; and so I have had over the years the freedom to follow my nose. And I suspect that, had I been ‘REF-able’ these last few years, some of my work wouldn’t have been written, or at least not in the same way; and other things would have got written instead. And so the interstitial scholar can pursue the unfashionable topic, without any regard to ‘impact’. These scholars can act as important connecting strands in the web of knowledge, and we brush them away at our cost.

On the invisibility of edited collections

[Update: my book on The Edited Collection: Pasts, Present and Futures (inspired by this post) was published by CUP in 2020.]

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.

Humanities publishing and the Finch report

[The text below appeared in the Annual Review of my former employer, the School of Advanced Study, just before Christmas. Since I finished writing it, the debate about Gold open access in the humanities had continued, with no little sound and fury concerning the statement from the editors of some twenty prominent historical journals, most interestingly from Cameron Neylon. Re-reading my piece now, it strikes a more conservative note than I intended, since I spent some three years preaching the benefits of OA, green and gold, in a HSS institution, and have been delighted to see what was a rather marginal issue move to centre stage. There are issues to be addressed, but HSS scholars and journal editors do need to join the debate, robustly but openly and constructively, since if heads become buried in sand we shall have a model suited to the natural sciences imposed on us whether we like it or not. The goal of maximal open access is (I think) clear; let’s make it happen.]

It is now ten years since the seminal Budapest declaration on Open Access, and eight years since parliamentarians first endorsed the general principle that publicly funded research ought to be available free at the point of use. And whilst the natural sciences have embraced Open Access very fully, the situation in the arts and humanities is very different. As I argued in Research Fortnight this summer (25th July), for all the talk of Open Access coming of age, the humanities are in danger of being left behind.

However, since the publication of the Finch report in the summer, the issue has moved to centre stage. The UK government has strongly supported the report, and so after a decade of debate, the general thrust of its proposals seem set actually to be implemented. Yet grave reservations have been expressed, not least in the two recent statements from the American Historical Association and, in the UK, from the Royal Historical Society.

One main source of concern (which matches my own) is its support for the ‘Gold’ route to open access, based on the ‘author pays’ principle. Instead of the publisher’s costs being covered by payment from the reader (or their library), the publisher charges a fee to the author, but access to the work is free at the point of use. The model has an appealing simplicity, and in theory should make a work available to anyone who might be interested in it, rather than simply to those with access to a research library. It is already well established in areas of the natural sciences, and in small pockets of the humanities, notably in the history of medicine. However, there are significant issues in its implementation, the most significant of which is the impact on those who cannot pay.

The Gold model works best when research is funded by direct grant, with a small additional sum to cover publication fees. But a vanishingly small proportion of humanities research is funded on this basis, and so those fees must be met by some other means. The government has pledged extra funds to cover this, but only to a number of research-intensive universities, which sends a clear and unwelcome signal about the prospects for research produced in other HEIs; to say nothing of early career researchers in (and out of) short-term positions and the army of independent scholars producing first class work outside the universities. Looking back at my own publications, I cannot imagine how any of them could have been funded in this way; and so they would not now exist.

There is still room, however, for dissenting voices to be heard; and there is an opportunity for the School and its Institutes to take the lead in creating the spaces in which those conversations may take place. Through SAS-Space, the establishment of SAS Open Journals, and associated events, the School has taken part in these debates over the last few years; may it continue to do so.

Humanities left behind in the dash for Open Access ?

In the last few days I’ve been very gratified at the reception (insofar as I’m aware of it) to my article in last week’s Research FortnightI’m particularly grateful to the following Twitterers for their kind comments:  @Ghaylam@Emmanuel_clerc@rmathematicus@beckyfh@j_w_baker and also @ukcorr . It happens also to have appeared at the same time as other significant blog posts on similar themes, by Sara Dorman on the DeadDogBlog  and by Mark Carrigan (@Mark_Carrigan), both drawing attention to the implications of a shift to Gold OA on those without the means to pay, as I do.

The article notes the disparity between the adoption of OA, both green and gold, between different parts of academia, and just how far the humanities are behind. This is based on some sample research I’ve carried out in the last few months, the detail and methodology of which I’d be happy to share. It then goes on to examine some of the reasons, one of which is the speed with which research passes out of date:

It is rare to find competing research groups racing to find the historical equivalent of a cure for cancer or the Higgs boson. Humanities research often retains its currency for a good deal longer than work in the natural sciences, and so there is not the same need for speed; a lag of a year or two between submission and publication is not felt so keenly. The most downloaded of my own papers in 2012 is also the oldest, published in 2006 and largely written in 2004.

The second reason is the small proportion of humanities work which is funded directly by research grant, and again there are some impressionistic numbers for this, for what they’re worth:

…. but there is clearly a gulf between the amount of research being published and the amount that is directly funded. If this is to be bridged, universities will need to find funds to cover the upfront charges for gold open access for their staff…..

which will need to be found from somewhere; wiser heads than mine will need to figure that out. Of my ten articles to date, not a word has been directly funded by any organisation, despite my having worked in UK universities for all that time.

The final point relates to  independent scholars, of whom there are a great many publishing top-drawer work in the humanities, not to mention post-doctorate scholars looking for a job, and everyone else to whom university publication funds won’t be open.

By and large, humanities scholars do not need large capital equipment and facilities, beyond a good library. As such, scholars outside universities—in museums, libraries, archives, across the professions and not least among the retired—regularly publish world-leading research. Universal gold open access funded by the author would wipe much of this work out.

It ends:

All the disciplines stand to gain from a successful move to open access. However, much of the discussion about open access has been driven by the needs of the sciences. Let’s not allow the humanities to be collateral damage along the way.

Read it all here.