review of Open Access Humanities by Martin Eve

Eve_Open-Access-Humanities_cover If you’re new to the topic of “open access” — “unrestricted online access to scholarly research” — or you want a broad perspective, I’d suggest instead of this book the fairly good Wikipedia entry on “Open Access,” from which the above definition comes. After that, John Willinsky’s The Access Principle, 2006, available free from MIT Press, which focuses on the key idea, of expanding access to knowledge creation and use, by various models in different contexts globally. (if you do want to read Open Access and the Humanities, get the complete Kindle, ePub, or PDF versions free at or Internet Archive, not Cambridge Books Online’s amusingly not-with-the-program collection of 16 separate PDF files).

Martin Eve’s recent Open Access and the Humanities, by contrast to the above, has a narrower and somewhat polemical purpose: to review current debates among mainly UK (some US + EU) academics over alternate ways to pay for and give access to their scholarly articles or monographs in humanities disciplines, and to advocate a particular (and controversial) model of academics giving away all copyright-based rights to their work except for attribution. The author is a lecturer at Lincoln University, UK, and a founder of a new publishing venture, Open Library of Humanities, of which I was a co-founder.

While Eve endeavours to consider alternate views, they seem to be mostly views within a highly specific and recent debate, and generally the book seems over-situated in one context: funding/access issues of present-day, first-world, university-funded, humanities academics. Not, that is, humanities in general, or of scholars/researchers working in other contexts, or imagining any fundamental transformation in scholarly funding or outputs; nor even particularly considering what public interest is or might be served by reforms in this area. It essentially considers “open access” from the standpoint of mainly current academics’ definitions, concerns, and self-interest.

This leads to a number of blind-spots, weaknesses, and enclosures in his arguments, and a focus on rather incremental reforms. While presenting itself as reformist or even emancipatory, much of the argument of this brief yet laborious book seems to focus on conserving or justifying core aspects of academic publishing, and seems uncognizant of common critiques of and counter-models to the digital/knowledge ideas, and ideologies of ‘openness’ it espouses; such as those of Ted Nelson, Evgeny Morozov, Jaron Lanier, Heather Morrison, or what Jeffrey Alan Johnson calls “information justice.”

Eve’s book also seems quite unaware of or unconcerned by other leading edges in open-access thinking, such as the logically obvious step of extending OA to patent-based intellectual property, not just the copyright-based portion of IP. Patent IP is of enormous value in the sciences, and like copyright IP, is often publicly funded and of global public interest: yet it continues to be aggressively privatized. (for a leading project in this area, see Defensive Patent License).

A book on humanities open access might be a good opening to discuss why science’s core value of ideas/invention is generally not being made public property, while humanities’ (and other expressive creators’, per Lanier) core value of expression is. The author in fact goes in quite another direction, with a long and to me wholly unconvincing effort to portray humanities ‘research’ publishing as serving fundamentally the same sort of progressive, dialogical investigation into ‘truth’ as done by the natural sciences. This struck me as both somewhat plaintive, and fairly easily rebutted, for example by statistics showing that most humanities scholarly articles are never cited, and monographs rarely read.

Related blind-spots attend the core rationale Eve offers for the type of open access advocated in the book: that academics are paid a salary and so don’t need other income from their work. The author concedes that in reality, academic employment particularly in the US and UK is increasingly precarious and temporary, often taking the form of contingent or zero-hours contracts that may offer little to no resources for research work. He cursorily considers what might happen if authors were paid for journal articles, but quickly rejects it on the argument that it could destabilize current arrangements, giving the (I’d say implausible) example that universities might start demanding a share of the payments. Here you see the author’s rather Establishment point of view: it considers author payments only from the standpoint of how it might affect present-form academics, universities, and journals (disruptively, not surprisingly), rather than envisioning how different systems entirely might be built, or at least (as I would advocate) experimented with.

The reality for most people in the “humanities” is a struggle to find any means whatsoever to participate and to produce work, not only in academia but in related fields such as journalism/writing where the expectation of being paid for work has increasingly evaporated. There is also a much larger set of people who might consider themselves to be working in the ‘humanities’ but may not be attached to universities or public funding at all. Eve seems unaware there is a thriving realm of academics and others envisioning alternate, decentralized, cooperative systems for intellectual labor, in response to pervasive concerns over labor and general inequality, as was demonstrated by the Digital Labor 2014 conference in November at the New School.

The labor and perspectives of this extended field seem either below the notice of Open Access and the Humanities‘ Eve, or perhaps irredeemably soiled by the “market populism” he recurringly suggests, both credulously and snobbishly, it is academia’s purpose to rise above. I find the sharp distinction drawn by Eve between the disinterested academy and the distracting/corrupting market to be dubious, and more self-serving than historically grounded, considering that the “academic freedom” of present ideals barely existed until well into the 20th century, and the labor realities of present-day academia are so clearly exploitative.

The book’s confined perspective is signalled at the outset, not only by use of those reliable thought-terminating clichés “both sides of debate” and “tipping point,” but by the statement that “‘open access’ can be clearly and succinctly removal of price and permission barriers to scholarly research. The term also means..that people should be able to reuse this material beyond the provisions of fair use..”

Veteran observers of the open-access wars can easily recognize the partisan phrasing of this: presenting as clearly defined what is in fact highly contentious. Never mind that Wikipedia, after many years of debate, doesn’t define the term in the above strict sense of requiring reuse, nor does the standard reference work on the topic by Peter Suber (who contributed a preface to the book), nor does the other main coauthor of the foundational “Budapest Open Access Declaration” of 2002, Stevan Harnad, or that the term was and is widely used earlier and otherwise by publishers and academics, or in popular and common-sense usage.

Interestingly, Eve published this book itself under a license, CC-BY-SA, which significantly restricts the reuse of the work, to to contexts where the result is also freely shared (SA = “Share-Alike” in Creative Commons licensing). This reuse restriction, employed most famously by Wikipedia (arguably the most successful and by far the most widely-used of all peer-reviewed works) fails most definitions of “open access.” Considering why that is, and why he chose to use it, could have been a fruitful opening to the complex and much-debated question of what is “open licensing.”

Eve’s exposition, despite straining to be open, keeps dropping into a rhetorical pattern that is all too familiar in the long-running, fractious debates over open access: exponents of one view or licensing approach argue that open access” is a simple and straightforward idea, that those who agree with their view are “OA advocates,” and other views are myths and misunderstandings (Suber rolls out this usual charge in the preface) or obfuscation or opposition. Particular documents, amid a sea of precedents and positions past and present, are elevated into unquestionable status by a sort of fundamentalist, ahistorical reification. Ironically, but perhaps typically, a movement labeled ‘open’ is beset by evangelism for a One True Way, even if presented in certain gloved forms such as representing different viewpoints as just different views on “implementation” of or “transition” to an inevitable outcome.

But why, as with the Open Knowledge Foundation‘s project — one wishes it were ironic — of an “Open Definition,” impose this orthodoxy of the one right way and the one future? A pluralistic, one might say humanistic approach is to observe and respect the empirically obvious fact that people have varying ideas and interpretations (not just “objections” or “dissent”) in this area, just as there are various and evolving valid conceptions of say “human rights” or “free speech,” with core underlying common principles.

Contrary to the book’s epigram from Jerome McGann, “To begin with such a practical self-criticism..”, I’d say the book is rather lacking in some basic context or self-criticism on such key matters as, what are “humanities”? and to what extent are they represented by university humanities departments today? Or, from a public interest point of view, how important or sufficient a reform is it for there to be free public access to “research” publications which are directed at and rarely read outside of a small audience of peer researchers?

These are matters vigorously debated in the field of scholarly publishing and digital humanities, and necessary to put “open access humanities” in useful perspective, but you wouldn’t know that from this book, despite its earnest self-presentation as a review of “contexts and controversies.” Nor does the format of the book itself in any way avail itself of new opportunities for context and controversy, being an entirely traditional, monologic, single-authored closed text, with no provision for rebuttal, correction, later substantiation or correction of points, etc. This is in notable contrast to the many and diverse explorations of publishing form occurring in, for example, the digital humanities — and just about every area of publishing.

Admittedly, at the book’s conclusion, Eve gestures to broader possibilities by saying “it becomes incumbent…not only to enter into dialogue about suitable transition strategies but also to ensure that our thinking is not bounded by what merely exists.” However, to me the book generally fails that prescription, being quite without innovation in its form, and so detailedly focused on existing practices and incremental changes to them that I expect general readers might find it difficult to follow, or care, if not already following these issues closely.

Eve argues that “there is nothing in the concept of open access that means anything must be done differently except to lower price and permission barriers to research.” I would argue this is a highly reductive reading of the open access movement, severing it from the motivating principles which all along have animated action and linked specific proposals to broader movements for open knowledge.

Unfortunately, such reductiveness describes much of the focus of the book and, so far, the activities of Open Library of Humanities project Eve now co-directs, which is to change price and permission practices, but otherwise largely conserve existing academic structures, formats, and norms. Manifested thus, “open access” tends to lose public purpose or principle, and become redefined, or you might say recuperated, by incumbent institutions. Which for a largely conservative viewpoint such as Eve’s, you might say is quite the point, since university academia and humanities ‘research’ is what saves us from such latter-day calamities as “market populism.” At least, those of us who manage to claw their way to job security on the ever-narrowing academic career pyramid — by getting a conventional monograph published in their field, say, as is clearly a purpose of this book.

In contrast to the exalted social role to which Eve assigns academia, the book itself tends to give the impression, perhaps accurately, that humanities academics are heavily focused on, and seeking to preserve, convoluted and possibly archaic, status-signalling and accrediting procedures, such as publishing monographs (book-length studies) that are rarely read. Perhaps it has always been so, on the trailing edge of academia (“Past scholars studied to improve themselves; today’s scholars study to impress others,” Confucius said).

I can empathize with the sense of precariat status-anxiety that permeates the field, and this book, but I think humanistic inquiry and innovation, and even the field of “open access,” are more open, more diverse, and more relevant to the rest of the world than what’s presented in Eve’s book. Unfortunately, this book’s departmentalism, frequent lapses into jargon, overwhelming focus on academics’ rather than public interests, and disconnection from relevant larger discussions such as on labor precarity, patent rights, or how to publish in a public-engaging manner etc — all tend to exhibit just why the public mostly doesn’t care if it has access to humanities academics’ “research” or not, or if it’s supported at all.

I’m no fan or defender of incumbent conventional publishers who still take over copyright from authors, pay nothing to contributors, and/or limit public access to most scholarly work. I respect that the author is doing some yeoman’s work down at the scholarly-publishing coal-mine face with Open Library of the Humanities, even it mostly lacks the broader public-oriented, formal, and technological innovations I originally envisioned (for example here and here).

But I think we need a broader overview and context than presented here to make sense of open access and the humanities today; we need to get beyond just reacting to past models, or solving just the problems of present-day academics. We need to think more inclusively and imaginatively about what has and what might “open access” mean for all, in order to continue the unfinished journey to a world of both open knowledge and information justice.

Tim McCormick
Palo Alto, California


.@McDawg Yes, it is. It is also interesting that McCormick is a co-founder of the Open Library of Humanities.