Open Access: Notes on Knowledge and Recompense

Posted: August 19, 2013 at 12:13 pm, Last Updated: November 18, 2013 at 1:45 pm

by Roger Lancaster, Director of the Cultural Studies Program

I first heard the slogan “Information wants to be free” back in the heyday of the dot-com boom, about the same time that talk about “globalization” took off—a time when visions of a non-hieratic, networked society blossomed and a global electronic commune seemed close at hand. The term “open access” distilled lofty aspirations.

The reality has been something of a letdown.

Much of what we call globalization has had less to do with the dream of a more egalitarian global village than with unbridled profit seeking. Basically, it’s what happens when corporations use new communications technologies and liberal trade policies “to break up the value chain to take advantage of international wage differences.”

No doubt the Internet has sped-up communication and widened social horizons. It also provides plenty of outlets for alternative political and intellectual content. However, the new social media provide little in the way of day jobs for writers, editors, journalists, and researchers. Commentary is booming; journalism seems to be in steep decline. In some fields, open access may be undermining the terms of its own production.

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Here in the Cultural Studies program at George Mason University, we grapple with the promises and the perils of new media, which like strands of a Möbius strip are continuous with those of globalization. Our faculty members participate in various digital initiatives and our students research subjects like Web 2.0 and digital “piracy” in global contexts. So recently, we took note of and debated the implications of an academic news item, as it bears on the production and circulation of knowledge and conditions of work in our field.

Last month, the American Historical Association issued a statement on best practices for PhD dissertations in history: the organization strongly encouraged university libraries “to adopt a policy that allows the embargoing of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form for as many as six years.” The logic of the AHA statement is straightforward. Historians in tenure-track positions are generally expected to publish revised versions of their dissertations within six years, as a precondition for tenure. Open access potentially undermines the tenure prospects of newly minted PhDs, since scholarly presses may be uninterested in bringing out works that are already freely available on the Internet.

The historians’ statement reflects strong academic reflexes: Discretion is the better part of valor. Present your arguments and findings under controlled, vetted conditions.

The sped-up world of blogging and online commentary reflects other instincts; responses were fast—and sometimes furious. “Stupid and stunting,” wrote one commentator on the Association’s website. “The AHA should be recommending that departments change how they grant tenure—citation should matter not publication.”

Others nit-picked points while missing the historians’ argument, or noted that the publishing world was changing rapidly, or accused the historians of operating on the basis of rumors, anecdotes, and “ghost stories.” Even the librarians got into it, calling the AHA statement a “policy based on fear.” (I have no doubt that librarians understand the nature of their own work, but one would have thought that they might be cautious about venturing firm opinions about the interests of other professions.)

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The issue sparked a lively debate among faculty on the Cultural Studies listserv. Mark Sample—who airs cutting-edge research in the digital humanities on an excellent blog—wrote:

One problem with the AHA statement is that it seeks to foreclose discussion about open access, rather than to encourage it. As many observers have noted, it’s not a cut and dry issue. Another problem is that the AHA makes claims that are probably wrong.

The Ramirez et al. study has been much cited in commentary on the historians’ statement. But the numbers therein hardly give a green light to electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs). Only about 10% of University Press respondents said that ETDs were “always welcome.” Almost 15% either would not consider them (7.3%), or would consider them only if circulation were limited to campus (7.3%). More than a quarter (26.8%) would consider a manuscript only if its contents and conclusions were “substantially different” from the ETD version. Another 43.9% was willing to consider such manuscripts “on a case-by-case basis” (a response which could mean any number of things).

So I posted my response:

I don’t think anyone objects to enhancing the already-existing ecosystem for dissemination of scholarly findings. Lots of published monographs include a limited percentage of pre-published material, conference presentations, etc. The problem that many of us see is that if you wrote a near-finished monograph for your dissertation (this still would be the ideal model for someone aspiring to an academic career), and if your university effectively “pre-published” it, with wide-open access to all readers, then you might well encounter difficulties in finding an enthusiastic publisher.

In other words, “pre-published” dissertations potentially penalize those graduate students who might aspire to tenure-track positions.

But what about scholarly findings that might be of great social value?

Surely, there are findings in medicine and environmental science that merit immediate and rapid dissemination. These studies almost always take the form of articles, not monographs. And most scientific journals have procedures for rapid, online dissemination—once peer review has established the bar of validity. But I don’t think most studies in the humanities and interpretive social sciences meet these urgent criteria.

Our studies do have social impact, but they are engaged, debated, and implemented on a different time frame than are studies in the biological or medical sciences. In this context, Dina Copelman, a historian and cultural studies scholar, noted:

Another point to consider is that new technology has made it easier to reach anyone who has written anything. So recent PhDs can be found and asked for access to their work, or some portion thereof. This happened before (I saw chapters of other people’s work and vice versa) but it’s much easier to pursue this option than it was back in the day….

Mark Sample responded:

This is a great point about discovering new work. I can’t speak for all disciplines, of course, but at least in my fields, graduate students and junior professors who actively share their work publicly (or portions thereof), say, by blogging about it, are at a distinct advantage over those who don’t. This is true regardless of whether the dissertation itself is open-access or not. …

In any case, I’d suggest that graduate students become savvy (as opposed to fearful) about the various ways to make work public.

And then I wrote:

In my fields, scholars who share limited portions of their dissertation through peer-reviewed scholarly outlets (conferences, print journals, online journals) are obviously at a great advantage. These dissemination routes are well established. Blogging doesn’t get you much, if any, traction, as far as I can tell. And if one wrote, as I did, a finished dissertation that was about 90% of the published monograph, then open access ETD would pose a serious problem.

As I see it, the system that’s been imposed upon us by open-library enthusiasts, without due consultation with professional organizations (experts in their fields), gives students and their advisors a perverse incentive: hold back on the dissertation; leave out a chapter or two; do a slap-dash job…. Make the thing a mere sketch of the finished product. This is not good. A six-year moratorium, for those who wish to have it, seems very sensible. (And that’s one year longer than the max we’re afforded here at Mason.)

* * * *

Within a few days, the historians issued a thoughtful response to the controversies. Among their points: The AHA is not recommending that all students embargo their dissertations, nor does it opposing making dissertations openly accessible. Rather, the organization is recommending a “flexible policy that will allow newly-minted PhDs to decide for themselves” the terms and conditions under which they make their work public. “To insist that scholars, and especially junior scholars, distribute their work online before they believe it is finished does little to advance innovation and open discussion. And such an insistence might foreclose the possibility of a good dissertation someday becoming an excellent book.”

Given their options—and much to the chagrin of unfettered access enthusiasts—most new PhDs are choosing the maximum embargo period. It seems to me unlikely that these digital natives suffer from false consciousness or misunderstand what they are doing. Rather, they are being prudent about their work and what open access to it might mean for the future distribution of their work, no less than for their future development and working conditions.

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Now monographs have a long history in the interpretive social sciences and humanities: the extended, book-length study of a single subject allows for the development of complex arguments, buttressed by a substantial body of evidence. Monographs have served me well, as both a reader and an author. But it is not clear to me that they represent the one indispensable form that knowledge in our fields might take. It might be that in the future, scholarly monographs become obsolete—or take shape only as online publications, PDFs, or even Apps. Three or four well-wrought, thoroughly researched articles might do just as well as a 200-page book in establishing one’s scholarly bona fides.

Debates about such things are happening now on promotion and tenure review committees, among deans, and at chairs and directors meetings. Whatever shapes knowledge might begin to take in the near future, and whatever conventions are devised around plural forms, I suggest that two elements are essential to the conversation:

  • PEER REVIEW: Some of the commentators on the AHA statement wished to see citations of the work count, rather than having a peer-reviewed monograph serve as the standard for tenure. But this creates new problems. How would we know whether the citations of a work reflected serious consideration? How would we know whether the work informed theoretical debates and forward-looking research? For all its problems (backbiting, backscratching), peer review keeps the gate: it establishes a bar of quality, vetted by genuine experts in the field. Google hits do nothing of the sort. We need to maintain standards for peer review, and update them to new forms as necessary.
  • CONDITIONS OF LABOR: Enthusiasts often write as though open access were an undisputed good, with no need for further reflection on the social conditions in which it is embedded. Alternatively, they seem to think that since digital technologies exist then they ought to be applied, end of argument. In the case at hand (ETDs), this amounts to requiring new PhDs to give away their labor for free—under conditions not of the authors’ choosing, and before it’s been adequately vetted and fine-tuned. The best argument against wide-open access of all EDTs is that it undermines the already precarious position of knowledge workers in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. We need not be afraid of new technologies, but we do need to apply them in ways that give knowledge-producers more control over their work.

Speed and scope are what the new information technologies provide. We fetishize these traits if we treat them outside the social relations in which they are embedded.

Theoretically, enhanced access accelerates the research that boosts productivity and adds to social wealth. But as the saying goes, there’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip. In fact, the gains brought about by new communications technologies have not been shared widely; the lion’s share of the new wealth has been captured by the top 1%. Under the rules of sped-up capitalism, the rest of us have taken pay cuts, seen our work outsourced, or labor under increasingly insecure conditions. And you don’t have to tour an Amazon warehouse or visit a Wal-Mart to see the degradation of working conditions in action….

* * * *

The AHA statement is of course only one news item among many. Scarcely a day goes by that the Chronicle doesn’t report on some new media initiative in higher education. So far, the results of these innovations have been mixed.

  • The University of California Faculty Senate adopted a policy requiring public university professors to post their research online. Advocates of the policy then complained that the requirement allows for waivers: some scholarly journals may not allow free online distribution of their publications (under standard copyright laws).

  • San Jose State University (so far from God, so close to Silicon Valley) temporarily suspended its collaboration with an online provider—after students scored dismal results and in the face of a blistering faculty pushback against MOOCs [massive online open courses].

  • Faculty at Duke and Amherst also have voted down MOOCs, and the provost at American University has called a moratorium.

 These moves and countermoves take place against a depressing social backdrop. Public universities are struggling: state support for higher education, in decline since 1980, went into deep austerity mode after the 2008 recession. Consequently, tuition costs have soared, rising at more than four times the rate of inflation. Working conditions in the academe have deteriorated dramatically for new PhDs: tenure-line positions now make up only 24% of the academic workforce nationwide. Some 85% of instruction in higher education is performed by a disposable labor force of term faculty members, adjunct professors, and teaching assistants. Most adjuncts work part time and commute between multiple institutions; adjunct salaries average $2,700 per course and come with no medical, unemployment, or retirement benefits. Meanwhile, administrative overhead  absorbs an ever larger share of university budgets, driving up tuition while crowding out both research and teaching. These trends are as unsustainable as they are undesirable.

“Technological fixes” pose as solutions in search of problems. New technological initiatives in education do hold out the prospect of doing things more cheaply, more quickly, or on a wider scale. But they don’t address the underlying problems. That is to say, they have become panaceas at a time when states are progressively abandoning their role in supporting education and market conditions are driving down the price of academic labor below sustainable levels. In many ways, they seem to reinforce the “precarity” of knowledge workers.

We need to change the terms of the present debates and engagements. The AHA statement is surely a first step in the right direction: it supports access (an important component of research) and it allows for the flow of ideas in the electronic public sphere (a worthy goal of liberal education) without further undermining the increasingly precarious position of knowledge labor. We need to extend and develop this logic.

Information wants to be free, yes. But knowledge requires some recompense, or at least a day job. Otherwise, the conditions under which it might be produced dry up.

* * * *

 With this modest first post, the cultural studies program launches its official blog. The conclusion serves as an open-ended invitation to contributors: How might we engage scholarship with the new times? What is to be learned about modern working and living conditions, both inside and outside the academe? What is the future of knowledge, as distinct from information, under changing technological conditions? Can technology be inserted into the global circuit in ways that foster greater social equality? How might scholarship that engages such questions be judged, and how might its validity and impact be weighed? What, to borrow a phrase, is to be done?

Debates are welcome.

Write to Gavin Mueller at


Gravatar Image for Jack Censer Jack Censer writes:

This is a really interesting interchange, and it’s easy to find merit on both sides of the argument. However, I think that the conversation assumes that university presses are going to survive in significant number. This is going to be very difficult. I think what we need to be considering then is not how individuals navigate the current situation but how the profession will deal with a significant decline and perhaps demise of the vetting provided by university presses. Essentially individuals will have the capacity to publish. How will the profession sort the relative contributions of these self-publications?

Gravatar Image for Roger Lancaster Roger Lancaster writes:

Thanks, Jack. I don’t know what the future of the monograph, or of scholarly publishing, might be. (Joe Karaganis discussed some of the challenges to scholarly publishing at his colloquium presentation last fall.)

It seems to me that a dozen or so university presses are in good position to survive the transition to digital publishing — if they can figure out how to lower their prices and if they can come up with a model comparable to say iTunes ($9.99 per book, 99c per chapter/article). But if the bottom falls out, there are still ways of preserving peer review. Here’s a notion: Scholarly consortiums could give an imprimatur to self-publications: “This monograph (or article) was peer-reviewed by the Virginia Universities’ Scholarly Vetting Committee, which solicited three anonymous reviews by experts in the field and certifies that the author has responded appropriately to their suggestions.”

It’s unlovely and ungainly. The results probably won’t be well-edited or polished. And I have no idea how to pay for the coordination of the imagined committee’s activities — except through scholarly communities’ sense of good will and professionalism. I suppose it could become a form of university service. This comes back to a key problem with the concept of open access, at least is it sometimes gets deployed under prevailing conditions: It seems to be about getting people to work for free, or on the vague promise of a future pay-off. (Jodi Dean discussed these dynamics last spring in her colloquium presentation on communicative capitalism and social media.)

Robert W Gehl: Blog writes:

[…] hosted by my alma mater, the Cultural Studies program at George Mason. The blog kicked off with a piece by Roger Lancaster about the debate over the AHA’s dissertation embargo policy. I was asked to pitch into the discussion, because I had to decide whether to post my own […]

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