'Filosofía pirata, edición libre', discussion with Perro Tuerto y Pucho (El Rancho Electrónico) y Gabriela Méndez Cota (Universidad Iberoamericana) for the Mexico city radio station Ibero, September 12, 2019.

Open Humanities Press – The Inhumanist Manifesto

Pirate Philosophy, This Is Not A Pipe Podcast

HyperCritical Theory

Übercapitalism and What Can Be Done About It

Recent publications

Masked Media (limited edition paper-only publication for The House That Heals The Soul exhibition, Tetley, Leeds, 2018) 

 The Inhumanist Manifesto: Extended Play (Techne Lab, 2017)

Open Access

Most of Gary's work is freely available to read and download either here in Media Gifts or in Coventry University's online repositories PURE here, and CURVE here 

Radical Open Access

« On the limits of openness I: the digital humanities and the computational turn to data-driven scholarship | Main | Affirmative media theory and the post-9/11 world (part 2) »

‘Follow the money’: the political economy of open access in the humanities

(The following is a slightly revised version of a lecture given at the 1st Conference on Open Access Scholarly Publishing held by The Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association and the DOAJ/Lund University Libraries, Lund, Sweden, September 14-16, 2009.)

I’ve been asked to talk about the challenges and opportunities of publishing open access journals in the humanities; and to talk about the experiences of Open Humanities Press (OHP) in particular. I’m going to start by focusing on OHP, just to set the stage for some broader comments on publishing OA in the humanities.

Open Humanities Press was founded by Sigi Jöttkandt, David Ottina, Paul Ashton and myself as the first open-access publishing ‘house’ explicitly dedicated to critical and cultural theory. It was launched in May 2008 by an international group of scholars including Alain Badiou, Jonathan Culler, Steven Greenblatt and Gayatri Spivak, in response to the perceived crisis whereby: academic publishers in the area have cut back on the number of research-led titles they bring out, in order to focus on readers, introductions, text books and reference works; and libraries are finding it difficult to afford the research that is published, both books and journals. In this respect OHP’s mission is a deceptively simple one: it’s to make leading works of critical and cultural thought freely and permanently available, on a worldwide basis, by publishing them open access.

In the first instance OHP consisted of a collective of already existing, high-quality, independent or ‘scholar published’ open access journals in philosophy, cultural studies, literary criticism and political theory. These include Culture Machine, Fibreculture, Vectors and Film-Philosophy. ‘Our feeling was that there were quite a few excellent open access peer-reviewed journals, but they weren't getting recognition because they were a bit isolated. By collecting the journals under a single banner we hoped to show both the humanities and the open access communities that there’s actually quite a bit of significant OA activity in the humanities’ (OHP Steering Group). 

OHP’s initial intention was to establish a reputation with its journals, before proceeding to tackle the more difficult problem of publishing book-length material open access:  difficult because of issues of economics and prestige I’ll come on to in a moment. However, things have developed much faster than we anticipated and, almost by popular demand, we have now an OHP monograph project,  run in collaboration with the University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly Publishing Office, UC-Irvine, UCLA Library, and the Public Knowledge Project, headed by John Willinsky at Stanford University.  The idea of the monograph project is to move forward both open access publishing in the humanities, and the open access publishing of humanities monographs. And we’ve launching our monograph project with five high-profile book series: New Metaphysics, eds Bruno Latour and Graham Harman; Unidentified Theoretical Objects, ed. Wlad Godzich; Critical Climate Change, eds Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook; Global Conversations, ed. Ngugi wa Thiong'o; Liquid Books, eds Gary Hall and Clare Birchall.

So that’s Open Humanities Press.

Now, the first thing I want to say concerning the funding of open access in the humanities, is we need to recognize that the humanities have developed a very different set of professional cultures to the Science, Technology and Medicine (STMs), who have tended to dominate the discussion around OA so far. What works in the STMs doesn’t necessary work in the humanities:

a.    open-access in the humanities continues to be dogged by the perception that online publication is somehow less ‘credible’ than print, and that it lacks rigorous standards of quality control. This leads to open access journals being regarded as less trustworthy and desirable places to publish; and as too professionally risky, for early career scholars especially;

b.    open access in the humanities is also caught uncomfortably between two stools. On the one hand, all the talk of publishing services, platforms and tools is too just geeky for many humanities scholars. On the other, compared to the likes of tactical media, mash-ups, internet piracy and hacktervism, open access is too tame, too institutional, managerial and bureaucratic for many of those in the humanities concerned with new media; 

In the humanities, the message about the importance of open access also often comes from university managers and administrators; and, because there’s something of a clash of ideology between managers and academics, OA is not perceived as being radical or cool in the way peer-to-peer file sharing or even open source is;

c. one of the main models of funding open-access in the sciences, author-side fees, is also not easily transferable to the humanities.  Authors in the humanities are simply not used to paying to have their work published – even if it is a matter of just covering the cost of its production and processing and calling them ‘publication’ or ‘processing’ fees - and associate doing so with vanity publishing. At present they’re also less likely to obtain the grants from either funding bodies or their institutions necessary to cover the cost of publishing author-pays. That the humanities receive only a fraction of the amount of government funding the STMs do only compounds the problem. As does the fact that higher rejection rates in the humanities, as compared to the STMs, means any grants would have to be significantly larger. And that’s just to publish journal articles. Publishing books author-pays would be more expensive still.

So OHP, like most of the journals it encompasses, operates at the moment on a zero revenue, zero expenses basis. Any funding comes indirectly: via our institutions paying our salaries as academics. We’re simply using some of the time we’re given to conduct research to create open access publishing opportunities for others.  Of course some academics may be given reduced teaching or administrative loads by the institutions for setting things like this up, others may have PhD students or graduate assistants they can get to do some of the work. (Another indirect source of funding worth mentioning occurs via our institutions sometimes paying for the hosting of content - my thanks to Marta Brunner for this point.) But I suspect most are just donating their time and energy to open access as a service to the profession because they believe in it. What’s more, as Sigi Jottkandt has pointed out, ‘this largely volunteer effort is the norm rather than the exception’ when it comes to sustainable no-fee journal publishing in many humanities fields, in both OA and non-OA sectors’.   

Operating on a zero revenue, zero expenses basis like this can be a significant source of strength to many independent humanities journals and their publishers.  It makes it easier for them to publish highly specialised, experimental, inter- or trans-disciplinary research; research that does not always fit into the kind of neat disciplinary categories and divisions with which for-profit publishers like to order their lists, but which may nevertheless help to push scholarship in exciting new directions. It also makes it easier for such journals to publish research which, in challenging established disciplines, styles and frameworks, may fall between the different stools represented by the various academic departments, learned societies, scholarly associations, and research councils, but which may nevertheless help to push a field in exciting new directions and generate important new areas of inquiry.

Yet it can also be a potential weakness. It opens up many such scholar published journals to being positioned as functioning on an amateur, shoe-string basis, almost as cottage-industries.  Compared to a journal produced by, say, a large, for-profit, corporately owned press, they’re far more vulnerable to being accused of being unable to sustain high academic standards in terms of their production, editing, copy-editing, proofing and peer reviewing processes. They’re also more vulnerable to being accused of being of being unable to maintain consistently high academic standards in terms of the quality of their long term sustainability, the marketing and distribution services they can offer, their ability to be picked up by prestige-endowing indexes, and all the other add-on features they can provide such as journal archiving, contents alerts, word searches, discussion forums, etc. As I noted in Digitize This Book!, while this also applies to ‘independent’ print journals, it  is especially the case with regard to online-only journals, the vast majority of which are ‘still considered too new and unfamiliar to have gained the level of institutional recognition required for them to be thought of as being “established” and “of known quality”.’  

It’s precisely this perception of open access in the humanities that OHP is designed to counter by directly addressing these issues to ensure OA publishing, in certain areas of the humanities at least, meets ‘the levels of professionalism our peers expect from publications they associate with academic “quality”’.

I want to emphasize two points here:

1.    first, open access, as it’s been championed in the STMs, can’t simply be rolled out unproblematically into the humanities; and any attempt to do so is likely to face a number of significant challenges, as we’ve seen;  

2.    second, any attempt to develop OA in the humanities also needs to recognise that the humanities, in turn, are going to have an impact on open access.  So, contrary to the impression that’s given by most writing on this subject, it’s not just the humanities that are going to be fundamentally transformed by this process, via the development of OA journals and publishers such as OHP; open access is likely to undergo a significant transformation, too.

For instance, to my mind the open access movement quite simply has to place more emphasis on books than it has done to date. If it doesn’t, then its impact on the humanities will prove negligible, since it’s books published with esteemed international presses, rather than articles in high-ranking journals, that are still the ‘gold standard’ in many humanities fields.

But the humanities also have a long tradition of exposing and subverting many of the assumptions on which OA, as it’s been championed in the STMs, is based, including those associated with notions of writing, the text, the work and the author – to the point where the humanities and the sciences may actually be incommensurable in many respects.

Now radical differences of this sort often get played down at OA events such as this. Sure, we can have what Richard Poynder refers to as a ‘bad tempered wrangles’ over relatively ‘minor issues’ such as ‘metadata, copyright, and distributed versus central archives’.  But in the main the emphasis in the OA movement is on presenting a more or less unified front in the face of criticisms from governments, publishers, lobbyists and so forth, lest we provide them with further ammunition to attack open access, dilute our message, or otherwise distract ourselves from what we’re all supposed to agree is the main task at hand: the achievement of universal, free, online access to research. (Poynder, for example, speaks in terms of ‘working together for the common good’.)   However, I’d maintain it’s important not to see the presence of such differences and conflicts as a purely negative thing - as it might be perceived, say, by those working in the liberal tradition, with its “rationalist belief in the availability of a universal consensus based on reason”.  

In fact, if one of the impulses behind open access is to make knowledge and research – and with it society – more open and democratic, then I’d argue the existence of such dissensus will actually help in achieving this ambition. As the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe has shown, far from placing democracy at risk, a certain degree of difference and confrontation constitutes the very possibility of its existence. For Mouffe, ‘a well functioning democracy calls for a clash of legitimate democratic political positions’.

Speaking of metadata, this is one of the reasons why, in contrast to many in the OA community, I’ve maintained ‘that standards for preparing metadata should be generated in a plurality of different ways and places. Rather than adhering to the fantasy of having one single, fully integrated global archive... I’d argue instead for a multiplicity of different and at times conflicting and even incommensurable open-access archives, journals, databases and other publishing experiments.’  So I don’t see the fact that, because there are so many multi-format information materials, there’s no one efficient means of searching across them all that has yet been developed, as a problem or failing. For me, the fantasy of having one place to search for scholarship and research such as a fully integrated, indexed and linked Global Archive must remain precisely that: ‘a (totalizing and totalitarian) fantasy.’

None of which is to imply there can no longer be an OA community. It’s just to acknowledge that difference and conflict are what makes a community, and indeed the common, possible. We thus need to think the nature of community, of being together and holding something in common, a little differently. As the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy asks:

What is a community? It is neither a macro-organism nor a big family... The common, having-in-common or being in common, excludes from itself interior unity, subsistence, and presence in and by itself. Being with, being together, and even being ‘united’ are precisely not a matter of being ‘one’. Of communities that are at one with themselves, there are only dead ones.

(Jean-Luc Nancy, A Finite Thinking, edited by Simon Sparks (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2003) p.285)

To provide you with another example of how the humanities may come to shape OA: I’d argue that the willingness of the humanities to critically interrogate many of the assumptions on which OA is currently based can help the OA community to avoid that fate anticipated by the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. In his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard contended that the widespread use of computers and databases, in exteriorizing knowledge in relation to the ‘knower’, was producing a major alteration in the status and nature of knowledge, away from questions of what is socially just and scientifically true and toward a concern simply with ‘optimizing the system’s performance’.  Thirty years later and a lot of OA conferences and debates are indeed taken up with showing how the externalisation of knowledge in online journals and archives can be used to make the existing system of academic research and publication much more efficient. So we have John Houghton’s study showing that OA is actually the most cost effective mechanism for scholarly publishing;  while others have discussed at length the increases open access and related software make possible - in the amount of material that can be published and stored, the number of people who can have access to it, the impact of that material, the range of distribution, the speed and ease of reporting and information retrieval, leading to what Peter Suber earlier called ‘better metrics’, reductions in staffing, production and reproduction costs etc.

(Incidentally, I wonder if this doesn’t partly explain why quite a few people associated with OA have a somewhat grumpy, ‘dogmatic’ public persona:

I mean, if they moralistically believe they already know the optimum way to achieve universal open access, and thus maximize the performance of the existing system of research – be it via interoperable institutional repositories or whatever - then presumably they can often only act negatively, to correct the delays, errors and inefficiencies they perceive in the ideas of others.)

Now the humanities could help prevent the OA movement from becoming even more moralistically and dogmatically obsessed with maximising performance, solving technical problems and eliminating inefficiencies than it already is, I think. (The attempt to avoid slipping into such technical discourse is just one reason why, elsewhere, I haven’t gone into the practical, ‘nuts and bolts’ of publishing open access.) At the same time, the humanities could help the OA community to grow, precisely by forcing scholars to confront issues of politics and social justice, in the manner of much humanities scholarship –  as doing so would be a really powerful way of encouraging more researchers in the humanities to actually publish open access. (Certainly, few of the arguments we currently use to persuade the humanities to publish OA have been particularly effective. So perhaps it’s time to try a different approach.)

For example, many humanities disciplines like to think of themselves as being politically engaged. Yet the humanities have something of a blind spot of their own when it comes to the politics of the academic publishing industries which actually make them possible – especially as those industries have become increasingly consolidated and profit-intensive in recent the years.

In an article on the political economy of academic journal publishing in general, and that of cultural studies in particular, Ted Striphas provides the example of Taylor and Francis/Informa. Their list features over 60 cultural studies journals, among them some of the most highly respected in the field including Cultural Studies, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Feminist Media Studies, and Parallax. Yet many cultural studies scholars would be shocked to learn that one of Informa’s subsidiaries was recently working for the US Army to assess how well it ‘had achieved its goal of “battlefield digitization”.’ The US Air Force, meanwhile, used the same subsidiary to help improve its management systems for U-2 spy planes.    

Which is not to say there’s something inherently immoral about the armed forces – just that scholars may want to be critically informed about their publishers’ financial links and connections; especially if those scholars are publishing research, say, criticising military intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I realise it’s unfair to single cultural studies out like this; it’s not the only humanities field to have such a blind spot. What makes cultural studies’ naivety so noteworthy is the way it prides itself on being a ‘serious’ political project, as Stuart Hall puts it. According to Hall, the political cultural studies intellectual has a responsibility to ‘know more’ than those on the other side.   Indeed, it’s precisely this political aspect that singles cultural studies out from other fields of thought, for Hall, and helps to establishes the difference of its identity as cultural studies: the fact that ‘there is something at stake in cultural studies in a way that I think, and hope, is not exactly true of many other very important intellectual and critical practices’, he writes.  But if so, then as far as Striphas is concerned, this injunction has to include knowing more about ‘the formidable network of social, economic, legal, and infrastructural linkages to the publishing industry that sustains’ cultural studies and its politically engaged intellectuals, and shapes the conditions in which their knowledge and research ‘can – and increasingly cannot – circulate’. To this end Striphas stresses the importance of always scratching below the surface to discover ‘just who the corporate parents and siblings’ of those academic journals we publish in are, and what other activities they are involved with.  

As someone who identifies with cultural studies to a large extent,  it’s long seemed significant to me that cultural studies intellectuals, who otherwise appear so keen to wear their political commitment on their sleeves, are noticeably less keen when it comes to interrogating their own politico-institutional practices. The relative lack of interest the majority of the field have shown to date in making their own research available OA is a case in point. And, certainly, I think highlighting the politics of their publishing practices would be an effective way of persuading many in the humanities – and cultural studies in particular - to engage with open access.

1.    For one thing, it’d mean OA wouldn’t appear so tame, so institutional, managerial and bureaucratic;

2.    For another, scratching below the surface like this would offer an additional means of tackling the problem whereby OA scholar published journals, operating independently of the profit-intensive conglomerates, are often regarded in the humanities as less desirable places to publish.

We’ve already seen how OHP is specifically designed to address this issue. But could we not level the playing field even further, simply by asking where the money is coming from to fund the more ‘professionally run’ journals, not to mention what other activities their parent companies are connected to? Would doing so not have the effect of turning the very financial independence of many small-scale journal publishers, from a potential weakness, into a source of strength and credibility? Not least because it means they’re far less likely to be owned by a publisher whose parent company is involved in activities that many academics, if they knew about them, would not feel comfortable about continuing to donate their time and labour to support.

This is why I want to suggest that we, as a community of academics, authors, editors, publishers, librarians and so on, establish an initiative whereby all academic editors and publishers are asked to make freely available, on an annual basis, details of both their sources of income and funding, and all the sources of financial income and support pertaining to the journals they run. Furthermore, as part of this initiative, I suggest we set up an equivalent directory to the Directory of Open Access Journals (here at Lund)  - only in this case documenting all these various sources of income and support, together with information as to who the owners of the different academic journals in our respective fields are and, just as importantly, the other divisions, subsidiaries and activities of their various organisations, companies, and associations.  

I should stress I’m not suggesting that all corporately owned journals are the politically co-opted tools of global capitalism, while the smaller independent journals or those published on a non-profit basis by learned societies, scholarly associations and university presses somehow escape all this. Despite the possible implications of the word ‘full’, it’s not my intention to imply that anyone can be sufficiently outside of the forces of global capital to be politically and ethically ‘pure’ in this respect. None of this has emerged out of a sense of moralism on my part. Some of my best friends are editors of journals published and owned by corporate presses.

(Again, Marta Brunner makes an interesting and important point here, to the effect that: ‘many of us who work in public universities are already implicated by the ties of our institutions (e.g. to the military, to defence labs) that pay our salaries and therefore would also be paying for our open access publishing, to a certain extent, given... the volunteer economy of humanities-based OA’ - Marta Brunner, personal correspondence.)

Nevertheless, such an ‘Open Scholarship Full Disclosure Initiative’ would be of great assistance, I believe, in furnishing researchers, in all areas, with the knowledge to make responsible political decisions as to whom they wish to publish and work with. For instance, as a result of the information obtained some scholars may take a decision not to subscribe to, publish in, edit, peer review manuscripts or otherwise work for journals owned by multinationals involved in supporting the military; or that have particularly high library subscription charges;  or that refuse to endorse, as a bare minimum, the self-archiving by authors of the refereed and accepted final drafts of their articles in institutional open access repositories. (Or they may of course decide that none of these issues are of a particular concern to them and continue with their editorial and peer-review activities as before.)

But I also believe it’ll go a long way toward encouraging those in the humanities to become more aware of their interdependence as scholars on the publishing industry, and the need to become more politically involved in it; and consequently to see online journals – and OA journals especially - as attractive and desirable places to publish their work.  

At the very least, I’m convinced such an initiative would encourage both the editors and publishers of journals, and the owners of journal publishers and their subsidiaries, to behave more responsibly in political terms. What’s more, it’d be capable of having an impact even if the editors and publishers of those journals produced by the large, international, for-profit presses refused to play ball and provide full disclosure themselves:

a.    because such an initiative would raise awareness of the politics of journal funding and ownership more generally;

b.    because those editors and publishers who don't provide full disclosure would risk appearing as if they have something to hide - especially since this initiative taps into current public discourse around freedom of information and open data;

c.    but it would also hopefully have the effect of encouraging more scholars to research where the funding of such journals comes from, who their parent companies, institutions and organisations are, and what other activities they are involved in and connected to; and to make the results widely known and easily accessible.

It’s also worth emphasising that such an initiative would not require a huge amount of time and effort. After all, ‘Reed Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, and Taylor & Francis/Informa... publish about 6,000 journals between them’.   So to cover 6,000 journals, or somewhere between a quarter and a fifth of all peer-reviewed journals, we only need to research and disclose details of four corporations!  

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>