One Size Fits All?: Social Science and Open Access

The third post in our small series on open access, publication shifts on the horizon and how it all matters to IR and social science, this time by David Mainwaring  (Pablo’s post was firstthen Colin Wight’s, and following David came Nivi Manchanda, Nathan Coombs and our own Meera). David is a Senior Editor at SAGE with responsibility for journals in politics and international studies. So he oversees journals like Millennium and European Journal of International Relations amongst others (which is how we know him), and can thus offer a close reading of movements within the academic publishing industry. Images by Pablo.


Open Access is the talk of the academic town. The removal of barriers to the online access and re-use of scholarly research is being driven by a cluster of technological, financial, moral and commercial imperatives, and the message from governments and funding agencies is clear: the future is open. What is much less clear is exactly what sort of open future social scientists would benefit from, let alone what steps need to be taken in order to transition away from the existing arrangements of scholarly communication and validation. Here the conversation is in its relative infancy, characterised at this point by a great deal of curiosity, anticipation, confusion, and the shock of the new. What it needs to move towards is a recognition and coordinated response to the fact that although social science may share the same open access goal as the STEM disciplines, the motivations for travelling down that path are not identical, and the context – especially in terms of research funding – is significantly different. The roundtable discussion at the Millennium conference at the LSE on 20th October was an attempt to explore these issues specifically from an IR perspective; further such events (such as those being run by the AcSS and LSE this autumn) are to be warmly welcomed as a means of building broader understanding of the issues among social scientists and facilitating strategic thinking.

Social Science and the Open Access Debate

The long-running debate about how scholarly research communication should be funded and transmitted has been, and remains, a discussion conducted primarily by those working in STEM. Most of the blogosphere’s best-known voices on open access, the likes of Mike Taylor, Michael Eisen, Peter Murray-Rust, Björn Brembs, Cameron Neylon, Kent Anderson, Stephen Curry and Tim Gowers, have backgrounds in STEM research or publishing. (Notable exceptions are the philosopher Peter Suber, who heads the Harvard Open Access Project, and self-archiving advocate Stevan Harnad, a cognitive scientist). To dip into the often heated debates on open access can leave you with the strong impression that, despite the occasional nod to social science and the humanities, the frame of reference is proper, rigorous, natural scientific research, the kind carried out in a laboratory that leads to medical advances and the development of new technologies.

By and large social scientists – and arts and humanities scholars, to whom many of the points raised in this piece apply equally – have had a back seat in this conversation, and the development of open access awareness and capabilities has been slow. Many leading social science journals continue to be distributed in print form due to subscriber demand well over a decade after the launch of their online editions. The American Political Science Association’s 2009 book Publishing Political Science devotes just two out of over 250 pages to open access, and fewer than 10% of the nearly 13,000 signatories of the ‘Cost of Knowledge‘ boycott of Elsevier were social scientists, despite the company’s position as one of the world’s leading publishers of social science journals. That’s not to say that there is nothing going on: the Social Science Research Network has acted as a site for open paper sharing since 1994; there are active ‘open’ movements in disciplines including IR and economics; and the Directory of Open Access Journals lists more than 1,600 social science titles. To date, however, very few of the latter have been able to break into the higher echelons of profile or reputation within their fields.

Social Science and Open Access Mandates

Over the last eighteen months a series of events, including George Monbiot’s polemic in The Guardian and the defeat in the US of the Research Works Act, stirred for the first time a significant consciousness among social scientists about open access. This awareness increased dramatically – in the UK at least – with the publication in June 2012 of the final report of a committee set up by the Government to examine access to published research findings. Continue reading

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Academia in the Age of Digital Reproduction; Or, the Journal System, Redeemed

It took at least 200 years for the novel to emerge as an expressive form after the invention of the printing press.

So said Bob Stein in an interesting roundtable on the digital university from back in April 2010. His point being that the radical transformations in human knowledge and communication practices wrought by the internet remain in their infancy. Our learning curves may be steeper but we haven’t yet begun to grapple with what the collapsing of old forms of social space means. We tweak and vary the models that we’re used to, but are generally cloistered in the paradigms of print.

When it comes to the university, and to the journal system, this has a particular resonance. Academics find themselves in a strange and contradictory position. They are highly valued for their research outputs in the sense that this is what determines their reputation and secures their jobs (although this is increasingly the value of the faux-market and the half-assed quality metric). This academic authority, won by publications, is also, to some extent, what makes students want to work with them and what makes them attractive as experts for government, media and civil society. They are also highly valued in a straight-forward economic sense by private publishing houses, who generate profit from the ability to sell on the product of their labour (books and articles) at virtually no direct remuneration, either for the authors or for those peer reviewers who guarantee a work’s intellectual quality. And yet all (OK, most) also agree that virtually nobody reads this work and that peer review is hugely time-consuming, despite being very complicated in its effects. When conjoined with the mass noise of information overload and the extension and commercialisation of higher education over the last decades, our practices of research, dissemination and quality control begin to take on a ludicrous hue. As Clifford Lynch nicely puts it, “peer review is becoming a bottomless pit for human effort”.

This is an attempt to explore in more detail what the potentialities and limits are for academic journals in the age of digital reproduction. Once we bracket out the sedimented control of current publishers, and think of the liveliness of intellectual exchange encountered through blogs and other social media, a certain hope bubbles up. Why not see opportunity here? Perhaps the time is indeed ripe for the rebirth of the university press, as Martin Weller argues:

the almost wholesale shift to online journals has now seen a realignment with university skills and functions. We do run websites and universities are the places people look to for information (or better, they do it through syndicated repositories). The experience the higher education sector has built up through OER, software development and website maintenance, now aligns nicely with the skills we’ve always had of editing, reviewing, writing and managing journals. Universities are the ideal place now for journals to reside.

Continue reading