Open Access: Is It Really “Open”?

Our fourth post this week on open access, IR and the ambiguities of the future, from Nivi Manchanda (following Pablo, Colin Wight and David Mainwaring and followed by Nathan Coombs and Meera). Nivi is a PhD student in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and also currently Editor-in-Chief of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, one of the very few student-run IR journals that consistently hosts material worth reading (apart from Millennium of course!). When not running the Cambridge Review, she studies Anglo-American representations of Afghanistan.

UPDATE (27 January): Nivi has now joined the Disordered collective on a more permanent basis and you can read more from her by clicking on her face in the sidebar.

The open access movement for academic journals is excellent in theory; not merely because of the need for an alternative to the clearly out-dated journal system that we currently have in place, but also to reclaim the internet as it were. In an ideal world, the internet would be the space for the unbridled circulation and dissemination for knowledge that the World Wide Web’s original architect had imagined it to be. In practice, however, ‘open’ access the way it is conceived in the Finch report (which is the the catalyst of, if not reason for, this conversation) is hardly ‘freely available’ and ‘non-proprietary’ research in the way the slightly misleading ‘open’ here might suggest.

For a student-run journal some of the many problems (delineated nicely by Pablo and Colin) with the ‘Gold’ OA system embodied in the Finch proposals become particularly acute. In the first instance, with regard to the benefits of the present system, in a field governed by citation indices and impact factors, there is something to be said about the legitimacy and credibility that a set-up with a renowned academic publisher provides. The other big advantage of having a publisher who is invested in the journal, especially for the Cambridge Review of International Affairs (hereafter CRIA) and other student-run publications I would imagine, is the discipline they demand. Having a set publication schedule has been crucial for CRIA, not only for associate editors who are copy-editing in the middle of term but also for peer reviewers and authors who get nagging automated reminders every week from ScholarOne’s Manuscript Central, the web-based submission and peer review tool used by Taylor & Francis (Routledge). Finally, although an equivalent open source software exists, merely getting some training in the workings of Manuscript Central and of indeed access to it, has been a great asset for CRIA.

This is not to say, in any way, that the current journal system of pay walls and enormous publisher profits is not deeply flawed. It is, but so is the solution proposed: high Author Processing Charges (APCs) that would hit students and early career researchers disproportionately, to say nothing about those who are not affiliated with an academic institution. Academics are however, thinking about ways around this with mixed success. A great example would be the initiative taken by Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge who has managed to persuade Cambridge University Press to launch a gold open access electronic journal – The Forum of Mathematics – with a print on demand option. To keep a check on what is being sent in, authors need to send in a reasonably long justification of why they are interested in publishing in the journal and what ‘cluster’ they want to submit their paper to. A ‘cluster’ is like a stream, for instance a theory or anthropology stream in IR – schematically speaking. There are of course nuances and overlaps that Gowers has meticulously devised a system for dealing with, and which could potentially be looked at as a model for a social science/IR journal. Each cluster has one editor and a few managing editors working on it who are experts in that particular field.

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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