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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This article originally appeared, in a shorter, edited form in the Guardian: Is UK humanities research reaching the widest possible audience?

Today marks the launch of another report into the open access ecosystem; a space that is rapidly becoming extremely saturated. Funded by HEFCE and overseen by the British Academy, the latest document, co-written by Rebecca Darley, Daniel Reynolds and Chris Wickham, specifically focuses upon the humanities and social science disciplines in an international environment. The conclusions are fairly clear and can be simply stated: HEFCE's green OA recommendations with up to 24 month embargos and allowances for exemptions meet with approval; RCUK are unrealistic and their policies, we are told, “pose serious dangers for the international standing of UK research in the Humanities”.

Although this latest document is most welcome for providing some data on international take-up of OA (but there is also some extremely bad research practice therein – in the name of commercial sensitivity they destroyed the data so nobody can verify the findings! (55)), it also provides an opportune moment in which to undertake some basic reflection on the point and purpose of our research. Taking this report's focus on the “international standing” and the “international reach” of UK research as a starting point, I want to argue here that the debate on open access sometimes rests upon shared definitions that simply do not exist. For example, what do we mean when we talk of “international standing”? What does “reach” mean and what metrics support it? Furthermore, I want to argue that different sides in the debate use these terms differently: for traditionalists and OA sceptics, international standing and reach seem to refer to peer prestige. On the other hand, for many OA advocates (myself included) and also funders, anything other than online, open access to research will intrinsically place a limit upon standing and reach. This seems to be a contradiction.

To explore these claims a little, consider the phrase the “international standing of UK research in the Humanities”. This is taken to refer, in my reading of Darley, Reynolds, and Wickham's report, to a fear that UK research will not appear in journals that are traditionally popular with academics, run by presses whose provisions for green self-archiving do not meet UK policies. I also infer from the popularity of these journals with academics that they are conventionally prestigious, although the authors of the report are careful to tiptoe around this (33). The research community beyond the UK, in this reading, would presumably then not see UK research because it would not feature in the venues read by international colleagues.

There are two problems with this type of reasoning, in my view. First, can the standing of UK humanities research really be said to be held in high regard anyway, among international peers, if it is claimed that simply by changing publication venues the research falls off the map? Secondly, there seems to be a far more damaging phenomenon already underway for humanities disciplines: irrelevance. Combining the factors of a dense aesthetic of humanities work, contained within print-only journals to which, essentially, only academic libraries subscribe while claiming this as reputation-building scholarly publishing speaks little of a desire to educate a populous and looks more like an archaic ivory tower obsessed with its own importance. This leads to a dilemma: if the desire to continue to publish in the most conventionally popular venues continues, while entire disciplines lose any kind of respect from the broader public (who cannot access our research material), then we may find ourselves protecting a right to carry on as normal while our normal existence crumbles away.

Now, of course, such thinking opens up cans of worms with regard to academic populism. This is not my intention. What I want to argue is that the idea of the “international standing” of UK research (and potential damage to it) is subjective; whose opinion on the standing matters? Consider, for instance, the fact that, at meeting after meeting, Research Council and Funding Council representatives have parroted the mantra that the broadest possible dissemination must be the key concern for funders. For funders, it seems that OA provides the largest possible reach because anyone can access the material, anywhere, simply with access to the internet. They have also pointedly remarked that nobody is forcing academics to take their funding.

Yet this latest report, in noting that an admittedly large proportion of international venues do not comply with UK policies, concludes that: “The most serious risk that is confirmed by the research done for this report is that, in some disciplines at least, UK open-access policies, if followed too rigidly, will undermine the international reach and thus standing of the country’s research” (6). How can it be the case, however, that the “international reach” of UK research is currently satisfactory, compared with an online, open access alternative, when, in the English subject discipline, “three of the non-UK journals which are most used by UK academic authors in fact still appear in hard copyonly” (45)? Contending definitions of “reach” are at play here.

In his recent book, Michael Bhaskar has argued that publishing is a threefold function of “filtering”, “framing” and “amplification”. Many academic publications, worldwide, do a good job of filtering (peer review screening) and framing (providing a context for) research. They are also good at amplifying within certain confines: amplification to those who have subscriptions and are based in academic institutions; amplification to those with power. This is desirable on a personal level for academics who need such credentials for their career. They cannot be blamed for this; it is the system of rewards that needs to change. And this is what UK funding councils are doing: changing the structure of rewards to favour those who are willing to amplify their work to anybody with an internet connection. This is not something to decry. Indeed, the UK should be proud in leading the way towards a future where there is no conflict between being read and respected by those who can afford subscriptions and being read and respected by those who can't.