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Martin Paul Eve

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

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At the time of a global health emergency – the Zika virus – there are renewed calls for a faster and more open research publication system in disciplines where lives may be saved. This is important, valuable work. We should not be letting people suffer through the slowness of output. The remarks in this post do not apply to those spaces of biomedical advance, on which I am not qualified to comment.

Instead, I want to write a little about publication in disciplines where there are no lives to save, only knowledge to gain, and lives to be enriched. In Open Access and the Humanities, I wrote

While some have argued that this delay is acceptable in humanities fields, there are problems with such stances. First of all, one of the most common rebuffs to a need for speed is that ‘nobody dies if work in the humanities isn’t published in a timely fashion’, supposedly in contrast to certain medical disciplines. I would contend, despite having touched upon such a claim myself earlier, that this may not always be the case. Is it not possible to conceive of humanities works that focus on immigration and hate crime – as just one example – in historical and/or cultural terms and that could change policy, thereby saving lives? If the answer is that the humanities can never have this kind of impact, then something is going very wrong given the ethical purchase that is often claimed for humanities work. To argue, conversely, that all humanities work must have this kind of impact is also nonsensical. Secondly, in many subfields, such as my own area of contemporary fiction, it is deeply frustrating to have to wait two or more years for work to emerge when there is a dearth of critical material. Certainly, much of the material surfaces at conferences, but these are frequently closed enclaves and it seems bizarre that, with the advent of the internet, our means of communicating is restricted to either flying across the globe – thereby contributing further to the crisis of global warming – or waiting two years, with a further delay of at least two years before any future work will be citing the first piece.

There is also a further reason why it could be desirable to speed up the process of scholarly communication – for we might consider it thus, rather than being termed exclusively ‘publication’ – and that is establishing precedence. While it may be nice to envisage a scenario where ideas were free and there was no need to attribute authorship because researchers worked in harmony rather than competition, this is the road not taken. Indeed, academia becomes ever more competitive and the imperative for novelty – no matter how contentious that word may prove – is given increasing credence. While there have been many excellent arguments for the ‘slow humanities’ and the value therein, even the scholar who worked slowly but published quickly would be at an advantage over those who abhor speed in both camps. In short, regardless of how long it takes to produce an article or volume of research, for which there may be extremely good reasons, there seems little rationale for slower publication after that point. A ‘slow humanities’ may lead to more rigorous work, greater care, higher levels of feedback and better research. How slow publication, after peer review, might also contribute to any of those aspects is less clear.

This, then, is my argument in favour of preprints, with overlay journals (or even overlay book publishers) as a potential mechanism on top of this: speed of turnaround can have important social and intra-disciplinary ramifications. Making work available for the purposes of communication, rather than purely for certification, could help to foster a better international research community. Likewise, establishing precedence will serve scholars better within a competitive framework. Although it may be desirable to eliminate such a competitive environment, it is worth noting that opposition to faster publication turnaround through preprints does not seem to serve that goal either.

So, I argued for the merits of some forms of acceleration here. I still think this is true. But there’s another side to this that strikes me in light of my practical experience of building publication platforms in the OA world. At this particular moment, most academics expect publication systems to be slow, but they also expect a certain degree of care and correctness in the handling of their manuscripts. If they come to a new OA publisher, they often feel as though they are doing the publisher a favour.

Here’s the thing: at present, any new open-access publisher in these disciplines will be forgiven in the long run for being slow (so long as they are not slower than traditional publishers) but they will not be forgiven (and will face immediate demise) for getting it wrong. We were criticized for taking a long time to setup the Open Library of Humanities (one commentator wrote that “so far, the OLH has not published a single article”, or similar, around the Summer before we launched). But getting it right was much much more important to the long-term goal and convincing those outside of the debate. That criticism, that we took two years to plan and establish the platform, which is hardly long in actual terms, will fade into insignificance over time. Had we launched and then been unable to cover our costs or published low-quality work etc. etc. then we would have been blown out of the water on day one.

And this is the bind: people expect more from new OA publishers (better service, nicer platforms), even while wanting it to be cheaper and quicker. In my disciplines, for now, where nobody dies, based on practical experience of compromise, if it comes to a choice of having two out of three of these aspects, I wonder whether “quicker” is the one that will be most easily forgiven if dropped?