Last month I was invited to participate in a panel on Open Access at the annual American Historical Association meeting in Denver. One of my colleagues led their presentation with the astute comment that the way most historians react to OA is with apathy. After all, the economics of traditional monograph publishing work pretty well in history and the book is still the coin of the realm in this field. If OA is a solution to an economic crisis, then history should be the last place we need it, right?
More broadly, the discipline of history is wrestling with all things digital. To their credit, the AHA recently launched a new set of guidelines for the professional evaluation of digital scholarship. On the other hand, they’ve had what I would label a less progressive stance on the posting of dissertations on IR’s. They regrettably (although perhaps accurately) pointed to university presses as one of the key reasons for recommending embargoes, on the assumption that a press won’t publish a manuscript if an early version is freely available. I’ve tended to call bullshit on this notion, since that stance would beg the question, why are presses spending tens of thousands of dollars to transform and improve these works while publishing them if the first draft is all that most scholars need? I welcome scholars comparing dissertations to the finished books published by my press any day of the week. There’s no better way to see the value we add than going through this exercise.
But back to Denver, the panel drew a nice crowd although there was the occasional odd notion in the questions from the audience (“If you publish openly on the web where annotation can occur, how do you control the quality”?) revealing some confusion about the difference between content and formats. But overall, I was impressed with the dialog among scholars, publishers, and librarians.
I even presented a hypothetical model for how university presses might bring OA history monographs into the world (more on that in a future post). While I was neither pelted with tomatoes nor carried out as a conquering hero, it was clear that even within a relatively conservative field like history, the benefits associated with unfettered access to new scholarship is beginning to emerge.
To me this is an important step. When OA is described as a silver bullet for the broken business of monograph publishing (and it is broken, just less broken in history), then the debate gets muddied around issues of money, prestige, and resources. But when we frame it another way–there’s an alternative model that maximizes dissemination, discoverability, and reuse–then it doesn’t matter what we call it. Such a model isn’t a solution to any crisis as much it is a new and in many ways superior strategy for publishing the valuable work done by authors in partnership with scholarly presses.