Monthly Archives: August 2015

Stop shielding early-career researchers from open access experimentation – widespread engagement is needed to change the broken system.

One of the frequently voiced criticisms of open-access publishing is that it harms the career prospects of early-career scholars, especially in the context of the competitive academic job market. One such argument against licensing work for derivatives (CC BY/CC BY-SA) is that the labours of junior researchers may be exploited before they have had the chance to sufficiently ‘use’ the data they have generated, to fully flesh out the research in their conference paper, etc. Academia is competitive, so the argument goes, and junior researchers should not give an advantage to the free riders who themselves do not reciprocate by sharing their research for reuse. More restrictive licensing, such as the non-commercial and non-derivative versions, has been suggested as a potential solution. But do more restrictions to access and use address the issue of ECR vulnerability at hand?

There is a similar argument concerning open access publishing more generally, particularly the lack of prestige associated with new OA publishers (or the low impact factor of OA journals in the sciences). Here, the logic follows that it would be irresponsible to recommend that an early-career scholar publishes his/her research with a new OA publisher because it would be frowned upon by job boards, funders, tenure committees, and so on. Even if this were the case – and I’m sure to an extent it is true, though how great the extent is for all fields remains to be seen – it hardly seems a problem with OA per se. It is, rather, to do with the pernicious effects of prestige and the over-reliance of it as a proxy for research quality, which is especially detrimental to scholarly communication as a whole. (see Chapter 2 in Martin’s Eve excellent book on open access in the humanities for a more thorough explanation of this idea.)

Heather Morrison argues in a recent post to the Global Open Access List: ‘The future of the OA movement needs such [early-career] scholars to succeed, obtain tenure and thus be eligible to sit on tenure and promotion committees and address these problems.’ This is no doubt true, but in an ever diminishing job market where fewer and fewer graduates achieve permanent academic jobs, only the most successful researchers who ‘play the game’ will succeed. It is a tall order to assume that these individuals who have benefited from the system will then go on to change it. A solution requires greater coordination between numerous stakeholders – not just the individual academics who are shaped by it.

What these kinds of arguments against open access do is push the burden of the broken system away from the institutions, governments and publishers that perpetuate the problem and place it on new and innovative methods of scholarly communication. If we want to start treating research as a commons (which I do) then we should be questioning the practices of those institutions that encourage credentialism, metricisation and proprietary ownership of scholarship, rather than trying to wrap up researchers in cotton wool by warning them of the dangers of confronting the old ways of doing things. A better way of nurturing the commons might be to encourage those lucky enough to have job security to patronise and promote new OA publishers and experiment with new methods of research simply for the sake of experimentation. This in turn might shift research practices in a more open direction, helping them to become normalised and accepted in the academy. Simultaneously, early-career researchers can explore and experiment with ways to build a better system.

One interesting approach for graduate students is the Lethbridge Journal Incubator as described by Daniel O’Donnell et al. This publishing model aims to provide graduate students with ‘early experience with scholarly publishing […], highly-sought after research and technical skills, and project management experience.’ The incubator simultaneously seeks to enable open access publishing without the need for a commercial infrastructure by treating the publishing process as an educational exercise. In this way, graduate students are taught the technical/practical skills involved in the publication process and can begin to learn the context in which publishing and scholarly communication operate – particularly why open access is important and how it should be best handled. This seems a positive approach to open access that recognises its necessity but does so in a way that is beneficial to graduate students and takes into account their vulnerability.

The main point I am trying to convey here is that open access publishing is not responsible for the increasingly competitive job market and the need for researchers to publish in the right places and in the narrowly defined “correct” ways. OA is no doubt beholden to this state of affairs but it is not something that junior researchers need to be shielded from. If we discourage researchers from openly licensing their research or publishing with open access presses then we run the risk of legitimising the status quo and perpetuating a publishing system that is economically unviable and damaging on so many levels.

I’m not saying that there are any easy solutions, but that we should be continually reminding researchers that the economics of publishing, the competitive nature of scholarship and the precariousness of academic employment is what hinders early-career researchers, and not open access publishing. If anything, a wholesale move away from subscription publishing and expensive monographs would free up some of the research budgets that might at least form part of the solution.

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