Google Books and labour erasure in the digital humanities

I’m currently prepping to teach an article by Jean-Baptiste Michel and colleagues (paywalled) that presents an early (if not the first) analysis of the content digitised as part of the Google Books project. I ended up going down a rabbit hole trying to understand how the 25+ million books were actually scanned, as it wasn’t immediately clear. This is from the supplementary methods section of the article itself:

We describe the way books are scanned and digitized. For publisher-provided books, Google removes the spines and scans the pages with industrial sheet-fed scanners. For library-provided books, Google uses custom-built scanning stations designed to impose only as much wear on the book as would result from someone reading the book. As the pages are turned, stereo cameras overhead photograph each page, as shown in Figure S15.

‘Google’ is being euphemistically used here to mean human labour, though the term is employed in a way so that the reader might think the whole process is automated rather than undertaken by humans. There is no actual mention of the scanning undertaken by humans at all.

From digging further, it is clear that the labour was indeed provided by people, and as Leah Henrickson shows in “The Darker Side of Digitization“, many of these book-scanners seem to be people of colour (which is anecdotally confirmed in an interview Henrickson cites with artist Andrew Norman Wilson). There are a number of sites on the web that collate human glitches in Google Book scanning (see image below from this New Yorker article on the ‘Art of Google Books‘), many of which reveal the handiwork of people of colour. Henrickson refers to a source (of questionable reliability) that states how ‘the average Google book-scanner earned $24,000 USD in 2008’. Assuming this is close to being true (and it’s not hard to imagine it is) it’s apparent that Google did not value this work any greater than minimum wage — Henrickson claims that it must be ‘the most unenjoyable job at Google’.


It is striking how the authors of the article I was reading fail to mention the labour involved in scanning these books, bearing in mind that this is one of the first articles to utilise Google Books as a subject of analysis (and Google themselves are listed as authors). What’s more, all the authors (as far as I can tell) are men and the majority white, senior academics in their field; there is thus a sharp distinction between women of colour as a resource for the creative uses of men. I’m reminded of Silvia Federici’s critical analysis that under capitalism ‘women themselves became the commons, as their work was defined as a natural resource, laying outside the spheres of market relations’ (Caliban and the Witch, 2004, p. 97).

The erasure of the labour of women and people of colour is no new thing, nor is the erasure of labour in the digital humanities (or ‘big data’ fields in general). Yet this is one of the starkest examples I’ve seen of both at once, especially as it looks like the authors of the paper went to lengths to erase this labour and imply that it is simply undertaken by machines. This was undervalued, poorly paid work undertaken largely by marginalised people and should have been acknowledged. Please remember this if your academic research has to utilise such labour, be it via Google Books, Mechanical Turk or student interns.




Comments Off on Google Books and labour erasure in the digital humanities

Filed under Uncategorized

The Radical Open Access Collective: building alliances for a progressive, scholar-led commons

This a repost of a piece Janneke Adema and I wrote on Radical OA for the LSE Impact Blog:

This week saw the launch of a new website for the Radical Open Access Collective, a vibrant community of presses, journals, publishing projects, and organisations all invested in not-for-profit and scholar-led forms of academic publishing. The members of this collective showcase the wide variety of alternative forms and models of open access publishing currently experimented with, mainly in the humanities and social sciences. This in a context where, although open access is now finally gaining ground, the spirit of experimentation that originally fuelled this movement is being progressively sidelined by a growing reliance on and implementation of specific, market-driven open access publishing models (particularly those connected to exorbitant article and book processing charges); models which do not necessarily suit, support or sustain open access publishing in the humanities and social sciences, but which do serve commercial stakeholders’ interests and the current publishing status quo.

The Radical OA Collective reminds us that Radical-OA-Collective-square.jpgexperimentation with new forms of publishing remains essential, and that open access has always been about more than just improving access to research. As a movement open access has also focused on exploring and promoting not-for-profit, institutional and academic-led publishing alternatives, for example. This is to provide a counterpoint to the commercial legacy system and the vast profits it extracts from our scholarly research and communication interactions. This system has posed specific risks to specialised book publishing in the humanities, to the publication of books by early-career researchers, and to the dissemination of research from those working in the global south or writing in languages other than English; all of which, although essential to sustaining the scholarly conversation, often lack a direct market appeal. To counter this the Radical OA Collective highlights the importance of making publishing more diverse, equitable, and open to change, where it wants to ensure that new and underrepresented cultures of knowledge are able to have a voice. Members of the collective therefore work together to champion the variety of alternative models for scholarly communication that currently exist, and the collective is keen to build alliances with other initiatives interested in building a collaborative and non-competitive publishing ecosystem; one which supports a progressive and multi-polar knowledge commons.

During open access week, we’d like to highlight three examples of what radical open access, and the Radical OA Collective specifically, brings to open access.

1. A focus on experimentation

Members of the collective do not shy away from asking difficult questions about what publishing is and, with that, what it can become. Many initiatives within the collective see their publishing projects as an extension of their own critical work and a way to explore different modes of publishing, often deterred by our (still very paper-centric) established publishing forms and practices. As such they have been keen to experiment with publication forms, models, processes, relations, and agencies, cutting through the stabilisations within scholarly publishing–from the fixed book to the single author–that, often uncritically, have become disciplinary norms. This open-ended critical experimenting has become a guiding principle for many initiatives to explore the potentially more politically and ethically progressive possibilities made possible by technological developments and digital tools; to investigate how these might impact on the ways in which research will be conducted, disseminated and consumed in the future. As an ongoing critical process, experimenting can therefore be seen as a form of intervention into the object-formation and increasing marketisation of publishing and academia.

Many of the projects involved in the collective see open access as essential to enabling these new forms of (digital) experimentation. This may be through communal authoring and editing of wiki books (see Open Humanities Press’ Living Books about Life series); anonymous or collective authorship (in the case of an Uncertain Commons, for example); or multimodal or digital-only publications, publishing platforms and software (including ground-breaking initiatives such as Vectors and Scalar, but also newer projects, such as electric press and Textshop Experiments) next to projects that want to focus on what openness means for images and visual forms of communication (i.e. Photomediations Machine) for example. But alongside experiments such as these we also want to highlight projects that aim to cut across both disciplinary boundaries and distinctions between practice and theory (for example Goldsmiths Press, which also focuses on publishing literary and artistic works), as well as scholarly communities that are experimenting with the creation of new communities and social networks to share research and establish cross-disciplinary alliances (from MediaCommons Press, to The BABEL Working Group and Humanities Commons).

2. Underrepresented cultures

One of the main motivations underlying the Radical OA Collective concerns the promotion of diversity and equitability within academic publishing, and this entails the creation of environments where traditionally underrepresented cultures can fully participate. This includes presses and alliances that promote publishing and collaboration in specific regions; for example CLACSO, which brings together hundreds of research centres and graduate schools in the social sciences and humanities, predominantly in Latin American countries, or African Minds, which, next to publishing works from African academics or organisations, has conducted in depth research on the state of the university press in Africa. Members also promote publishing in different languages; see, for example, Éditions Science et Bien Commun, a Quebec-based press publishing research by and for francophone countries in the Global South, or meson press, which (next to books in English) is keen to publish and translate media theory books in German.

There is also a focus on providing opportunities to early-career researchers to publish, and not only to publish but to help them directly with the publishing process and familiarise themselves with it. Mattering Press, which originates from a peer-support group of early-career researchers, in particular wants to stimulate those at the beginning of their academic careers, as do publications such as Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry, dedicated to the publication of writings and creative works by degree-seeking students. punctum books is well-known for providing space for the publication of works of so-called “para-academic” theorists and practitioners, often independent or precariously employed researchers or those in so-called “alt-ac” positions. These projects and the collective as a whole are dedicated to opening up scholarship to publics that are new or currently underserved, including those writing on niche topics or conducting experimental research for which the commercial publishing market doesn’t always provide a space.

3. Ethics of care

One of the things for which the Radical OA Collective stands out is its members’ focus on the ethics and politics of publishing. For example, many initiatives foreground an ethics of care, as part of which publishing is understood as a relational practice, highlighting and caring for the relationships involved throughout the publishing process, from authors, editors and reviewers to typesetters, copy-editors, indexers and beyond. This involves, amongst others, paying, rewarding or otherwise acknowledging people fairly for their labour wherever possible, while ensuring that the efforts of volunteers are not exploited or overly relied upon. Well aware of the high amounts of volunteer labour that academic-led initiatives depend on, the collective has made this one of its focal points, writing about and discussing the diverse forms of labour academic publishing relies upon, arguing for it to be valued more in various ways (that are not necessarily monetary).  A focus on labour issues is all the more important in a predominantly commercial publishing environment, given the large amounts of academic volunteer labour (from peer reviewing to editing, to liking and bookmarking and building relationships in exchange for usage data in SSRNs) that is needed to sustain it and maintain the exorbitant profits its stakeholders have come to expect.

The Radical OA Collective therefore seeks to redirect this volunteer labour where possible towards more progressive forms of publishing, for example by shifting it away from commercial profit-driven publishers and gifting it to developing not-for-profit open access projects instead. Related to this is a commitment to taking time and care with regard to the published object itself, something that is often lacking in profit-oriented modes of publishing. But perhaps most important, as Eileen Joy of punctum books writes, is for the collective to care for “ourselves and each other” in the face of marketised cultures of higher education that require researchers to work long hours and think of themselves as “brands”:

“This would be to think of Community, or the Collective, as a sort of ‘mutual admiration society’, but also as a Convalescent Ward, in which ‘taking care’ (of ourselves and each other) would be more important than ‘performing’ according to so-called ‘professional’ standards and protocols.”

Next to bringing together this community of people eager to change publishing, to make it better and more just, the collective wants to support other academics eager to set up their own presses and projects, or those disillusioned with the commercial solutions currently on offer. We share advice and offer support from those within the community who have already gained experience with publishing in this manner and are willing to help others in a horizontal and non-competitive manner. We have started to formalise this through the creation of an information portal with links to resources on funding opportunities for open access books, open-source publishing tools, guidelines on editing standards, ethical publishing and diversity in publishing, and OA literature useful to not-for-profit publishing endeavours. We want to turn this into a toolkit for not-for-profit publishers in the future (and this will be of use not only to academic-led presses, but hopefully also to university presses, and library-run and society publishers, for example). We have also set up a directory of academic-led presses, to help legitimise this form of publishing as a “model” and make scholars aware that there are publishing alternatives out there.

If you run a not-for-profit OA publishing initiative or are interested in starting your own scholar-led publishing project, we encourage you to join the Radical OA mailing list and help us further build this supportive and inclusive publishing environment.

Comments Off on The Radical Open Access Collective: building alliances for a progressive, scholar-led commons

Filed under Uncategorized

Radical Open Access Collective

The new and updated website for the Radical Open Access Collective website is now live!

Untitled-2.pngFormed in 2015, the Radical OA Collective is a community of scholar-led, not-for-profit presses, journals and other open access projects in the humanities and social sciences. We represent an alternative open access ecosystem and seek to create a different future for open access, one based on experimenting with not-for-profit, scholar-led approaches to publishing. You can read more about the philosophy behind the collective here:

As a collective, we offer mutual reliance and support for each other’s projects by sharing the knowledge and resources we have acquired. Through our projects we also aim to provide advice, support and encouragement to academics and other not-for-profit entities interested in setting up their own publishing initiatives. The current website contains a Directory of academic-led presses, which showcases the breadth and rich diversity in scholar-led presses currently operating in an international context and across numerous fields, and an Information Portal with links to resources on funding opportunities for open access books, open source publishing tools, guidelines on editing standards, ethical publishing and diversity in publishing, and OA literature useful to not-for-profit publishing endeavours. We will be further developing this into a toolkit for open access publishing in order to encourage and support others to start their own publishing projects. If you run a not-for-profit OA publishing initiative or are interested in starting your own scholar-led publishing project, we encourage you to join the Radical OA mailing list and get involved with the discussion!

Please do get in touch if you would like further information on the project or would like your publishing project to be involved.

Comments Off on Radical Open Access Collective

Filed under Uncategorized

New article – A genealogy of open access: negotiations between openness and access to research

I have a new article published in Revue française des sciences de l’information et de la communication (French Information and Communication Sciences Review). The piece is entitled ‘A genealogy of open access: negotiations between openness and access to research’ and looks at the various histories and lineages of OA to argue that it is best understood as a boundary object rather than a concept with a fixed definition or entailing a specific approach.

You can read it here:

The article is part of an issue on open science and open access (‘Libre accès aux publications et sciences ouvertes en débat’), which features some really interesting work from a range of researchers working in both French and English.



Comments Off on New article – A genealogy of open access: negotiations between openness and access to research

Filed under Uncategorized

Briefing Paper: Open Access Monographs

I recently wrote a briefing paper for Open Knowledge and PASTEUR4OA on open-access monographs. You can read it here.


Comments Off on Briefing Paper: Open Access Monographs

Filed under Uncategorized

Table of contents (draft)

This is the current table of contents for my thesis, subject to change. See my research summary for more information.

How to common the humanities? A values-based exploration of the open access publishing landscape for humanities disciplines  

Introductory chapter: The context for the thesis is the development of free culture and open-access publishing over the past twenty years and how new methods of digital distribution allow scholarly information to be published and shared in more democratic and experimental ways to traditional print publishing. At the same time, the value of humanities disciplines is being questioned – with academic departments under threat, funding being cut and an ailing public sphere – and so there is a real opportunity to rejuvenate and transform the humanities by utilising new methods of digital publishing.

Framing the debate

The first chapter offers an account of how humanities publishing currently operates, aiming to illustrate its unique ‘epistemic culture’ (Knorr-Cetina 1999). This chapter will establish that a researcher’s manner and rhythm of publication is highly specific to the discipline in which s/he works. In the case of the humanities, the traditional long-form codex has forced a particular kind of liberal-humanist scholarship that is linear, printed and associated with a single-author. This is placed in the context of the broader crisis within the humanities and higher education more generally, particularly the declining academic job market and diminishing funding opportunities. Using this analysis, the chapter then explores some of the well-established routes to open access – APC-based publishing, institutional repositories, disciplinary preprint repositories and Academia.Edu – in order to argue that they are not wholly appropriate to the ways in which the humanities currently operate. The main purpose of this chapter is to provide a foundation for an investigation into how a different form of OA might be adopted in the humanities, one that is both sensitive to current publication practices but also responsive to the broader issues within the humanities more generally.

The second chapter interrogates the term ‘open access’ as a boundary object (Bowker and Star 2000) with no fixed meaning and that various communities of practice are able to use to their ends. The chapter offers a genealogy of the term ‘open access’, aiming to demonstrate that there are numerous understandings of, and conflicting motivations for, open access (particularly between those prioritising ‘openness’ v. ‘access’), which have resulted in both contradictory and conservative policy formation by RCUK and HEFCE. The chapter analyses the language of the policies, including the Finch Report for open access to journals and the Crossick Report for open access to monographs, situating them as part of the state’s neoliberal agenda in higher education that marginalises humanities disciplines and seeks primarily to appease the incumbent publishing industry and ensure the status quo is maintained.

Building a values framework

The next two chapters aim to situate different approaches to OA within a values spectrum to provide a basis for open access publishing in the humanities. Examples of OA implementation will be assessed according to the extent that they disrupt the values associated with publishing, the humanities or higher education more generally. It is important here to avoid oppositional thinking between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ strategies, but instead seek to understand the choices that have been made, the ideals that have been prioritised/sacrificed and the resultant states of affairs that ensue.

The third chapter assesses the practical applications of the OA policies, looking at how a Russell Group and a 1994 Group university have implemented OA policies of their own. Through semi-structured interviews, analysis of internal documentation, meeting minutes and spending data, I will analyse how the university is approaching national funder-mandated OA: how funds are being distributed, how power is distributed, how academics are affected and how this relates to assumptions surrounding humanities research in higher education. Such analysis will shed light on how forms of OA impact the library, perhaps through increased costs, bureaucracy, etc.; but it should also illustrate where the university’s responsibilities lie with regards to OA, particularly where their current practices are detrimental to the humanities.

The fourth chapter aims to provide the theoretical framework for an alternative system of open access publishing in the humanities, based on an analysis of some of the experimental projects that stand outside traditional implementations of OA. Looking both within and outside of the university setting, I will assess projects that confront the approaches of both traditional subscription publishing and the dominant forms of OA publishing – such as scholar-led publishing houses, university-based experimental and born-digital projects, and publishing houses serving scholars outside of a traditional university setting. This will create the values basis for a new system of open access publishing that seeks to critically engage with the humanities situation and how this manifests within scholarly communication. The research will comprise semi-structured interview with the founders of progressive OA projects, analysis of opinion pieces, blog posts, and other calls for OA in the humanities.

Moving towards an alternative

In the fifth chapter I build a positive picture of what open-access scholarly publishing could look like, based on ideas found in distributed, open, cooperative, and peer-produced alternatives to traditional publishing (drawing on, e.g., (Ostrom 1990; Benkler 2006, etc.)). One of the primary factors affecting the longevity of the projects mentioned in the previous chapter is their permanence or economic resilience. As such, this chapter builds a picture of how such projects can survive, especially in the context of market-driven university, through resource sharing, cooperative governance and treating knowledge as a commons rather than a commodity for private ownership.

Finally, in the sixth chapter I will offer a practical exploration of how such an ecosystem of publishing could be implemented: what the transitional steps are and how researchers, universities and the government could enable such a system. Central to this chapter is the idea of the partner-state approach (Kostakis and Bauwens 2014) and how, for example, government mandates or subsidies can be devised to support better systems of publishing for the humanities and what such an approach might mean for higher education more generally.

The concluding chapter will summarise these issues and highlight where further research is needed, particularly an interrogation into the various conceptions of ‘research quality’ and its effects on the political economy of scholarly publishing. By now, I should have made a case for what is wrong with the dominant, traditional approaches to open access publishing for the humanities, what an alternative picture of OA could look like and how it can be achieved. This picture will be multifarious and inclusive, in opposition to the centrally mandated OA advocated by governments, funders and universities. Ultimately, I hope in the thesis to provide the foundations for a mutually cooperative network of small OA publishers, based on open-source software, shared legal and technical resources, and cooperation rather than competition.


Benkler, Yochai. 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.

Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. 2000. Sorting Things out: Classification and Its Consequences. MIT Press.

Knorr-Cetina, Karen. 1999. Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Kostakis, Vasilis, and Michel Bauwens. 2014. Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. The Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Comments Off on Table of contents (draft)

Filed under Uncategorized

How to replicate the best bits of Academia.Edu?

Next month, Coventry University’s Centre for Disruptive Media is hosting an event entitled ‘Why Are We Not Boycotting’ The event will explore some of the issues around the adoption of a venture-capital-funded platform/social network/repository for the dissemination of scholarly research, namely:

Why have researchers been so ready to campaign against for-profit academic publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, and Taylor & Francis/Informa, but not against for-profit platforms such as ResearchGate and Google Scholar?

Should academics refrain from providing free labour for these publishing companies too?

Are there non-profit alternatives to such commercial platforms academics should support instead?

Could they take inspiration from the editors of Lingua (now Glossa) and start their own scholar-owned and controlled platform cooperatives for the sharing of research?

Or are such ‘technologies of the self’ or ‘political technologies of individuals’, as we might call them following Michel Foucault, merely part of a wider process by which academics are being transformed into connected individuals who endeavour to generate social, public and professional value by acting as microentrepreneurs of their own selves and lives?

These questions are excellent starting points for interrogating the impact of Academia.Edu – or Google Scholar, Mendeley, ResearchGate, etc. – and we should rightly be suspicious of the practices of platforms whose revenue is generated from selling user data collected via a closed algorithm. Such platforms are also representative of the state of higher education in which there are fewer (and more precarious) jobs for an increasing number of trained PhDs, forcing researchers to become ‘microentrepreneurs of their own selves and lives’. This results in the elision of working and personal lives and increasing amounts of immaterial labour undertaken by researchers who are forced to think of themselves as brands.

No doubt, part of the success of Academia.Edu is its large and growing user-base that researchers are unable to ignore, something remarked upon by Kathleen Fitzpatrick in her recent post ‘Academia, Not Edu’: ‘I’ve heard many careful, thoughtful academics note that they’re sharing their work there because that’s where everybody is.’ I have also heard anecdotally of a university department requiring its researchers to upload their research to Academia.Edu or ResearchGate, most likely as another way for a university to ‘showcase’ its prestigious research outputs. Thus, many researchers are using Academia.Edu simply because their peers and colleagues are too.

But what cannot be avoided, I feel, is that Academia.Edu does offer some very useful features. Over the past month I have logged in a number of times, followed a handful of researchers and keywords, and generally tried to understand how the platform works. As a tool for research discovery, Academia.Edu is actually quite good at (seemingly) serendipitously highlighting research that I would otherwise have missed, either through keyword recommendations or other researchers uploading and/or bookmarking papers. Many of these aspects encourage a more collaborative and open way of working – not just openness about what one is writing, as in the case of working papers, but about what one is reading too. This way of working is one step away from open notebook science and provides a real-time picture of the research being conducted.

So, despite the negatives of Academia.Edu’s business model, there are many features that could be exported to an alternative. The difficulty is to unpick which of the interesting and useful features are actually embedded in the site’s business model and which can be extracted and installed in more progressive or cooperative platforms. For instance, would it be possible to build on the CoRe framework to replicate some of the more interesting features of Academia.Edu? And how in the absence of a data-centric business model would such a framework be maintained?

These are the choices that need to be made about data-driven platform capitalism in general: e.g., the precarious labour of Uber drivers means that fares are cheaper and so a worker-owned alternative might not be able to compete on price; but there are features of Uber’s technology that can be replicated by more progressive outfits to offer an ethical, but still convenient, service. In the case of Academia.Edu, the task now is to work out which of their features can be kept, which need to be let go, and which can be improved upon in an alternative.

Nevertheless, with every passing day platforms such as Academia.Edu increasingly strive towards monopolies and will become harder to unseat.



Comments Off on How to replicate the best bits of Academia.Edu?

Filed under Uncategorized