I recently spoke to an academic who is a Director of Research for a department at a sizeable institution. Our conversation was broad ranging – from ideas for books to the notion of not having enough bookshelf space and through to Open Access. Open Access always seems to come up, because it is, quite clearly, a huge issue. It’s been over a decade since the initial manifestos and declarations in Budapest and Berlin. In that time, the journals ecosystem has shifted hugely and the academic books world is now, at the time of writing, also undergoing seismic shifts. We are seeing initiatives like Knowledge Unlatched gather steam, and fully open access presses like Ubiquity, UCL Press and White Rose University Press.
In the UK, we’ve had the Stern Review, published in 2016, and the Finch Report in 2012. Both had elements that expressly dealt with open access. The Finch Report recommended that open access become a central requirement of the (funded) academic output in the UK and the Stern Review dealt with the requirements of the next Research Excellent Framework and how open access might be mandated for inclusion. So much, so familiar – this is has all been dealt with in so many places, and in so many ways, by the pro-open access lobby and the anti-open access lobby (that feels open access would be a bad thing for an already established publishing ecosystem).
Despite the tenor of the debate, even if the journal is open access, the path to accreditation at promotion panels is clear. A journal article is put against someone’s name, and they become the Named Author. An open access book is the same thing: people understand what a book is, and they know that, as long as the book has merit and is not vanity published or plagiarised, that it is a good thing. ‘How good’ is matter that depends on the prestige of the press, the reception of the book in the outside world, the sales figures it accrues, the reviews it garners. But we understand it.
What about a 8,000 word piece that goes onto an online platform (either free to access, or behind a subscription paywall)? How is this rated, and how will this go down at panels? In their rush to set these sorts of subscription platforms up, have publishers considered that academics might be wary of writing for cash payments, and for their work to be absorbed into a mass of millions of words? Will these sorts of things be articles that are admissible to the research assessment frameworks that exist across the world? How are the metrics of success to be extracted – clicks? Numbers of subscribers (publishers are very, very reluctant to release this information)? How is the reputation of the subscription platform to be judged – will we need some sort of ISI ranking for subs products? They are incredibly varied, and it is case of compares apples with oranges for the most part. This doesn’t even touch on the work that academics put in to MOOCs and online course materials.
I don’t propose to deliver answers here, but it is certainly something that I will be thinking about and writing about in the near future. Please do get in touch with me if you’d like to contribute to that process.