Open Folklore, Open Access, and the Future of Scholarly Publishing

When the American Folklore Society (AFS) and the Indiana University Bloomington Libraries announced the Open Folklore project, it was hailed as a model for scholarly publishing in the humanities.  It is promoting open access publishing, branding various open access projects, and working through traditional channels to make much folklore content available online as possible.  Old publishing meets new publishing for the benefit of folklore.

Open FolkloreSo far, the project has highlighted open access folklore journals available in the IUScholarWorks Repository and the vast folklore collection at Indiana University Libraries that was digitized and made available through the Hathi Trust Digital Library.

The distributed approach to all these initiatives made me a little nervous at first, but I’ve since been convinced of the advantages to this method.  Alex Golub pointed out some of the benefits of this approach, writing that while the project “is made up of many components, each one using a method appropriate to its goal and relying on mechanisms and models whose drawbacks and advantages are by now reasonably well-understood in scholarly publishing.”

It’s genius, really.  In a world of online portals, silos, domains, and networks, we almost assume that some kind of enclosure is required to facilitate communication and access to information.  But those enclosures are increasingly dominated by complex copyright and intellectual property legislation and costly agreements with large, for-profit enterprises that do not always have the same priorities as the authors they publish or their readers.  What better remedy for this toxic situation than to go outside the box, to tackle the big problem with smaller, easier-to-manage actions towards a common purpose.  ‘Choose your battles’ was never such a fitting colloquialism.

I’m especially encouraged by Open Folklore because of what its model could mean for the future of scholarly publishing in general.  Open Folklore is, I think, a direct result of the discontent many scholars, researchers, and students have with the status quo of scholarly publishing and  communications.  It relies on preexisting open access repositories – like the IU ScholarWorks Repository – and preexisting high-level negotiations between universities – like the Hathi Trust – to achieve its purpose.  If the project can manage to create a single search and discovery portal for all its components, it will have succeeded in making a big dent in the commercialization of folklore studies.    And by distributing its components across the internet, Open Folklore is almost assuring itself that the idea of Open Folklore will continue long after the last independent university press is swallowed up.

Scholarly Publishing and the Internet

The internet is really the non-so-secret ingredient for large publishing firms like EBSCO, Wiley-Blackwell, Gower, and other companies that have worked tirelessly to capitalize on journals, books, and other scholarly publications.   Sure they’ve had their hand in the pocket for a long time, and yes, they’ve invested heavily in the current landscape of scholarly publishing.  But with the widespread adoption of the internet and the development of increasingly sophisticated discovery, rights management, and access tools, publishing firms have dramatically altered the landscape of scholarly publishing.  From the editorial process right down to getting access to the articles.

Some of these changes are downright absurd.  Ted Striphas wrote an excellent piece on scholarly publishing (also available on his wiki) with this troubling example of how Digital Rights Management (DRM) is being used excessively:

Evidence of DRM in action in the world of humanities journal publishing is spotty, but telling. As Jonathan Sterne reported in 2006 on his blog, Sage Publications sent him the offprint of an article he had just published in one of its journals, New Media and Society, neither in the customary hardcopy form nor in PDF. It came to him, rather, as a digitally-rights managed executable file. The proof essentially locked to his computer and restricted the number of times he could pass it on to colleagues to 25. Printing was unlimited, but to access the offprint Sterne and those with whom he shared it first had to download special proprietary software from Sage. The company made no promises about the program’s security and was vague about its operating system compatibility. Sterne noted that the publication agreement he signed “says nothing about 25 digital copies, proprietary formats, or anything else.”66 This is in keeping with a growing trend among large media organizations. Many now use DRM technologies to micromanage the circulation and use of copyrighted content to unprecedented degrees. In the process, the possibility of exercising one’s fair-use rights and related entitlements is slowly getting “coded” out of existence.67

Ted also offers some facts on consolidation in the industry:

While the number of academic journals has risen substantially over the last 30 years or so, the number of academic journal publishers has shrunk appreciably over the same period of time. These crosscurrents have radically altered the political economy of the journal publishing industry and arguably have helped to produce “the industry” as such. The field of academic journal publishing used to be composed primarily of small, nonprofit presses, which historically maintained strong ties to, or in many cases were the organs of, specific scholarly societies.35 That is no longer the case. Today, academic journal publishing is dominated by a handful of large, for-profit corporations, who control the instruments of scholarly communication to an unprecedented degree.

Topping this list are Reed Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, and Taylor & Francis/Informa, which publish about 6,000 journals between them.36 Collectively, these and other for-profit publishers have a stake in 62% of all peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Based on the conservative benchmark of 20,000 journals mentioned above, this means commercial entities as a whole control some 12,400 of them, two-thirds of which they own exclusively.37 Yet, even these figures paint a somewhat subdued portrait of today’s journal publishing industry, because they say little about the level of economic concentration among the topmost commercial publishers. According to Raym Crow, a consultant with the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), a privileged few holds disproportionate sway over the industry as a whole. In 2006, a mere six companies “account[ed] for over 60% of the market’s total revenue,”38 giving them competitive economic advantage over both their commercial and nonprofit rivals.

(You can visit Ted’s wiki to see his citations).  The way this consolidation rears its ugly head is through large, incredibly expensive database products that publishers sell subscriptions for – to the very universities and scholarly societies where most of the research and scholarly writing took place.  Ted’s piece reminded me of when I was student (the people who ultimately pay for those database products) and found that the university paid for access to certain journal titles three or four times over – the result of being subscribed to various database products that held that title.  There is really no way around this duplication.  Redundant coverage sometimes helps to reduce the  access embargo put in place by publishers or content providers, but more often than not, it is an unfortunate result of subscribing to multiple database products that cover similar fields, something academic libraries do to maximize the content they can provide access to.

If you’re still not convinced, read Jason Baird Jackson’s detailed discussion on folklore studies publishing in the era of open access, corporate enclosure, and the transformation of scholarly societies.  He offers some truly mind-boggling facts, like this explanation of publishing costs for two anthropology journals, Museum Anthropology and Museum Anthropology Review:

At the time that Museum Anthropology Review got started, a single page of Museum Anthropology cost about $202 to publish. This cost did not include the very considerable subsidies that Indiana University was investing in supporting the editorial office. At this rate, an article cost about $5000 (pre-subsidies) to publish. The resulting article was then made available in print to about 500 subscribers and was made available in digital form via the then-current version of AnthroSource. Non-members of the AAA who lacked access to a research library could pay a not-insignificant sum to purchase access to the paper online. At the time I did these calculations, in spring 2007, the Council for Museum Anthropology was loosing about $79 per page.

In contrast to loosing $79 per page publishing Museum Anthropology as a gated, toll-access journal, Museum Anthropology Review began publishing–using the same editor, the same peer-review community, the same university subsidies, the same computer, the same office, and the same file cabinet–at an out of pocket cost of less that 42 cents per article. In contrast to Museum Anthropology, Museum Anthropology Review was (and is) available freely to anyone able to muster an internet connection. Most contributions to Museum Anthropology Review have now been accessed thousands of times by readers from most corners of the globe.

Wow!  Jason’s figures stem from the 2007 decision of the American Anthropological Society (AAA) to drop the University of California Press and outsource its publishing activities to Wiley-Blackwell.  In response to some questions about his figures, he has offered this clarification of what he meant.  And Alex Golub at the Savage Minds blog further elaborated on the two journals in his comparison of the AAA to the now defunct Gourmet magazine.

Clearly, open access as a business model is offering an alternative to traditional publishing models.  And as open-source software like Open Journal Systems, DSpace, and Fedora continue to improve, universities and scholarly societies are finding themselves with new and inexpensive platforms for publishing that can increase distribution and cut out conglomerates at the same time.  Hopefully, projects like Open Folklore will help further the adoption of open access publishing by demonstrating that it can work on a large scale, across an entire field of study.  The only missing ingredient is a robust open-source subscription or membership management system that would allow societies and non-profit publishers to sell individual and institutional subscriptions to their publications.

Open Access and Scholarly Communication

Open access is introducing changes to the publishing industry beyond access to information.  Broadly speaking, it is helping to usher in an era of open scholarly communications.  Historically closed scholarly networks – peer reviews, discussion lists, and other windows into the inner workings of academia – are finally opening up on the web, often in the same places where published scholarly research and writing are already freely available.

Take, for example, the Shakespeare Quarterly‘s recent decision to conduct an “open peer review” for its upcoming issue on Shakespeare and New Media.  The journal partnered with MediaCommons, a digital scholarly network, to host articles for review and allow comments from across the web.  The project page is available here.  Both authors and reviewers reported that it was a resounding success.

Open peer reviews have been tried before, but not with the success found by the Shakespeare Quarterly.  The science journal Nature experimented with open peer review back in 2006, and published an interesting summary of the project.  Limited interest from authors and a lack of comments were cited as the main reason why the experiment did not live up to its expectations. They also found that some researchers were reluctant to offer open comments.  The Shakespeare Quarterly also found some reluctance among participants, but one respondent pointed out that “the humanities’ subjective, conversational tendencies may make them well suited to open review—better suited, perhaps, than the sciences.”

There’s also the recent story about how mathematicians used blogs and a wiki to analyze and debunk a proof by Vinay Deolalikar, a mathematician and electrical engineer with Hewlett-Packard.  Vinay put his claimed proof of the P vs. NP problem online and within a week, consensus in the mathematics community was that it was not a valid proof of the problem.  That’s warp speed for academics.  Despite the fact that Vinay’s proof was incorrect, the story was widely covered because it highlighted the emerging trend of scholarly communications opening up and moving online.  The New York Times wrote:

What was highly significant, however, was the pace of discussion and analysis, carried out in real time on blogs and a wiki that had been quickly set up for the purpose of collectively analyzing the paper. This kind of collaboration has emerged only in recent years in the math and computer science communities. In the past, intense discussions like the one that surrounded the proof of the Poincaré conjecture were carried about via private e-mail and distribution lists as well as in the pages of traditional paper-based science journals.

In other words, it’s not just the journal articles, research papers, and other materials that are being made freely available online, the conversations that shape those materials are now happening online, often between a much wider segment of the population than those found in academic silos.  Wikis, blogs, and other websites are being used to spread the discussion around, and progressive organizations like MediaCommons are engaging high profile academic circles in their efforts to open up the world of scholarly publishing.  And succeeding.  Open access is bringing open communication along with it.

Open communication is just as much about leveraging emerging tools to simplify and improve communication as it is about breaking down the “bells of silence” that plague academia.  Email lists have been used for peer reviews and scholarly discussions for decades, but these lists are increasingly moving from traditional university-based email list implementations to technologically superior (and more open) platforms like Google Groups, Yahoo! Groups, forums, and other online discussion tools that have been around for quite some time.   These platforms offer permission and membership controls just like email lists, but they also offer collaborative tools that make communication easier and more robust.  And they are easier to open up thanks to things like RSS feeds, notifications, and more nuanced access controls.

Open communication has its fair share of challenges though.  In some ways, open peer reviews simply extend the flaws found in the traditional peer review process.   Claire Potter noted that the peer review system used by the Shakespeare Quarterly is really one that employs traditional peer review procedures, albeit in a more open manner.  Before offering a well-reasoned set of real reforms to the peer review process, Claire wrote that the Shakespeare Quarterly made an important first step in reforming the process, but that it still “obtained promises from a “core group” of scholars that they would participate” and that “one of the participants still felt it was necessary to secure a promise from a dean that the article would still count for tenure.”  Still sounds like a closely guarded academic circle to me.

Nevertheless, the Shakespeare Quarterly‘s experimental peer review fits nicely into broader efforts to change the peer review process (see this chart of other peer review approaches prepared by MediaCommons) and scholarly publishing in general.   Groups like MediaCommons see open access and open communication as two sides to the same scholarly publishing coin, and after a successful open peer review demonstration by a leading literary journal, others are surely to follow suit.

What Does the Future Hold in Store?

In the long run, the success of open access initiatives will be judged not only by how much content is available, but by how much information about the creation of that content is available.   And as open access continues to extend to the communications and behind-the-scenes discussions that shape the literature being made available, projects like Open Folklore can play a central role in opening communication channels.   Some of the persistent problems the project hopes to solve involve “gray literature,” archival source materials, and other notoriously difficult-to-obtain materials that are important to folklore studies.  Researchers who consult archival correspondence will know that communications are the holy grail of this kind of material.  It is elusive, fleeting, difficult to evaluate, and rarely preserved.  But it can be incredibly valuable.  Especially in the way it contextualizes things like publications and audiovisual materials.

Opening scholarly communication channels begs a whole set of questions about the long-term value of these materials and how to preserve them.  These questions have really been around long before open access, but open access initiatives that are well connected to the library and archives community will be in the best position to work through these problems.   These initiatives carry a presumption of openness that will make determining what to do with communications – materials that are typically closely guarded – easier than it has been in the past.

Open Folklore is making great strides in making folklore materials freely available, and it is in an excellent position to advocate for open communication in the folklore community.  It would be great to see some well-established open access folklore journals open their peer review process.  Or to see more transparent decision making in folklore societies, funding agencies, and advocacy groups.   After all, enquiring minds want to know.

[Thanks to Barbara Fister for rounding up some of these links].

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10 Responses to Open Folklore, Open Access, and the Future of Scholarly Publishing

  1. Thanks for this excellent post; it’s quite exciting to see the range of issues and approaches to opening up scholarly communication that you’ve brought together here.

    There’s one point you’ve made that I do want to counter, however. I’m one of the founders of MediaCommons, and a coordinator of the SQ open review experiment, and so what follows comes from that perspective. In discussing the experiment, you note Claire Potter’s reading of it as being focused around a “core group” of commenters, and finally suggest that this “[s]till sounds like a closely guarded academic circle to me.”

    I have to disagree with this assessment. What SQ did was approach a sizeable group of scholars in the field — the long list of those from whom they’d have selected two to three per article in a traditional process — and ask them to commit to commenting in public. This was done not to close anyone else out of the process, but instead to ensure that that process would have uptake, that there would be discussion in the first place. The entire review process, however, was open to anyone who registered for an account with the site. The point of what special issue editor Katherine Rowe has called “‘our crowd’-sourcing” is not to keep the discussion within “our crowd,” but instead to get a robust discussion started that anyone might participate in.

    In other words, the academic circle was far from being closely guarded. It’s just that “if you build it, they will come” does not work in an open peer review process; those who have a stake in the process’s outcomes have to commit to participating in the process if it’s going to work.

    That having been said, this is an excellent and exciting assessment of the issues facing the open scholarship movement today; thanks so much for posting it.

    • Creighton says:

      Hi Kathleen,

      Thanks so much for your comment, and for clarifying the review process. I should have been more clear – my assessment was more in reference to the respondent’s comment about tenure than about the nature of how the review was conducted. It sounds like the journal Nature had to use the same approach to make sure there was a discussion. I can understand taking this precaution. And I obviously think it’s great that the entire process was open to anyone who registered. I just hear “checking with the dean about tenure” and think immediately of close-knit academic circles.

      It’s funny though. The “if you build it, they will come” approach works so well for other things on the internet – just look at the comment boards on any news website. I wonder if a journal completely committed itself to open reviews – rather than commit itself to the experiments we’ve seen so far – what kind of uptake it would see. Could we see being an “open reviewer” become analogous to writing reviews of published materials?

      Anyway, glad you enjoyed the post! I’m really looking forward to seeing where MediaCommons goes next.

  2. Thank you Archivology for this detailed and engaged post about not only Open Folklore but many other projects and discussions within which it is networked. I suspect that the Open Folklore working group will collectively blush when reading and discussing your post. We are working hard to have a first go of the site itself ready for the upcoming AFS meetings. That will provide the first (but not the only) chance for us to dialogue with the community about big and small issues in and around the project. It will be a modest beginning, but a beginning none the less. The group at IU is also busy working on content projects, such as liberating more journals and working on archiving websites. After the AFS meetings, we should be in better positioned to engage the wider community beyond those who make it to the meetings. Discussions here, at Savage Minds, at Library Babel Fish, and elsewhere have been very beneficial and are much appreciated. Thank you very much for giving the project so much thought and for situating it within the broader landscapes in which it is potentially relevant. (Including connecting it to Ted’s recent article.)

    Kathleen–thanks also for your leadership in this important domain. Your efforts have been of great interest.

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