Ian Mosby, Public Debate, and the Question of Open Source Academic Publishing

20 07 2013

In the last few days, the Canadian media has been filled with stories about a policy of deliberately starving children in Native residential schools in the 1940s and 1950s. See here, here, and here. [For the benefit of the non-Canadians who now form the majority of people who read this blog, I should explain that the residential schools were boarding schools which Indian children were forced to attend as part of an assimilation policy. Conditions at these underfunded schools were dismal and the Canadian government recently issued a formal apology. There were similar schools in the United States and the other settler societies and similar stories of abuse].

The media coverage of this issue was sparked by an article that appeared in the latest issue of a Canadian academic historical journal, Ian Mosby “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,“  Histoire sociale/Social History.

The media coverage has raised the issue of malnutrition in present day Native communities, which is a real issue in places that are distant from the road network.

I’m glad to see that academic historical research is getting some attention in the media and is informing debate about public policy.  That’s great. Ian Mosby is to be congratulated for advancing the public debate in this way, especially since he is an early career researcher. Historians should publish more research that speaks to issues of public concern—I suppose that’s one way of giving back to the taxpayers who fund our research.

The subject of Mosby’s research lies well outside my area of expertise, so I can’t really comment on the validity of his conclusions or methodology beyond noting that his paper was published in a peer reviewed journal.  Mosby’s research, however, raises the question of paywalls and academic publishing. Those who follow this blog will know that I have strong views on the UK government’s plans to shift academic publishing in this country to an open access model known as Finch Gold. (For previous posts, see here and here). Under this model, anyone on the internet could read articles in academic journals for free and the costs of publishing the journals would be defrayed by the authors or their employers. As I’ve said before, this particular way of funding Open Access publishing is a terrible idea. However, the basic principle of Open Access is an important one. In a democracy, taxpayers ought to be able to see and use the research they have funded. Transparency and visibility are especially important in the case of academic research that has a bearing on public policy.

Here’s the problem. The journal in which Mosby publishes his research puts its papers behind a paywall, which means that to read them you either need a university library card. If you Google the title of a typical academic article, you will find a stub on a journal website, a short abstract, and then a login that looks like this:

Project MUSE - Class, Capitalism, and Construction- Winnipeg's Housing Crisis and the Debate over Public Housing, 1934-1939

What this means is that members of the public interested in Mosby’s research must rely on either the short summary that appeared in newspaper articles or the somewhat longer abstract on the journal’s website. That’s really unfortunate—we wouldn’t expect people to show up a book club and discuss a novel having only read the first 100 words on Google Books. Moreover, for academics who work in systems in which we are judged on both the quantity and quality of the research we produce and its Impact Factor (e.g., citation stats, references in the media) Closed Access publishing has consequences for compensation and promotion.

 

I don’t pretend to know that the best model for academic publishing would be. It costs money to run journals. Right now, consumers of knowledge pay many of these costs, which discourages the dissemination of research to the general public. Maybe there could be something similar to the BBC licence fee, although that would be unfair to citizens who aren’t interested in reading academic journal articles (the vast majority of taxpayers).  The Finch Gold Open Access model will impose major costs on universities and/or academics. Moreover, any solution to this conundrum needs to be international, given the nature of academic publishing.  

What I do know is that the current model keeps citizens from having access to academic knowledge. That’s a bad thing, especially in a country like  Canada where the linkages between historians and the public policy community are quite limited. The US has a biennial policy history conference and a quarterly journal called Policy History.  Here in the UK, there is an admirable organisation called History and Policy, which aims to connect historians with expertise in particular topics to policymakers and the general public. To see examples of what this clearinghouse for ideas does, see here and here.  A historian who has published on an area that is relevant to some sort of pressing policy question (e.g., counter-insurgency and the Afghanistan exit strategy) will be commissioned by History and Policy to write a short summary of his or her research with lessons for today. The piece, which is placed online, contains a bibliography for those who want to know more. 

A few years ago, I kicked around the idea of setting up a Canadian version of History and Policy. I spoke to a historian who now works in policy studies institute to see whether we could get it off the ground. Unfortunately, nothing really came of this initiative for a variety of reasons, most of which were my fault. Anyway, perhaps making more academic historical research in Canada Open Access will serve as a sort of second-best substitute for the intellectual clearinghouse I proposed back in 2008: if articles show up in a Google Search and can be read easily, readers will be able to draw their own policy conclusions.  The key thing will be to find the funds to make journal Open Access. 

 

Update: I see that the publishers of Mosby’s article have now decided to make the paper available online, free to everyone, for a limited period. See here,

Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,

I suspect that this astute move is designed to raise the profile of the journal: make a particularly sensational article free and more people will become familiar with your website. However, this decision to make one particular article free to everyone doesn’t address the more fundamental problem with the pay to read model of academic publishing.  

 

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9 responses

20 07 2013
Jim Clifford (@jburnford)

Hi Andrew,

History and Policy was the model that we had in mind when we launched ActiveHistory.ca four years ago. Somewhere in the archives of H-Canada you can find our original call for papers on a range of topics facing Canada in 2009 and the Papers section of ActiveHistory.ca is a legacy of our original plans. As it turned out, it is hard to get people to write papers that don’t really fit into our current academic career advancement model for a website launched by PhD students with no audience. We shifted over to blogging and found over time it was possible to develop a growing audience and contributions from a widening range of historians.

I’m still interested in reviving the public policy goals of ActiveHistory.ca at some point in the future, but I think the History and Policy might take more funding that our site current operates on. History and Policy have staff members that can work to link historians with public policy makers and the media. There are a number of think tanks around Canada that might help us bridge our research with current policy issues, but we’d also need a critical mass of historians interested in this kind of work. Maybe Ian Mosby’s success, along with Sean Kheraj’s work on pipeline oil spills, will inspire others to think about how their research connects with current policy issues.

One more note, Histoire sociale/Social History has only committed to keeping Ian’s article open for 2 weeks from the date it was opened up. I sympathize with the serious fiscal constrains of academic publishing in Canada, but I really hope they decide to leave this article open permanently.

Thanks for the post,

Jim

22 07 2013
andrewdsmith

Hi Jim, I replied with a blog post.

20 07 2013
Spencer Carter

This resonates: “What I do know is that the current model keeps citizens from having access to academic knowledge. That’s a bad thing.” My own view of “Open Exclusion”: http://microburin.com/2013/06/05/open-exclusion-the-personal-open-access-experience/ | It is painful and re-enforces academic elites, discrimination. The model assumes the rest of society is either financially well-endowed (and retired with a pension, so harmless) or intellectually inferior (if not stupid to pay the e-sub fees). See my Elsevier example.

22 07 2013
andrewdsmith

You wrote: “It is painful and re-enforces academic elites, discrimination.”

I agree with the first part of this sentence, but I don’t think that Closed Access benefits academic elites or increases their relative power in society. In fact, I think that putting research behind paywalls undermines the ability of academic elites, which I guess we can define as research-active academics, to influence society, since few people can actually read their research! In the same way, locking the doors of all of the movie theatres would reduce the influence of Hollywood.

23 07 2013
stephdeck1

Hi Andrew

Very interesting blogs at the moment, thanks!

Stephie

25 07 2013
Ten Other Things You Might Not Have Known About 20th-Century Aboriginal History in Canada.

[…] journals are often inaccessible to the public. The recent notoriety of Ian Mosby’s work has raised the matter of open-access publishing for Canadian historians. Aside from those with institutional and personal subscriptions to such […]

25 07 2013
Sean Kheraj, Canadian History and Environment - Ten Other Things You Might Not Have Known About 20th-Century Aboriginal History in Canada

[…] journals are often inaccessible to the public. The recent notoriety of Ian Mosby’s work has raised the matter of open-access publishing for Canadian historians. Aside from those with institutional and personal subscriptions to such […]

28 07 2013
10 Other Things You Might Not Have Known About 20th-Century Canadian First Nations History | lara (author-blogger)

[…] journals are often inaccessible to the public. The recent notoriety of Ian Mosby’s work has raised the matter of open-access publishing for Canadian historians. Aside from those with institutional and personal subscriptions to such […]

9 03 2015
Research is Getting a Bit More Open: Good News for Historical Research in Canada

[…] But! Aha, you say. Nobody outside the academy wants to read your article on OCR, Milligan. Fair enough. But scholarship that spurs national interest is also locked away, as Andrew Smith noted in a post about Ian Mosby’s nutrition experiments article. […]

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