Open Access Week

28 07 2013

There has been a lot of discussion in the historical blogosphere in the past week about the benefits and drawbacks of Open Access publishing. A few days ago, I published a post about what the sensation sparked by Ian Mosby’s article says about Open Access publishing. [For background: Mosby published an article in an academic journal that showed that Canadian government scientists in the 1940s deliberately withheld food from Native children so they could study the effect of malnutrition.] Mosby’s article received massive attention in the Canadian media and even sparked protests, such as this one in Winnipeg.

Now that’s research with impact!

As I pointed out in my post, Mosby’s article was published in a password-protected journal to which vanishingly few people have access, unless they are university employees or students. This meant that much of the public and media discussion of Mosby’s research was based on second- and third-hand accounts of what’s in the article. This situation perfectly illustrates what’s wrong with the current system of academic publishing. Open Access would certainly help to diffuse academic research and improve the quality of public debate. So Open Access is great in principle, but the move to Open Access raises the question is how we fund academic journals if everyone can read them online for free.  I’ve posted on this issue before, as I feel strongly that the proposed Open Access regime here in the UK is deeply flawed.

Christopher Moore and Chris Dummitt have had some interesting things to say about copyright law and Open Access. See here and here.

The American Historical Association appears to be going against the trend towards Open Access. Rather than encouraging PhD students to put their dissertations online, it has called for a lengthy embargo on PhD theses. See here. Needless to say, advocates of Open Access have condemned this move.  See here, here, and here. Personally, I think the best criticism of the AHA policy was from Eric Rauchway a historian who, like me, is somewhat interdisciplinary and pays attention to what is going on in political science and economics. Rauchway points out that political scientists and economists were amazed when they heard of the AHA’s move. In economics, people put ungated working papers online all the time, with no visible impact on their ability to publish the stuff later in journals.  .  We should listen to what he has to say.  The President of the AHA, legendary historian William Cronon, has published a defence of the new AHA policy. Cronon is obviously a great scholar, but on this issue I think that he is making a mistake.

Meanwhile, here in the UK the government has softened its commitment to Open Access.  Under the refined proposals, monographs will be exempted from the Open Access mandate. Moreover, the government has reduced the compliance rate for Open Access publishing that universities would be required to achieve from 80 per cent of all articles published by their faculty, which had been proposed in February, to just 70 per cent. According to the Times Higher Education supplement, This would be the average for all disciplines, with a higher figure (75 per cent) required for the sciences and lower figures for the social sciences (70 per cent) and humanities (60 per cent).

I’m not certain whether I understand how the word “average” is being used here. Are we talking about weighted averages for each university? I’m not certain how the government can know what the ratio of publications in each discipline area at each university is going to be in advance.

I was somewhat disturbed that the government is considering as an alternative to these targets a more capricious whim-based flexible regime whereby a  university could argue for exceptions to the open access requirement on a case-by-case basis. For instance, if a British academic  co-authors a paper with researchers in a country where universities are not subject to an open access mandate, the regulator could grant that academic an exemption allowing him or her to publish the research in an non-OA journal. That sounds like a recipe for confusion and a make work project for administrators both within universities and the government. In fact, I can imagine a whole new profession emerging out of this proposal—there would be people in each university tasked with liaising with their counterparts in Whitehall to discuss each article someone want to publish in a non-OA journal. .

The Higher Education Funding Council for England, which is the regulator for most of the UK’s universities, has just opened its consultation period for the discussion of its plans for an Open Access regime. No doubt the discussion of this important issue will continue.

Update: if you are a historian and wish to participate in a quick survey about Open Access publishing, click here.

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.