Reinventing the Academic Journal: The ‘Digital Turn’, Open Access, & Peer Review

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OA-logoBy Tim Hitchcock and Jason M. Kelly

The Digital Turn

Historians love hard copy manuscripts, books and journals. These materials are the very stuff of academic research and production. And for at least the last 30 years, historians have turned their minds and pens to creating a self-conscious history of these objects. We have defined them, and described them. And in the resulting literature it is entirely clear that books, journals and other text objects form a distinct and sophisticated technology for validating and conveying information. This is not, however, how we normally speak about hard-copy text objects, books and journals in particular. We do not look on them as technologies at all.

Instead, we fetishise them. We wax lyrical over their feel and smell; the sound of their rustling pages and haptic beauty. And we invoke the journey into the library and archive, and into print, as shared experiences – as rituals of initiation into a community of scholarship. In the process, we tend to lose sight of that book historian’s simple and self-evident observation, that hard copy text is a technology for moving and exchanging information.

And, it is a very good technology. A well-made book, properly bound and lying perfectly flat; a book whose wide margins invite notes and marginalia; a book that can be held and flipped and dropped and thumbed and marked and ripped, and still convey the information with which it is charged uncorrupted for hundreds of years is a technological marvel. When compared to digital technologies for conveying information, hard-copy books and journals are impressive.

The first scholarly journals incorporated not just the aesthetic perfection of a well-crafted object, but also embodied the structures and form of a well-articulated form of professional practice. They evolved in dialogue with the early professional academies and societies from the late seventeenth century and came to serve a distinct role in defining the narrowing membership of an academic ‘public sphere’. By the nineteenth century historians had their own journals, starting with Historische Zeitschrift, founded in 1859. It was explicitly designed to ‘represent the true method of historical research and to point out the deviations therefrom’. Embedding the process of peer review, and dedicated to upholding and promoting the values and practises of a specific academic community, these first history journals are almost indistinguishable from those published today.

But, as the ‘digital turn’ gradually transforms our publishing practises and ways of defining an academic community (whether we choose to self-consciously adopt a pro-digital stance or not), it becomes increasingly important to take seriously the fundamental observation that books, and more particularly academic journals, are technologies designed to a purpose. And that purpose is two-fold:

1) to disseminate academic research as efficiently and broadly as possible, providing a forum for debate and exchange relevant to the academic community;

and

2) to guarantee high academic standards (achieved through the process of peer review).

There is no reason why achieving these goals is incumbent upon the format of the journal, or indeed, the existence of a hard-copy object. In this moment of the ‘digital turn’, it is worthwhile reflecting on whether our technologies and processes – both in print and digital forms – are serving our ultimate objectives. Doing so reveals two things. First, the publication process designed for the print world has the tendency to be both inefficient and to reinforce the intellectual status quo. Secondly, academics are translating the limitations of print to the digital environment.

Print journals impose limits on authors that undermine both quick and broad dissemination and high academic standards. Most history and humanities journals, for instance, are painfully inefficient, taking years to manage the process of transforming a submitted manuscript into a peer-reviewed ‘publication’. Consequently, academic exchanges and debates take place over years rather than months. Subscription costs, generally established to satisfy the needs of a commercial business model built on producing and distributing hard copy, actively limit the dissemination of scholarship, ensuring an ever-narrowing readership. And perhaps most obviously, the 7,000 to 12,000-word length that has come to define the format of the academic journal article, reinforces a kind of generic conservatism, and substantially works against intellectual innovation. Likewise, double-blind peer review adds many months – sometimes up to a year – to the publication process, all for the input of two or three professionals whose labours may or may not substantively alter or improve the final product. And, in all cases, their comments, which can be quite substantial, are soon shuffled into a filing cabinet and lost to posterity. Furthermore, the peer review process has the tendency to limit intellectual innovation and experiment, disciplining authors to traditions, standards, and hierarchies that may or may not produce the best scholarship.

The technological limitations of print have been a powerful historical force in shaping the processes associated with the academic journal. However, we all now work in a digital environment using electronic tools. The computer has replaced the pen, and the rhythms of the printing press – the galleys, the arcane symbols of the proof reader, the bindery, warehouse and academic bookshop – are but distant memories. Journals are produced from electronic files, passed via email, and are read (or searched) as PDFs downloaded from the university library. But this has neither changed the processes for producing academic journals nor altered the essential character of the journals we produce and read. We have even transposed the technological limitations of print into thousands of born digital academic journals.

In other words, traditional standards of practise have become ossified into rigid norms. Digital publishing processes mirror those created for early modern technologies. Most digital articles are little more than ghosts of print articles, comprising a standard twenty to thirty-five pages, few images, a linear narrative. On the whole, interactive features are left to reside exclusively in the mind’s eye of the reader. Lag times in the publication process make it almost impossible to manage a constructive and timely public and academic dialogue. Despite the ability to publish our findings and data sets immediately – not to mention, the valuable contributions of peer reviewers – it usually takes years for work to find its way online. And, the supporting data sets and peer reviews often remain on hard drives and in filing cabinets. The problem is that in allowing the deus ex machina of the printing press to manage a modern publication process, we have increasingly failed to satisfy the primary purposes of journal publication suggested above: to efficiently disseminate good history to the widest possible community of readers.

Open Access

Breaking the historical binds of traditional processes and professional practices requires a radical re-imagining of academic scholarship for the twenty-first century. This process has been set into motion by grassroots and institutional stakeholders who are advocating for open access. There are a variety of open access models, but the overall thrust of the open access movement is to make digital scholarly publications freely available to the public. The major debates centre around two things: economic sustainability and academic quality.

In academia, the open access movement has been gaining traction for many years, led by libraries and scholars, who have faced increased fees from journal publishers, and those who believe that research should be free and readily accessible to everybody. Articles locked behind paywalls cost universities millions of dollars each year, leading to outcries over price gouging. In a notable protest over fees, over 13,000 researchers recently signed the ‘Cost of Knowledge’ petition to boycott the for-profit publisher Elsevier. So-called ‘hacktivists’ – most notably the late Aaron Swartz – have even freed thousands of academic journal articles locked behind paywalls.

Governments and NGOs have also responded to the need and desire for open access. The Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities (2003) which has over 400 signatures from libraries, professional organizations, research institutes, and universities describes its goals as follows:

Our mission of disseminating knowledge is only half complete if the information is not made widely and readily available to society. New possibilities of knowledge dissemination not only through the classical form but also and increasingly through the open access paradigm via the Internet have to be supported. We define open access as a comprehensive source of human knowledge and cultural heritage that has been approved by the scientific community.

In order to realize the vision of a global and accessible representation of knowledge, the future Web has to be sustainable, interactive, and transparent. Content and software tools must be openly accessible and compatible.

US-based researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health grants are obligated to place their work in the open access repository PubMed Central. In the UK, the Finch Report (2012), a government commissioned study, made the recommendation that open access should be a requirement for any publicly funded research. And most recently, the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy has mandated open access publication of all publicly funded US research.

Nevertheless, the ideal of freely available academic scholarship is entangled in socio-economic realities. Financial and institutional interests, concerns over hierarchies, the protection of turf, and simple traditionalism work together to maintain the status quo. And, importantly, those individuals most interested in the future of academic research are often those most likely to question open access.

Academic publishers, for example, find their institutions stretched between their missions to disseminate academic work and their commercial interests. Income from subscriptions finances their operations. Scholarly societies, often the organizations that produce academic journals, have budgets tied to revenue from journal subscriptions. And, since they have historically been essential to academia – hosting conferences, serving as advocates for the profession, and providing a variety of supplementary benefits – declines in revenue from the journals have the potential to undermine their viability. Governments, which fund much academic research, have a desire for scholarship to be public, but they also have a stake in preserving commercial operations. In the notable case of the Finch Report, this can lead to unwieldy solutions. In the Finch model, authors who receive public funds must make their work open access. But, in order to preserve the commercial operations of publishers, it recommends an open access model that charges authors to publish – even while asking the same scholars to edit the journals and review articles without compensation. While common in the sciences, this pay-to-publish model has little precedent in the humanities and has the capacity to make academic hierarchies more rigid, initiate opaque funding mechanisms, and charge the government twice (first for funding research, then to subsidize publication).

Despite this, it is clear that open access will help redefine the publishing landscape and help disseminate scholarship more broadly. The question is, however, what will this scholarship look like? If the vast majority of open access journals are any indication, they will parallel print journals both in publication processes and in final form. They will reproduce the socio-cultural hierarchies of traditional publication, and they will remain embedded in a market economy. If this is the outcome, then a valuable opportunity will have been lost. At this moment of disruption there is an opportunity to better match the goals of the academic journal: efficient and widely available high quality scholarship.

Open Peer Review and Open Access Models

A twenty-first-century academic journal need not reproduce traditional models in new forms. There have already been experiments that promise to improve both access and quality. Some of these come from the realm of science and technology. STEM fields have been at the forefront of developing open access repositories. For example, arXiv at Cornell University hosts scientific papers, providing them as open access documents. Founded in 1991, it now provides over 800,000 works to the public. The Public Library of Science (PLOS) works in a similar fashion, with the added oversight of peer review. GitHub, created in San Francisco in 2008, is a peer-to-peer sharing site for coders. It allows them to post their open source code so that it can be developed by others. Its innovation is a system that allows branching and versioning of the code while maintaining a database of authors’ contributions.

In the humanities, experiments have, not unsurprisingly, been particularly concerned with peer review. While most open access publications follow the traditional modes of pre-publication peer review, there have been some fruitful attempts to both increase speed and quality in the peer review process. For example, CommentPress and Digress.it, themes designed by Eddie Tejeda to work within the WordPress CMS, allow reviewers to mark up online text on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. Excellent examples of their use include Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy and Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki’s Writing History in the Digital Age. Another approach to peer review is that of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s Digital Humanities Now. Rather than publishing, the editors aggregate, review, and curate online content by digital humanists, highlighting works published in non-traditional formats. In effect, the author first publishes their work online and then asks the editors at Digital Humanities Now to review it.

While these models all have their strengths, there is much room to improve and develop processes that better conform to the overall goals of academic research and publication. The Open Scholarship Project (OSP), a project directed by the authors of this essay, is focused on creating a flexible system for publishing academic articles in the humanities and social sciences. The guiding principle is to match the technology to its function, or

1) to disseminate academic research as efficiently and broadly as possible, providing a forum for debate and exchange relevant to the academic community;

and

2) to guarantee high academic standards (achieved through the process of peer review).

As, such, OSP is guided by four design principles that set it apart from other approaches.

1. Diamond Open Access
Currently, open access systems are of two types: gold and green. Gold Open Access refers to a journal’s online policy, which may allow immediate open access to the final edited version of a peer-reviewed journal publication, usually funded through author-pays or institutional subscription models. Green Open Access refers to repositories for scholarly work, which may or may not have gone through peer review. Some journals have policies that allow scholars to upload an earlier version of their article to a digital repository, often at their universities.

OSP provides an alternative – Diamond Open Access. Diamond Open Access rejects both the author-pay model as well as the paywall model. This is essential to academic freedom, removing important financial barriers that have the potential to limit free thought. But, unlike Green Open Access, the diamond model offers peer review and hosts the final version of the author’s paper. In other words, it takes the best of the Green and Gold models and fuses them.

2. Versioning
OSP offers scholars a place to post their work as part of their scholarly workflow. Rather than submitting a final draft version to an editor at the end of a long writing process, scholars can post their early drafts in OSP, including conference papers. While they work, they can solicit input from peers, who help them refine their ideas from first draft to final draft. The model for versioning is available in GitHub, an open source repository for computer code, but this model has not been used in the academic research context. As reviewers contribute to an author’s scholarship, they receive recognition for their contribution in each of the versions.

3. Open Peer Review
While some journals have experimented with open peer review, using systems such as CommentPress, journals have not integrated open peer review as part of the standard workflow. OSP allows scholars to ask for peer review on every draft of their writing on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis – in form, it is similar to digital marginalia. Comments are threaded, which allows authors and readers to have discussions. Furthermore, each comment receives a unique URL so that other scholars can cite any important ideas that emerge from the conversation. The OSP open peer review process does several things. First, each reviewer receives public credit for their participation in developing the authors’ work, and they are referenced in each version of the text. Secondly, peer reviews no longer disappear into filing cabinets and drawers. The valuable contributions of peer reviewers become published works themselves, further developing the scholarly dialogue. Thirdly, by opening up the peer review process, it becomes more transparent, avoiding some of the problems inherent to the traditional peer review process.

4. Badging
OSP takes advantage of the Mozilla Open Badges Framework which allows the project to create an entirely new model for publishing. Rather than submitting to a traditional print journal, authors who use OSP will ask journal editors, institutions, professional societies, or consortia of scholars to ‘badge’ their work. In other words, like many of the publications of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Royal Society, organizations will add their imprimatur without carrying the burden of publication costs. These organizations can peer review the work using their own standards and reviewers. They may choose to use the OSP system of open review or commission anonymous reviewers. They may refuse to offer a badge, ask for revisions, or badge the work immediately. An author may ask several groups to badge their work, especially if it is interdisciplinary. Once a group offers their badge, it will be affixed to the relevant version of the author’s piece.

The OSP represents just one model of how we might transform academic publishing for the better, responding to both the technological innovations of the last twenty years and the more recent political imperatives created by government policy.

***

Academia is facing a moment of rare opportunity – a moment when technological sophistication, public opinions, and collective wills might effect dramatic change to the benefit of both academia and its publics. But if academia takes a reactive and reactionary approach – seeking to simply defend current practice rather than innovating – a unique moment will have passed. Choices will be made for academia, not by academia, quite possibly to the detriment of scholarship.

Matching our scholarly goals to our methods and processes requires us to rethink our institutions as well as our institutionalized practices. It will require us to question the role that some of our cherished traditions and beloved material objects play in our work. We will need to ask ourselves: to what extent are we working for them, and to what extent are they working for us?

It is not easy to question the institutions and objects that have had 400 years to embed themselves into our socio-cultural frameworks. But, as historians, we must remind ourselves that at one point, these were also revolutionary and disconcerting. Over the centuries, we have ‘naturalized’ them to the point that they seem essential to what we do and how we do it. They are not, however. There are other scholarly modes. It is time for experiments – time to see what works best for twenty-first-century academia. Perhaps there is not a single answer; perhaps there are several best solutions that match the varying needs of academia and its publics.

Professor Tim Hitchcock is a Faculty Member at the School of Humanities, University of Hertfordshire.  Dr Jason M. Kelly is Director, IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute and Associate Professor of History at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.