Digital History

An Inadvertent Revolutionary? Developing Law, Crime and History as an Open Access Journal

By Kim Stevenson

Not since the phenomenal innovations and expansion of print technologies in the mid-nineteenth century has the publishing industry experienced such a dynamic revolution in how it produces material for its audience; In the digital age the distribution and dissemination of information is now inexorably driven by the power, immediacy and instant access of electronic media. Academic publishing is no exception. There are already at least 4,000 Open Access (OA) arts and humanities titles, that is, titles where material is freely available to all, without subscription. The JURN Directory of arts and humanities e-journals that are ‘either free, or offer significant free content’ includes some 600 history-based journals, reviews, institutional archives, local historical society publications, notes and chronicles.


The ability to publish and disseminate research once completed, or incomplete and on-going to test reaction and seek comment, almost immediately, in an ever-expanding range of online journals and other fora, has inherent attractions, but it can also become a minefield for the unwary. This combined with the increasing demands of funding bodies, particularly Research Councils UK and the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, that publicly funded research be made freely available or is published only in specifically approved outlets, generates considerable implications and significant challenges for scholars, their institutions, and academic publishers. In particular, the relational dynamic with traditional paper-based journals and the way in which they have operated in the past has already triggered debate about their future role and the extent to which they may need to adapt to maintain their academic presence, something Josie McLellan alludes to in her HWO comment. With, according to Publishers Weekly, e-books siphoning off approximately 22% of all non-academic book spending, the increasing availability of academic-authored print books in electronic format, and University OA archive repositories offering (and in a number of cases mandating) host space for staff publications, pre-publications and theses, the academic publishing landscape is experiencing a seismic shift.

Starting a (minor) revolution – like-minded academics

bk1As the founding joint editor of an established OA Journal Law, Crime and History, I now find myself an inadvertent revolutionary with first hand experience of this phenomenon, even if OA publishing is nothing new (Suber). The journal emerged from a minor insurrection at the Social History Millennium Conference when (as an academic lawyer) I was informed by an eminent historian that there was ‘nothing law could teach history’. Fortunately, there were some insurgent historians present, namely Dr Judith Rowbotham and Professor David Nash, and together we created an interdisciplinary, inter-institutional and inter-collaborative research project and network SOLON: Interdisciplinary Studies in Crime and Bad Behaviour with over 200 members. We had no real idea of the political concept of OA publishing at the time, but recognised there was a significant vacuum and need for a forum where genuinely interdisciplinary research examining criminality, the criminal law and the criminal justice process in its historical legal context could be profiled and disseminated. With the support of firstly, Nottingham Trent University, and then Plymouth University, we developed a genuinely free open access, externally peer-reviewed, international online web journal, Law, Crime and History, without subscription fees, Article Processing Charges or embargoes. The publication is biannual and is relatively ‘cost free’ to produce, edited and formatted by the general editors and incurring minimal technical staff costs to upload and update material.

Anecdotally, figures for rejection rates for history journals are commonly as high as 60% and in some cases even higher. For example, William and Mary Quarterly states on its website that it publishes only 1 in 8 submissions received. High rejection rates are often perceived within academia as a measure of the quality of a particular journal, but they may also suggest exclusivity, especially to young, inexperienced and innovative researchers whose work may be of equal importance and interest. Nor do high rejection rates necessarily imply high readership and access rates. Comparatively, our rejection rate is quite low. Partly because the journal is expressly interdisciplinary it typically attracts those who embrace that approach. The majority of submissions are, at least in the view of the editorial panel, of a high standard and tend to fit the subject parameters of the journal title. As we are not bound by the costs of printing, there are fewer compelling factors to reject.

Positive vectors

From a purely practical perspective, the physical text space available with online OA publishing formats has considerable attractions for historical researchers, with the availability of greater physical space to accommodate visual imagery, reproduction of archive material, metatext, textmining models, embedding of multimedia, etc., and potentially more expansive and detailed explanation and analysis where appropriate. Law, Crime and History welcomes submissions that utilise such illustrations and techniques. The introduction of new methodologies that challenge traditional empirical approaches, such as textmining pioneered by Tim Hitchcock, can also be attractive to and attracted by OA publishing, not least because of the creative digital formats in which such material can be usefully presented and organized. For example, Galarza et al in the Journal of Digital Humanities (which is committed to expanding the coverage of digital humanities) comment that although such digital tools are transforming historical research, ‘producing excellent models of research, pedagogy and public engagement… The opportunities to publish digital work, or even have it reviewed, are limited’. However, historical institutions and associations will need to develop protocols and guidelines regarding the incorporation of empirical research, especially oral histories, transcripts, and notebooks as well as any copyright implications.

OA publishing therefore has ideological attractions. Law, Crime and History pioneered and encouraged a broader interdisciplinary approach to crime and legal history that challenges traditional boundaries, crosses into other disciplines beyond the three title themes or examines current events and legislative reform through the exploration of historical parallels. OA publishing can also respond more quickly to publishing imperatives, particularly to academic trends. Periodically, areas of historical interest suddenly start to move very quickly, or equally quickly can lose favour. Recent trends and shifts include the history of religion, the postmodern turn, the linguistic turn, the ‘material culture’ turn and appositely the ‘digital turn’ – Galarza’s article is entitled ‘A call to develop historical scholarship in response to the digital turn’.

With increasing demands on researchers to demonstrate ‘impact’, OA publishing has a number of inherent advantages over print. OA publications can more easily facilitate and promote free local and community user engagement with academic research (one of the key objectives for the next round of UK funding allocations post-2014), especially amongst local historians, family historians and members of the public interested in wider historical perspectives. OA online articles are more frequently found and cited and readership analytics are more easily obtained. When we first created the journal OA articles could generally only be found directly through the host journal’s website but now can easily be discovered through Google.

Pre- or post-revolution?

We have seen other online journals come and go, and we have also seen an increase in so-called ‘predatory journals’ that are not created and developed by academics for academics, but by questionable private publishing companies that spam academic distribution lists inviting submissions and then demanding publishing fees, with less than rigorous review processes. It takes time to establish a journal and build its reputation and quality. Ultimately, any journal’s existence is wholly dependent on those who wish to read it, are prepared to review papers received and are willing to share their hard work and research effort through articles submitted. This is no different whether the journal is a traditional established print version or an electronic upstart like ours. The survival of both will be dictated by the scholarly and lay readership habits of the immediate future and the flexibility of editorial teams to meet such demand. Without any global control or restrictions on domain names/journal titles, universally agreed standards on review processes and presentation etc., it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the established from the disreputable. There are already examples of predatory publishers duplicating titles in certain subjects and duping researchers through doing so. Indirectly, the REF exercise is exerting some quality control as are the public funding bodies, but this tends to favour Gold OA publishing, where journals typically charge fees to authors, and traditional journal models, creating tensions with academic freedom. Universities and departments may need to think more constructively about aligning themselves with particular journals and publishers; and academics should engage in a broader and informed conversation about how they wish their research to be disseminated and received if the academy is to retain any autonomy. After all, the point of any revolution is to secure, directly or indirectly, (academic) freedom and cultural shift.

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