[META] Breaking the primacy of print: open access and TWC

Second post on open access: if you’ve seen the Open Access Explained video, it may seem pretty obvious that academic work on fans should also be open access. But what are the challenges of making a journal like Transformative Works and Cultures open access? TWC editor Karen Hellekson posted this fine analysis of the issues in August 2010, with a special focus on how making such a journal online only affects things. Reposting.

I was brought on board to help launch TWC in part because of my expertise in the scientific publishing world and my background in production. I was a hard sell when asked to lend my time to the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) and to TWC. What convinced me was the open access nature of the journal, the Creative Commons copyright, and the notion of fair use that would permit the journal to embed video and stills. These are in striking contrast to the locked-down access, repressive reprint rules, and monetization of content that I see every day in the journal-publishing industry. When it came time to decide whether we wanted a print component available for TWC’s articles, like a print version or PDFs, I spoke out strongly against it. I argued for the primacy of the online version because TWC embeds media, like YouTube videos and screen caps. How could that be duplicated in print? It can’t. Better that there be only one official version, and that one online. We would strike a blow for online-only content!

Two years later, TWC is still online only, but it’s become clear that that ideal has a cost. TWC’s audience is made up of acafans, and lots of academics who might otherwise submit to TWC find that they ought not, because their university has rules that online-only publications do not count for promotion and tenure. Some publishers won’t send us review copies of books because they have a blanket policy that they will not provide books to online-only publications. It’s clear that the reputation of online-only publications is markedly lesser than print publications. Discussions have been going on for years about online publishing models and how to weight them for tenure and promotion: Robert B. Townsend’s “History and the Future of Scholarly Publishing” discusses the issue in the field of history, and the Modern Language Association lays out its suggestions in its Statement on Publication in Electronic Journals.

The academic articles in TWC are double-blind peer reviewed. This means that every article is read by two scholars in the field who are unaware of the identity of the writer, and the writer is shielded from the identity of the readers. That’s the gold standard in the journal-publishing industry. (Several sections of the journal, including the Symposium section, are editorially reviewed.) We naively thought that rigor, peer review, excellent editing, and overall high standards would trump mode of publication. But little has changed in institutional practices. It is too easy to replicate the existing model, or too difficult to permit an institutional committee to assess items on their own merits. They would rather offload their assessment to a proxy, such as publication in a prestigious journal or by a prestigious press. Why read the book if Oxford University Press published it? It’s Oxford University Press! Similarly, to assess importance, you might look at proxies that are meant to suggest importance in the field: you might check the journal’s acceptance rates; if in the sciences you might check their impact factor; or you might examine a listing maintained by, say, the MLA, and if it’s on the list, it counts.

To up our profile, we submit TWC to various indexes. These indexes are lists of vetted content that meets certain criteria, and being listed in the index is a way to show legitimacy and drive readership. Well-known indexes that most people have heard of include PubMed (for medicine) and ERIC (for education). TWC signed an agreement permitting EBSCO, a database aggregator, to list TWC. But our application to be listed in Scopus was rejected, perhaps because when we applied, only a single issue had come out. (We’ll try again later.) To be listed, not only must TWC maintain its status as blind peer reviewed, but the journal must print a careful ratio of peer-reviewed content to non-peer-reviewed content to retain the status of “academic.” The indexing services seek to ensure quality by going down a checklist of current best practices in the journal-publishing industry and only listing journals that fulfill these criteria. Yet best practices have clearly not yet been able to adequately account for online-only publications, or online-only publications would not be treated differently by academic institutions during review for tenure and promotion.

When I fill out forms, surveys, and index submission forms related to TWC and its practices, it becomes clear how strongly the print model affects every aspect of what is considered the norm for publishing. I skip entire sections: I don’t know the number of subscriptions because we don’t use a subscription model. I can’t estimate readership because many of the user accounts are obviously spam accounts, and plenty of readers never create a user ID. We don’t offer different levels of access to different people. We don’t have office expenses because we don’t have an office, instead using freeware OJS to shepherd copy through the publication process. I can’t estimate readership for an essay because our copyright permits the author, or anyone else, to repost, which bleeds off readers and thus they aren’t counted by the software. We have no income from reprint or author fees because we don’t charge those fees. All the questions meant to assess readership and subscriptions are, with an open access model, nearly impossible to estimate. Ironically, the traditional journal-publishing world seeks to maximize impact by minimizing access, even though study after study has shown that people are far more likely to read and cite publications available in full online.

Despite these very real drawbacks, all of which are remnants of the print model, I stand by our decision to reject print in favor of online-only open access. We probably don’t need to be cited in indexes like Scopus because Google searches easily find us, with no block to obtaining full text. It has also struck me that my coeditor, Kristina Busse, and I are the perfect people to edit this journal precisely because neither of us is affiliated. Our jobs aren’t going to be affected by our work; working on the journal will never “count” one way or the other. That’s tremendously freeing.

I’m proud to be working on a publication that is on the vanguard of changing the journal-publishing model by testing models and ideas that permit the free and open exchange of ideas within a context of intellectual rigor. I am saddened that some authors will never submit to us because they can’t afford to, but I am also confident that within the next 10 years, that will change. And it will be because TWC, and journals like it, stood its ground.