The Song of the Open Access Road

Great news from ACRL (via LJ’s Academic Newswire)! The members-only preview of forthcoming articles in CR&L will now be available to everyone, not just members. This means you can not only read them yourself, you can blog about them, link to them, send them to people who you think may be interested – in short, they can be read and circulated, and that’s good for the field. About time, too, given we’ve urged this on other disciplines.

Also, in the Chron, Jennifer Howard reports on a high-powered initiative to bring humanities scholarship into the open. According to the story,

Scholars in the sciences have been light-years ahead of their peers in the humanities in exploring the possibilities of open-access publishing. But a new venture with prominent academic backers, the Open Humanities Press, wants to help humanists close the gap.

The nonprofit operation—described by those involved…

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Whoops, sorry. I’ll gloss it for you. The Open Humanities Press will use ibiblio – a publishing platform based at UNC Chapel Hill that sees itself as a “conservancy” of quality texts online – and the leverage of prestige. It has enlisted the old guard (formerly known as the Young Turks) – including philosopher Alan Badiou, theorists Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and J. Hillis Miller; even Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar who, as president of MLA, nudged his colleagues to stop seeing the book as the one and only acceptable merit badge for tenure. With these big names behind it, who can be against it? Oh, and Peter Suber is also on the board, so at least one of them will know how to frame the argument in plain English. It will start by pulling together seven open access journals and plans to build from there.

Why has it taken humanities longer to get on the bandwagon? Partly, it’s cultural. Humanists (and I’m one of them) value printed texts and their special affordances. Partly, we’re not quite the practical nerds that scientists are. Largely, the sense of authorship in the humanities is simply more individualistic. Intertextuality notwithstanding, humanists seem far less inclined than scientist to see themselves as part of a shared, massive effort to collectively move us closer to the truth. We’re more inclined to stop in our tracks and parse what “truth” means, if anything. Humanists take pride in developing their own voice, and tend to view their ideas and their expression as unique, whereas scientists are more inclined to subsume their individuality of voice into a recognizable and predictable pattern. You know exactly where to find the methods and the results, and there are no puns in the title.

But all differences aside, humanists want to be read. They want their ideas to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the world. They want to connect. Developments like these will help – at a time when sustaining our old way of doing things is growing more and more challenging.

We have much in common. Academics have a core commitment to sharing that not only helps share their work, but their methods of inquiry. As John Ziman has said in an essay about science (“Is Science Losing its Objectivity?” Nature 382 (29 August 1996): 751-754) a communal norm requires that “the fruits of research should be regarded as ‘public knowledge.’ It covers all the practices involved in the communication of research results to other scientists, to students and to society at large. But this has philosophical implications. By insisting on the pooling of personal knowledge gained from individual experience, it stresses the role of observation and experiment in science and underpins scientific realism and empiricism” (751).

Though empirical “observation and experiment” may not be exactly how the humanities works, the methods scholars use to get at truth are not haphazard or self-interested. By making scholarship public knowledge, humanists can foster knowledge beyond our narrow institutional and individual perspectives. We can do better than address our work to a tiny cadre of specialists.

This seems as good a time as any to point out that the Sparky Awards (co-sponsored by SPARC and ACRL) invite students to create a short video on the value of sharing information. You can view last year’s winners or find shareable materials here.

Sparky Awards

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

3 thoughts on “The Song of the Open Access Road”

  1. Re: the Sparky awards, when the ACRL Scholarly Communications Committee (which I co-chair) asked the ACRL board to approve being a co-sponsor, we hoped that librarians would use this contest as a tool for talking with students and faculty about information use and policy in general, and access issues in specific, thereby approaching information fluency in a creative way. So we encourage you to talk now with instructors in appropriate departments about ways they could use this contest next fall as a fun and thought-provoking class assignment. By the way, there will soon be an educator’s guide available on the Sparky award website (

  2. Great post. But about those preprints…

    >This means you can not only read them yourself, you can blog about them, link to them, send them to people who you think may be interested – in short, they can be read and circulated, and that’s good for the field.

    That is good, until the issue is published and the preprints disappear and your links break for six months during the embargo period.

    Why not just take this journal gold OA?

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