The task of building an “open access culture”

Kevin L. Smith is Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University (North Carolina). He writes an informative blog for the Duke community relating to intellectual property, copyright, and other scholarly communication issues. In 2009, Smith contributed a peer-reviewed article to the journal Theological Librarianship (Volume 2, Number 1, June 2009), entitled “Open Access and Authors’ Rights Management: A Possibility for Theology?” Theological Librarianship is an open access online journal published by the American Theological Library Association.

“What makes theological studies different?”

Smith briefly reviews the open access scene across disciplines, noting that the level of acceptance of this communication/publication model tends to vary with the established research and communication traditions within each discipline. As a generalization, Smith observes that while researchers in the hard sciences have been accepting of open access, “the humanities disciplines have lagged far behind.” Smith is particularly interested in looking at theology as a discipline within the humanities, and he asks, “What can the prevailing conditions for scholarship in theological studies tell us about the obstacles and opportunities for open access to the output of that discipline?”

First, Smith notes that theological studies “has not felt the impact of the pricing crisis in journal literature as acutely as have many scientific fields. … Nevertheless, theological libraries have felt some significant ‘sticker shocks,’ usually when a journal that had been published by a scholarly society has been sold to a large commercial publisher.” Incidentally, it was the consternation expressed by several theological librarians on the ATLA listserv over SAGE’s recent acquisition of the respected journal Interpretation and its impact on institutional subscription pricing that served as a catalyst for the founding of this site. Though our colleagues over in STM would laugh that the 2012 renewal price for Interpretation is now a mere $200, it is important to appreciate that our cost in 2011 was less than $50—a 400% 302% increase (from $48 to $193) in a single year! If scholars in religion and theology were made aware of the negative impact this kind of commercialization can have on research communication access might they be open to considering alternatives?

Next, publishing journal articles may not be as heavily emphasized as a faculty expectation. “Many theological institutions place a greater weight on teaching and service as criteria for promotion and tenure than is the norm in other fields, although those values are universally acknowledged in the academy.” If faculty are not expected to publish they may not sense any necessity to engage a conversation advocating for change in the direction of open access. But then again, might they start to engage when they realize their library is forced to cancel subscriptions to cherished journals? Even faculty members who don’t routinely publish should see that they have a stake in the accessibility of research when it starts to negatively impact their teaching.

Smith also points to the fact that “monographic publications are still more highly prized in the humanities in general then they are in the sciences, where the time delay in publishing a book seems unacceptably long to many researchers.” The pace of communicating research in the humanities tends to be slower as it takes more time to develop ideas and treat topics with appropriate expansiveness or depth. The monograph as a scholarly communications format lends itself better to this research behavior than the journal article. This does not in itself preclude consideration of open access, however, as e-books gain wider acceptance and platforms for monographic publishing online are developed (see for example, an interesting initiative called Open Monographs Press at the Public Knowledge Project). Besides, humanities scholarship faces its own version of a ‘pricing crisis’ in the high costs associated with bringing low volume/low demand monographic titles to press. Open access could provide an answer here. What may be harder to overcome is the still common perception that the culmination of one’s scholarship is made more legitimately ‘real’ when it is printed on leaves of acid-free paper between hard bindings, resting comfortably with proper weightiness in the hands of an appreciative reader.

Smith also points to a couple of attitudinal obstacles. First, “the concern that an important idea, once distributed widely, may ceased to be the ‘property’ of the original author,” and second, the idea “that scholarship is directed at only a small number of expert researchers within a given specialty, and that all the people ‘who matter’ are going to see the works that will interest them.” He disputes the first assumption by noting that open access combined with Creative Commons attribution licensing may actually alleviate the “fear of misappropriation, or outright plagiarism” by associating “an author’s name with her work in a far more public way than traditional publication can.” He disputes the second assumption by pointing back to the growing pricing crisis in theological journals mentioned above. “The need to cancel library journal subscriptions makes it unlikely that, even in relatively inexpensive fields like theological studies, access for all interested parties can be assured.”

This last point—the assurance of access for all—leads Smith to suggest that the context for theological studies, unlike other scholarly disciplines, may offer a uniquely compelling reason to advocate for open access:

[T]he study of theology, carried on as it is from within a religious tradition and with the aim of supporting and fostering that tradition, includes a missionary impulse that no other academic discipline feels in quite the same way. To be sure, scientists and lawyers want their work to be seen by as many people as possible, which is why they adopt open access. But theological scholars write for a public that is broader than a particular academic discipline; they write for a “church universal.” Pastors are trained and sermons are preached throughout the world, so the works of biblical scholars and theologians have an audience well beyond the subscription list of any journal. Whereas a researcher studying a particular genetic abnormality may really know the names of everyone else capable of understanding her work, a theological scholar cannot possibly know about all of the people whose teaching, preaching, and faith journey could be impacted by her article, except in the most abstract sense. Yet all of those people are the true and legitimate audience for theological scholarship.

[T]he field of theological studies has not neglected the opportunities that the Internet offers for dissemination of scholarship. Nevertheless, it is still true that the majority of what is arguably the most important scholarship in this field, the scholarship, to be frank, upon which professors rely to build their reputations and gain tenure, is published exclusively in journals that are available, in print and online, only behind toll barriers. Although these barriers are lower than those found in many other disciplines, the broad audience for this scholarship in the developing world suggests that even a very low barrier may be insurmountable for many. (emphasis added)

I take Smith to be saying, in effect, that the most compelling reason to turn to open access for scholarly communication within the discipline of theological studies is that it is consistent with the best evangelical and justice values and commitments of the religious traditions that motivated (or at least, informs) the scholarship in the first place. If a scientist can be committed to getting the ‘good word’ about her research out to everyone without access barriers, how much more a scholar of theology? (Smith is advocating from within a Christian religious tradition. But I believe this would be true for other religious traditions as well.)

Building an “open access culture”

Smith contends that the “call for open access to theological scholarship must begin with the libraries, the library associations, and the other professional organizations that support the discipline.”

It is not enough for librarians just to complain about rising journal subscription costs. Theological faculty need to be made aware of the true costs of providing information resources such as journals, and the implications such costs have on access. This might be a way to begin the conversation about open access. But librarians, as information resource professionals, also need to engage more with scholars on the content-creation side of the scholarly communication process (though many may need to update their skills to respond to the dynamic and complex world of digital publishing). As Smith notes, there are many things librarians can do here. Librarians can make theological scholars aware of their copyrights; assist them when working with traditional publishers in negotiating publication contracts to protect those rights while enhancing access (there are many “flavors” of open access, and not all involve self-publishing); and provide direction to assure future access, preservation (archiving), discoverability, and ongoing usefulness of published research.

Smith also sees the need for moving this conversation beyond the local institution level.

[M]ost theological scholarship is carried out in small communities, yet the task of building an open access culture, much less an infrastructure to support open access, is a big job indeed. How, then, is the necessary scale for open access to theological scholarship to be achieved? The answer must be that leadership will be the responsibility of consortial organizations and professional associations. (emphasis added)

When I first read that phrase “open access culture,” I was instantly captivated by its significance. I want to thank Kevin Smith for giving me something powerful to hang the mission (the “task”) of this site upon. Embracing or promoting open access isn’t just a matter of pragmatics, techniques, or technologies. Open access is a way of approaching the creation and dissemination of information that involves certain attitudes and behavioral characteristics. As such, it truly is a culture, and one that takes further unique shape within the scholarly discipline where it manifests itself. Open access culture within the study of religion or theology may share certain applications and outcomes with chemistry, physics, or economics, but (as alluded to above) it also integrates each discipline’s unique research traditions and values/commitments. (This very point surfaced in my recent profile of the journal Religion and Gender.)

Smith suggests that the mission statements of theological associations such as the Association of Theological Schools and the American Theological Library Association already contain wording that could be leveraged to support enhancement of information access in the direction of open access. Might professional scholarly associations like the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, although non-sectarian, also be engaged to adopt resolutions favoring open access scholarship? (I was unable to determine a date of adoption, but SBL now has an open access policy relating to author’s use of pre- and post-publication articles, book essays, and book reviews. And although I could not find a comparable policy on AAR’s website, I suspect that faculty in many university religion departments are signing-on to open access policies being adopted in increasing number across the country.) Finally, might an organization such as ATLA collaborate with (at least) their member libraries to develop and host a repository for scholarly research in theology and religion?

Most of Smith’s ideas are yet to be significantly realized now two and a half years since his article was published. But true and enduring cultural change takes time, even in the digital age. The accretions of print culture weigh especially heavy on the sensibilities of scholarship in the humanities and theology. It is a big job to build an alternative infrastructure to support a cultural shift like open access. But I’m optimistic, and through Omega Alpha, I’m here to help with the task.

Posted in Book/Article Review, Commercial Publishing, Intellectual Property & Copyright, Libraries & OA, OA Policies, Open Access, Publishing Platforms, Scholarly Associations
4 comments on “The task of building an “open access culture”
  1. […] jQuery("#errors*").hide(); window.location= data.themeInternalUrl; } }); } (via @QuadernsPsico) – Today, 6:24 […]

  2. […] me to the idea that theological librarians, associations, and institutions might embrace a “task of building an ‘open access culture’”—a phrase that continues to served as an inspiration for this […]

  3. […] or do to justify its serious consideration. As has been discussed on this blog before (especially here), open access brings with it a capacity to raise awareness of a values dynamic in the creation, […]

  4. […] Management: A Possibility for Theology?” (link to PDF). I engaged with that article in an early post on the blog. I would invite you to read that original post from December […]

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