Religious studies scholars not readily adopting open access, according to new Ithaka S+R report

ithakasrlogoIthaka S+R, the research arm of—which includes the well known JSTOR academic journal and monograph database, ARTSTOR image database, and PORTICO digital preservation service—has just released (February 8, 2017) a new report entitled Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Religious Studies Scholars (PDF).

The research report was sponsored by the American Theological Library Association (ATLA), with additional support from the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). “The goal of this report is to provide actionable findings for the organizations, institutions and professionals who support the research process of religious studies” (from the Executive Summary, 4).

I found it of interest that a concerted effort was made to define and delimit what is meant by a religious studies scholar (see pages 9-10) because I sometimes bump up against similar questions on this blog. It was helpful, for example, to read that there was a recognition of disciplinary breadth and diversity among scholars, and that “some scholars contribute to the professional training of religious leaders, while others study these topics from a purely secular perspective.”

Ithaka S+R analyzed interview transcripts of 102 scholars from 18 institutions (including the likes of Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, Emory, and Jewish Theological Seminary), and identified three major thematic areas “in which religious studies would benefit from improved or new services”: discovering and accessing information, information management, and audience, output and credit. The entire report was of interest to me as an academic librarian who interacts with religious studies scholars. However, from the perspective of the blog it is this last area that is of particular interest because it includes a discussion about scholars’ “overall awareness and engagement with open access.”

If not just generally unaware, concerns over tenure and promotion makes religious studies scholars wary of open access

“While many scholars perceive that their work on religion has wider value beyond academia, their primary focus remains on traditional scholarly outputs due to the expectations associated with their professional development as academics.” Traditional scholarly outputs includes “peer-reviewed journal articles, chapters in edited monographs, and single-authored scholarly monographs,” and the expectations relate to tenure and promotion. (30) The report conveys a strong sense that this concern for professional advancement makes scholars, especially pre-tenured scholars, risk adverse in their publication choices. “The key concerns scholars noted about publishing their research … include producing an acceptable number of outputs and publishing in appropriate venues based on reputation and audience” (31, emphasis added).

Although the report noted that scholars are keen to use online venues like for sharing and discovery of their research among colleagues, they are distrustful or uncertain about open access as a primary publishing model, either due to lack of appropriate open access venues in their (sub-)discipline, a perception of lower academic standards, or that it would not be recognized for tenure or promotion:

The majority of interviewees did not report regularly publishing in open access journals, nor did they report paying for their articles to be open access [so-called hybrid open access] in proprietary journals or that their institutions or funders required them to do so. When prompted as to why they had not published with open access journals, interviewees primarily expressed that their priority was to publish in appropriate venues for professional advancement and that in their sub-disciplinary areas these venues were not open access. Others expressed general distrust or uncertainty of open access as a model that can publish work appropriate for academic standards generally [i.e., peer reviewed] and, by extension, that it would not be productive towards their tenure and promotion in particular. (32)

Still other interviewees indicated that they would be amiable to publishing in open access venues, but again, “as long as they adhered to standards that were complementary to academic publishing protocols and could be recognized in tenure and promotion processes accordingly” (32).

Scholars also reported little engagement with open access repositories (“green” open access), such as a digital repository at a scholar’s institution, where pre- or post-printed versions of research from traditionally published venues could subsequently be made openly available. Here the reason seemed to be primarily lack of time in tracking-down permissions from publishers. Somewhat greater engagement came from scholars who interacted with librarians who were willing to do much of the leg work of securing permissions and making submissions to the repository on their behalf.

Tenure and promotion needs to change before open access gets its due

More than anything, it is the concern for professional academic advancement that dissuade religious studies scholars from utilizing open access venues for their primary scholarly output. The report concludes: “Lack of tangible recognition and reward, most notably through the tenure and promotion and research funding processes, is a major barrier to scholars producing research outputs beyond peer-reviewed scholarly articles and books published in primarily via commercial, university press, society and other traditional publishing venues.” (42)

In response, the report recommends (though applied more broadly than to just open access) that we “advocate for and create rewards that encourage more widespread adoption of innovative approaches to research dissemination.” (42)

Much of the previously mentioned “distrust and uncertainty” regarding open access among religious studies scholars would seem to be shared by colleagues who sit on tenure and promotion committees, and by department chairs and administrators who set policy, otherwise open access would get a fairer hearing. Stories floating around about predatory journals, poor academic standards, or exorbitant article processing charges (APCs), while true in a small percentage of cases, doesn’t begin to tell the story. But it’s easier to continue to parade contrary stories as representative of the open access landscape than it is to dig deeper and evaluate the merits of the sources themselves. Just as it is easier to validate scholarly research by whether it is published in an “appropriate venue”—meaning a traditional journal or publisher with accrued reputation—than it is to evaluate a scholar’s research on its own merits.

I was not totally surprised by the results of the report on this topic. But I was disappointed that scholars felt they needed to adopt a risk averse stance toward open access out of concern for their academic advancement. Clearly something needs to change here. To this point, it was perhaps hopeful to read (though the report didn’t greatly elaborate) that tenured scholars “highlighted the freedom [they felt] to publish less and focus on different kinds of outputs” (31). I think a catalyst for change lies here. I certainly understand the tradition that insists early career scholars “pay their dues” to earn academic reputation. But once a scholar has earned that reputation and the pressure is off, instead of just perpetuating the status quo for the next generation of scholars, why not invest some time to evaluate an expanded range of “appropriate” disciplinary venues for legitimate scholarly communication, including open access? More, why not lend some of that reputation to further legitimize those vetted open access venues by serving on the editorial board, doing peer review, or submitting an article, chapter, or monograph for publication?

Posted in Commercial Publishing, Libraries & OA, Open Access, Open Access Journals, Open Access Monographs, Open Repositories & Digital Libraries, Peer Review
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