A few months ago I reviewed Leah Price’s latest monograph for the European Review of History. How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain explores nineteenth-century representations and perceptions of books and other printed objects such as newspapers and religious pamphlets. It’s an interesting study and well worth a look for anybody who works on Victorian print culture. A hardback copy with 350 pages will set you back £15.56 on Amazon – not dirt cheap, but more reasonable than a lot of academic monographs. Still, if you’d prefer to read my review before handing over your hard earned cash then you’ll soon be able to find it on the Taylor and Francis website. If your institution already has a subscription to the European Review of History then you’ll be able to digest my wise words for free, but if not then please don’t despair – you’ll have the option to buy a copy of my review for the perfectly reasonable price of £23.50. It’s 1,114 words long – that’s about four sides of A4 paper – and will be sent to you in the form of a handsomely presented PDF. How could you resist?
It’s moments like this – when a 4 page pdf of a book review costs more than the 350 page hard-back book that it’s reviewing – that should remind us that academic publishing is broken. The numbers just don’t add up. Open access initially seemed to provide a solution to this problem, but the ‘Gold’ model currently supported by the UK government replaces one set of skewed numbers with another. If you haven’t been following this debate – or, like me, you keep forgetting which colour of open access is which – then all you need to know is that the ‘Gold’ model requires authors (or their institutions) to pay for the costs of publication. At first glance, this seems like it could be viable, until you realise that the ‘costs’ of publishing are massively inflated. This week I received an email from Taylor and Francis informing me that I had the option to publish my book review as Open Access for the modest fee of $2,950. This, incidentally, is about $2,920 more than I was paid to write it (they gave me a free copy of the book). I’d happily pay £20 to make my review open access – it seems like a fair price to pay to make a small piece of my work accessible to a broader audience – but spending months of my salary is pushing things a bit too far. After all, I need that money to buy more old newspapers on ebay.
Unfortunately, the bizarre costs associated with the Gold model have soured a lot of people’s opinions about open access. This is a great shame, for the basic principle of free access to academic research presents great benefits for researchers. A couple of months ago the Journal of Victorian Culture temporarily lifted the paywall on one of my articles and made it completely open access. Before this happened, the article had been viewed less than a hundred times. As of today, it currently has 507 views and is fourth on the journal’s list of most read articles. Over the last few months it has been passed around on twitter, first by me but subsequently by other readers. I also posted a link on Reddit’s brilliant r/AskHistorians forum, which generated an enormous amount of traffic from history enthusiasts who wouldn’t have had access to my article when it was locked behind a paywall. Buoyed by this success, I subsequently uploaded my PhD thesis to this blog and made it open access too. As of today, its been downloaded 132 times – rather more than that five or six people who were forced to read the printed version. I’ve had some great feedback from readers who would never have encountered my work through other channels – several of whom gave me great ideas and encouragement for the process of turning it into my first proper monograph. One reader claims to be using it as bedtime reading, but perhaps they just need something to make them sleepy.
In this case, the numbers do add up to what we’d expect. Open Access publications are read by more people than those stuck behind a paywall. They reach audiences from a greater variety of backgrounds and are much easier to promote and disseminate using social media. Open Access is, in other words, a fundamentally good thing for anybody who wants their work to be read.
We just need to get the system right. A much better model of ‘diamond’ Open Access has been outlined in a great article by Tim Hitchcock and Jason M’ Kelly. If you haven’t read it already, please take a look. I won’t go into any more detail here, save to say that I support their conclusions unreservedly and hope that the Open Scholarship Project fulfils its promise.
In the meantime, grab a copy of my open access article while you still can! It tracks the journey of a terrible nineteenth-century joke about undertakers as it moves around Britain and America. It’s available free until the end of June.