Do we need an open-access book series?

(My apologies, in advance, for posting something as long as this has turned out to be. But my question takes a while to pose.)

I have been feeling, for some time now, a growing disconnect between the publishing options that are available to scholars and the state of technology we now possess to disseminate information.

When it comes to journals, the situation seems fairly good. There are a reasonable number of journals that publish medieval philosophy, and I have never heard anyone in the medieval community say that there is good work out there that cannot find a home in some journal or another. These journals are, for the most part, reasonably priced, and widely available to scholars everywhere. Moreover, if one looks at the broader scene in philosophy, there are clear signs that the open-access movement is making inroads. (By ‘open access’ I mean free to the world on the internet. See, in particular, Philosophers’ Imprint and Ergo. It is unfortunate that the new Journal of the APA is not open access. But perhaps that will change if APA members continue to complain.)

When it comes to book-length work, however, the situation is rather different. Here, too, I have never heard a scholar in our field complain that good work cannot get published. And there are certainly many excellent presses that contribute in essential ways to the growth of scholarship in our field. But it seems to me there is a growing gap in book publishing between the interests of publishers and the interests of scholars. Publishers must, if they are to stay in business, charge serious amounts of money for their books, and do everything in their power to impede the free electronic dissemination of those books. But this is not what scholars want. What we mainly want is that the work be made available to as many people as possible.

For centuries, these two interests were inseparably connected. But the internet, of course, has changed everything. And in the last few years we are beginning to see not just the technical capacity to spread information electronically, but a shift in reading habits that makes it the case, for many purposes, that electronic copies of books are just as good as the real thing. Indeed, I hesitate even to say that electronic books are not the real thing. (When it comes to journals, print copies are already a quaint curiosity.)

My query, then, is whether we need some sort of venue for publishing open-access book-length material in medieval philosophy. It seems to me that historians of philosophy in general, and perhaps especially medievalists, could particularly benefit from such a resource. For there are, in our field, a great many technical scholarly resources that are of immense value to a very small number of people. I am thinking of editions of texts, translations, extremely specialized studies, conference proceedings, and so on and so forth. The problem, as I say, is not so much that this material cannot find a publisher, but that the more obscure it is, the more expensive it naturally tends to be. So even while it remains possible to find a publisher willing to print some recondite medieval work for, say, $150, the question we should ask ourselves is whether this way of doing things is in the best interests of the field. Would it not be better, in many cases, to make this material freely available?

Of course, anyone can post anything on the web (as this blog shows so well!). But the trouble, of course, is that we all need our work to bear the imprimatur of a reputable publisher. We need that for our careers, and our work needs that, if other scholars are going to take it seriously. So in putting forth the idea of an open-access book series, I have in mind something that would, somehow, take on the prestige of a serious publishing venture. It would have to be selective in what it published, which means it would need to have the same sorts of refereeing procedures that publishing houses currently have. The advantage would not be that this is an easy way to get published; the advantage would be that this is a way of making work readily available to the whole world.

The project would require some support, since (as any publisher reading this is doubtless thinking) it is not easy to take a Word file and turn it into the beautiful published products that we take for granted. But it is another feature of the current state of technology that the production process has become much less difficult than it used to be. Moreover, I happen to have a certain amount of funding that could be used as a seed grant to begin this project.

What would this series publish? It is certainly not intended to compete with major academic presses when it comes to publishing original monographs. Scholars who need tenure, promotion, a better job, etc. will need, for the foreseeable future, to publish with the most reputable presses. But it seems to me there is a great deal of material that might be published in a series such as this. To begin with, there might be older material, not under copyright, that might be part of the series, such as

  • classic unpublished dissertations;
  • old editions (e.g., Jansen’s 3-volume edition of Olivi?);
  • old translations.

Then there might be new work that would be better served by open-access publishing, such as

  • English translations of monographs originally published in French, German, etc.;
  • conference proceedings;
  • new editions and translations of texts.

I’m posting this in the hopes of getting (a) general feedback about whether this is a good idea, and (b) specific ideas about work that might be part of the series, as well as (c) advice about the practicalities of making such a series happen. Feel free to respond either by commenting on this post, below, or by emailing me directly.

 

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2 comments on “Do we need an open-access book series?

  1. Ana María Mora-Márquez says:

    Hi Bob,
    (a) The idea is great!
    (b) I would suggest:
    * Book-length introductory studies: like Klima’s Buridan, Cross’s Scotus or Marenbon’s Boethius, since it is mainly well established scholars who write this sort of book.
    * Companions to X or Y, could be a sort of sub-series. Those are extremely helpful books for students, but almost impossible to afford, when they are published by very expensive publishers. (Think e.g. of the great Galuzzo and Amerini’s Companion to medieval comms. on Metaphysics at 195€!).
    (c) The series could be based at a university with good finances and reputation (perhaps University of Colorado at Boulder?). Something like the CIMAGL, which is based at the University of Copenhagen’s website: http://www.cimagl.dk/ … but the book version of it.
    Anyway, thanks for launching this discussion!
    Best, AnaM

  2. Jason Aleksander says:

    Sounds like a great idea to me. Toward the end of your post, you mention a few points that seem to me essential:

    “It is certainly not intended to compete with major academic presses when it comes to publishing original monographs. Scholars who need tenure, promotion, a better job, etc. will need, for the foreseeable future, to publish with the most reputable presses.”

    The second sentence here is certainly true. I’m not sure about the first of these two sentences, however. It seems to me that, if the idea is to create traction for the development of a reputable venue (or venues) for open access publication, it will likely be necessary to encourage senior scholars to lend gravitas to the initiative by publishing original monographs. In other words, the open access movement does have to compete with major academic presses; consequently, until senior scholars get on board with open access publication, the open access movement will continue to lose the competition (in the Humanities, anyway) on the question of reputation (and this is precisely why the second sentence is true).

    While I do think that publishing reputable material with expired copyrights makes a good deal of sense, doing so would clearly not be sufficient for generating a reputation for providing access to high-quality research products.

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