Scholarly Communication: What does it take to fix a broken system?

This post was originally published on 11/30/2015 as part of the Clio I class at George Mason university.

Reading this week’s selections of the state of scholarly communication, I was disturbed. It appears that academia and the history profession in particular is in desperate need for change. As the AHA statement on embargoing dissertations and numerous other postings  highlight, there is a problem with the current way in which knowledge is shared and disseminated by the academic community. The AHA statement encouraged universities to allow for an embargo on the digital availability of dissertations (if a student so desired). The logic behind this is to protect the ability of new scholars to have their dissertations become their first book. The fear is that publishers will not want an argument that is already freely available on the web. This is a problem for new hires whose tenure often depends on the publication of a monograph. Thus we have the AHA advocating for not sharing recent scholarship freely because it is in the best interest of new scholars. As messed up as the AHA statement sounds, it is worth exploring further.

The AHA’s statement may genuinely be in the best interest of recent graduates, but is it in the best interest of the profession? The obvious answer is no, but why would the AHA advocate such a thing? The problem circles back to the issue of relying on a dated system of evaluating and granting tenure. The history profession has had a difficult time breaking away from the conception that scholarship worthy of tenure = a monograph. Every department is unique and may weigh credentials differently, but the monograph is still the measuring stick. With the fluctuating sources of funding and an unstable economy, presses are much more cautious about publishing books. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick reminds us, even books that receive positive reviews and make a contribution to the field are not guaranteed to be published if the economics does not work out.  This prompts the question, why is the fate of academics’ careers in the hands of publishers anyway? How can the profession promote open access when many of its members are dependent on publishers for their job security? Sadly, this problem is not new and was identified long before I started high school. On a more positive note, there have been some new developments in scholarly communication. Peer-to-peer review on the web as well as community curated content, such as Digital Humanities Now, have been changing the way that historians share information.

Personal Approach

Until recently, I didn’t spend much time thinking about scholarly communication. Historians wrote books and articles, went to conferences, and viola new research was known. It was not until I experienced the joys of the publishing process that I realized how slow and inefficient the system is.  Despite being an advocate for open access, I feel the pressure to publish traditional research in traditional journals. I have a hard time putting my faith in alternative publication systems and even the digital humanities projects more broadly. This does not mean that I think that they are any less rigorous or scholarly.  The fact remains that the job market for historians is poor and tenure is no guarantee. I do not have the financial luxury to take the risk that a hiring committee and/or a tenure committee will value nontraditional forms of scholarship. I am hopeful that this dire outlook is an illusion or at least in the midst of change; but, for now, it is a serious concern.

Note: I am also a strong advocate for making history matter. Lost in this discussion is the public.

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