Tag Archives: The Academy

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 2

The second day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies—which is where my reporting backlog currently sits, alas—began reflectively…

226. The Nature of the Middle Ages: a Problem for Historians? (A Roundtable)

I went along to this mainly for reasons of celebrity-spotting, but it’s also often interesting to hear veterans of the field talk about what the field actually is, and to set it against one’s own perspectives. There are dynamics here about how elevated you get before your bird’s eye view becomes cloud-cuckoo land, but equally ones about being so close to the ground that you define the whole world by your local topography, and so on. All of this was given extra meat by this ICMS being the 50th, provoking reflection on the ICMS itself as much as anything. The scheduled presenters each picked their own targets for their muses, as follows:

  • Robin Fleming, “What Material Turn?”
  • Marcus Bull, “The Study of the Middle Ages and the Dread Word ‘Relevance'”
  • Ruth Mazo Karras, “Not Quite Fifty Years of Women’s History at Kalamazoo”
  • Paul Freedman, “Changing Subjects in Medieval History”
  • Nancy Partner, “Medieval ‘People’: Psyche?/Self?/Emotions?”
  • Some of these were complaints, and some reflections. Professor Fleming told everyone else that we don’t use objects enough in our history, and the conference programme certainly gave her a basis for the stance. Professor Mazo Karras charted the growth of the history of women from the archive of ICMS programmes—the first session on women at the ICMS was (only?) eight years coming but the take-off point for her was when societies started to form to do the work elsewhere. Professor Freedman, who was one of the first people to realise how great Vic is as a place to work on and whom I was glad to meet at last, had done similar analysis and noted, among other things, that at the second ever ICMS there had been seven women presenting, four of whom were nuns, but also that English literature and English history still dominate the programme, but that the rest has diversified hugely since 1965. Professor Partner spoke mainly of periodization and the problem of difference, between us and our subjects, which she argued could only be approached by deliberately seeking the ‘interiority’ of our sources, a kind of ‘depth psychology’.

    Medieval manuscript illumination of King Arthur's court and the Round Table

    Of course, it now strikes me that the very word ’roundtable’ is a medievalism, not something that any of the participants mentioned, but the site I got this image from epitomises the medievalism pretty well…

    This opened up the question of the session title perhaps more than the others had, and discussion went two ways, one following this, asking what we could do to avoid the problems of the terms ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘medieval’, which have myriad difficulties because of being defined only by whatever lies outside them and not having clear ends. Professor Partner had argued half-jokingly for ‘really early modern’, but David Perry, one of the organisers, argued that it means more to people outside the Academy than it does to us, and Steven Muhlberger continued that by saying that the emptiness of the category actually serves us by allowing us to fill it with whatever suits us. True, useful, but hard to make into a clear mission statement, I think…

    Faulty slide purporting to set out differences between women's situation in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance

    Periodization and women’s history: what we’re up against, grabbed just now from the web

    This desire for a mission statement was what had occupied Professor Bull’s contribution, which I haven’t yet discussed. This is because it seemed to me a much more UK-focused perspective than the others and to sit oddly with them. His was a pitch familiar to me from my years in Oxford, in fact, roughly that that we should stop paying attention to governments and managerial bodies who want us to justify our subject, especially in terms of its relevance to the era in which we live, not least because we medievalists will always lose to the modernists in such a contest but also because modern-day relevance must by its nature shift all the time so can’t be a foundation. I accept the logic of this but it seems to me that this is only a fortification that can morally be erected by those who have no outside paymasters. Oxford had been mostly aggrieved that those of its paymasters whom it had trained didn’t seem inclined to respect that privilege, and obviously that someone pays some of your money doesn’t mean that they should get to set all of your agenda, but to argue that they can set none of it because what we do is just worthy of support, whatever it is, is, I fear, unlikely ever to convince those with nationally-accountable beans to count.

    Cover of Simon Doubleday & David Coleman (edd.), In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West and the Relevance of the Past (London 2014)

    But why should we stop now, when we’re beginning to get books out of it, I am tempted to ask? Cover of Simon Doubleday & David Coleman (edd.), In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West and the Relevance of the Past (London 2014)…

    The people who picked up on this in discussion seemed mostly to argue that our use to the wider world is not to show how the Middle Ages is like whatever is now happening, but to show when other people who are saying that are wrong. I feel the push to do that very strongly myself, as you may be aware, and have long argued that to use history is almost always to misuse it, but behind this is an idea of a ‘correct’, empirical and detached vision of the Middle Ages whose perfect fruition would be that no-one outside the Academy ever derived any benefit from the study of the past at all except in a pure æsthetic form; if they discovered anything that was ‘relevant’ it would have almost to be suppressed before it got into others’ hands. It seems to me that people are always going to have reasons why they find this stuff interesting and the best we can do is to train them to find it interesting enough to be careful with it. You can tell, anyway, that this interests me as a subject of discussion, but I still wish we could have the discussion with the economics in. As an earlier defender of this view said, “money doesn’t stink”. You’d think we couldn’t strike for more of it without considering where it comes to us from, but it seems not so. So anyway, from here to coffee and calmer waters…

248. The Venerable Bede: Issues and Controversies I

  • Thomas Rochester, “The Place of Luke and Acts in Constructing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • Morn Capper, “Bede and the Making of ‘Mercian Supremacy’: Challenging the Construct”
  • Sarah McCann, “Nodes of Influence: Networks, People, and the Writing of History”
  • It is of course impossible entirely to avoid Bede or Beowulf at the ICMS, but in this instance I would of course have gone anyway because of the presence of Morn Capper, long-standing friend of both this blog and your blogger. Morn’s paper argued that the groundwork for the period of the eighth century in which the kingdom of Mercia dominated England was largely laid in the seventh century, when Bede was in some sense watching, and yet he tells us very little about how it was done: for him, Mercia under the famous King Penda only shows up when it was on the warpath, whereas our sources for his successors Wulfhere and Æthelred emphasise negotiation, alliance and sometimes infrastructure. As Morn said, all of these rulers must have done all of these things but Bede is mainly interested in how far they supported the Church and so the version of Mercia we get from him is very partial indeed. As for the other two, both were at a very preliminary stage, Mr Rochester to establish Biblical models for Bede’s structuring of the Ecclesiastical History and Miss McCann to build a network model of the History using Gephi, and it doesn’t seem kind to mount a critique of their work here.

315. Fluctuating Networks: the Constructive Role of Broken Bonds in the Medieval Mediterranean and Beyond

  • Robert Portass, “The Peasant Parvenu: Social Climbing in Tenth-Century Spain”
  • Petra Melichar, “Noble Women and Their (Broken) Allegiances in Late Byzantium”
  • Arthur Westwell, “Studios: a Network of Alternative Power in Ninth-Century Constantinople”
  • Here, likewise, I had mainly come because of the presence of a colleague of yore, Rob Portass, but his paper sat rather oddly in the session as it was principally about bonds formed, not broken, between local transactors in Galicia, which is after all kind of Rob’s stuff.1 He was arguing that confrontation with the actual documents, mainly here those of Santo Toribio de Liébana, showed you peasants making deals with each other and advancing relative to each other, rather than the narrative of the historiography of the area which shows you landlords beating down on peasant necks.2 Well, not here, says Rob. Meanwhile, the other two had picked up on the theme a bit more. Ms Melichar looked at the different ties late Byzantine noblewomen could break, with family, Orthodoxy, political networks and so on, usually to stay connected to one of the other of these sets, but as she pointed out, never as far as we can see to advance their own positions, rather than those of the networks within which they worked. Lastly, Mr Westwell set out a case for the monastery of St John the Forerunner of Stoudios as a long-lived ‘safe’ focus for opposition to imperial religious policies in eighth- and ninth-century Constantinople, although the high point of that was the Abbot Theodore, who set himself and his monks to guard what they saw as orthodoxy through a series of theological disputes and mounted that defence not least by many many letters to people at court, ex-monks who had gone on to serve elsewhere, friendly church officials and noblemen and women, not just mobilising support but giving backing to those people’s own opposition. This was a whole world of source material I’d had no idea about and for me one of the eye-openers of the conference.

That was the end of the academic programme for me on this day. If I remember rightly we now met back up with Morn and set out to walk to the legendary Bilbo’s, a required rite de pizza for the medievalist visiting Kalamazoo. We had no driver so set out to walk it, which is perfectly doable as long as you can work out which way to head, and that I eventually did after being 180° wrong to start with. That was worth it for the guy we checked directions with, however, who despite being of apparently normal build and health counselled us to get a cab: “It’s a hell of a walk. Gotta be half a mile at least.” We assured him that in Britain that is OK to walk and enjoyed our pizza and beer all the more for the adventure, and that was how we wrapped up day two of Kalamazoo 2015.


1. As witness Robert Portass, “Rethinking the «Small Worlds» of Tenth-Century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia Medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103.

2. Classically presented in Reyna Pastor, Resistencias y luchas campesinas en la época del crecimiento y consolidación de la formación feudal: Castilla y León, siglos X-XIII (Madrid 1980).

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Metablog XI: link clear-out

As is now normal, alas, I have to apologise for the gap in posting; there have been exam marks to finalise and then, heavens help me, I actually took some time off to do non-medieval things. But now I am back and I’m trying to work towards the point where I’m not just up to date with my own stuff but also with at least some other people’s. That’s still a long way off but as a first effort I have taken a long haul through the links in my sidebar, taking out those that no longer existed or are inactive, updating those that had moved and fixing some typos in what survived. Now, everything I’m linking to should be some kind of relevant and active.

There’s room in such an exercise for reflection, of course. It’s noticeable, for example, that most of what I had to prune was in the Resources section; I had to take out far fewer blogs even though my criteria for them are more stringent (viz., they have to have medieval content less than a quarter old on the front page). It seems that a one-person operation with commercial hosting is more practical to maintain than a static institutional website, who knew? Well, we all knew it probably, but it shouldn’t really be that way should it? Digital continuity is for some reason something the Academy can’t manage as well as WordPress. Then again, it may be the one-person thing. When it can be someone else’s fault if something isn’t done, it’s easier for everyone to ignore it maybe? Certainly, group blogs seemed to have survived less well than single-author ones, though obviously this is not real statistics given it’s a selective sample of a tiny size.

A conceptualisation of the blogosphere by analogy to the Earth's atmosphere

A conceptualisation of the blogosphere by analogy to the Earth’s atmosphere, located and explained at Perishable Press (linked through)

Then there’s nostalgia (which is, as we know, not what it used to be). It’s not just me that’s had trouble keeping up with updating; some of the most venerable medievalist blogs, the ones who were an encouragement to me that other people did this thing when I was starting and who have been written about as bloggers, are now silent or dormant. In some cases there were real, sometimes fairly awful reasons; in some cases like mine it’s just acute time shortage; but I guess that it’s also that for a lot of now-silent bloggers online interaction has moved, to Facebook or Twitter. I don’t use those (because as Stuart Airlie once insightfully told me, it’s all about control) but no less a figure than Geoffrey Chaucer shows how this can happen. It’s not that blogs are dead, despite worries to that effect for many years now. There are also several fairly new blogs on the roll, but they are more noticeably academic publicity operations and less anonymised relations of the life academic than was once the case. The medium continues, but it’s now being used for different things, indeed roughly the things I set out to use it for when I started, although I slipped towards the middle of that continuum fairly rapidly. I doubt I started the trend, I think it was the pressure for impact and relevance that did that, but it is still noticeable. There’s still masses to keep up with, of course, and as yet I can’t, but I do hope to again some day. Now, at least the list of what I can’t keep up with is up to date again…

Collecting from Cliopatria

Screenshot of the History News Network magazine website

Screenshot of the History News Network magazine website

Long-term readers may know that I used to be a contributor to a group blog at the Humanities News Network site, which was called Cliopatria. Cliopatria was kind of a lead singer and his backing band; Ralph Luker, the editor, did most of the posting and various other people chimed in every now and then, and from 2009 to the blog’s closure in 2012 I was one of those people. I always found Cliopatria a difficult audience to pitch for; I had been asked to contribute as a medievalist, but despite my efforts and those of the two East Asian studies people also contributing the bulk of both posting and commenting was modern-US-centric. I therefore wound up focusing my activity there either on things about scholarship on the Middle Ages I thought would interest other fields or, and here I had company, on the state of the Academy. Some of that material also appeared here, and I generally mentioned here when I’d got something up there, but I did try and make sure that I was writing distinctly for each blog.

Despite that, in general my posts went uncommented and in fact, it was then usual for me to get more comments and feedback here than anyone ever got on Cliopatria, so I posted there only rarely. Then, somewhere in 2011 I think, HNN had a redesign that changed their stylesheet and effectively wrecked anything that anyone had previously done with HTML tags; quotations ceased to be distinguishable from paragraph text, for example, and hyperlinked text appeared three point sizes smaller than that around it. Much of my existing content now looked stupid or wrong and it was hard to work in the new template; links inside the blog stopped working and posting, not just mine but everybody’s but Ralph’s, dropped right off. It struggled on a little longer and then Ralph finally closed the blog in early 2012. It remains readable, but I learn in writing this that Ralph himself died in August 2015, which I am saddened by. May he rest easily.

Since then, anyway, I’ve occasionally had reason to go back to my Cliopatria posts for something, and they are really hard to find. The site has been redesigned again since Cliopatria closed and things now look better, though not as good as they did before the first redesign; but the links to individual authors’ works have gone, as have all the comments, and its internal search is lousy. My name doesn’t appear over all my posts, and neither my own list of links or Google can bring back everything I wrote there. So for some time I’ve been meaning to put together a list of my posts, for my own reference as much as anything, and this is that list. In compiling it, I’ve discovered quite a number of things I had completely forgotten writing, and I fear that there may still be more I haven’t found. What I have, I’ve broken down by categories and arranged by date within them, and if you wanted to go and read any of them that would be lovely, though I’ve also indicated where they also appear here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe because those are easier reading still. When it drops off the front page I’ll set this post up as its own page. In the meantime, this is what I did for Cliopatria.

Actual Research Posts

These were generally poorly-judged for Cliopatria and usually also appeared here. After a while I stopped doing them except out of guilt at having not posted for ages.

Medievalism in the Modern World

A long-term strand of my blogging, this, but all the more important where medievalists would not normally tread but modernists are still reading it. These are probably the posts I’m proudest of writing at Cliopatria, I think they were useful and good publicity for why having experts on this stuff is sometimes helpful.

The State of the Academy

I’m much less sure about these posts, as a rule. In particular, they mostly come from the point when the Conservative Party under David Cameron was just beginning to muck about with UK higher education funding; a lot of people were self-righteously angry and it was easy to get on that bandwagon without necessarily thinking too hard. After all, the government was directing baton charges against schoolchildren protesting about tuition fees; if you weren’t angry, you arguably weren’t paying attention. Also, though, for much of my time on Cliopatria I was at Oxford, which the more I look back on it (or read my leftover issues of The Oxford Magazine) looks like a bubble of small-c conservative privilege I wasn’t then fully able to see out of. The people writing in the Magazine clearly don’t represent their colleagues very widely—Oxford has not gone private, banned tourists from the Bodleian Library, legislated to remove authority from its own Council or cut back the university administration, or any of the other things for which they regularly campaigned, for a start—but Oxford also doesn’t represent the rest of UK HE very well, and I honestly just didn’t realise how true that was till I got out. So these posts come from an odd, and rather blinkered, place, and occasionally I got pulled up for that. Still, there are some good rants there and a few things I’d still stand by.

Stand back, all! Something takes shape within the swirling mist!

Part of the cover of the album Ptoof! by the Deviants

The significant portion of the wraparound poster that formed the cover of the first album by The Deviants, Ptoof! (Underground Impresarios 1968). I didn’t think of this post just so as to use this image, but I could have… And of course, for those that know, it’s a memorial of sorts to yet another dead rocker, the inimitable and scurrilous Mick Farren, who preceded Lemmy (and now David Bowie, it’s like some musical plague out there) to the great rock’n’roll swindle roundup by dying on stage a couple of years ago already. That’s gone fast…

So now, after that interlude, back to the second half of that post about journals and publishing, the part to which I originally wanted to get. Geoffrey Tobin put his finger on the heart of the matter, as have so many, when he pointed out in a comment to the previous one that scholars don’t usually get paid for publishing. We do the research as part of our salaries, usually, or from whatever grant pays our salaries while we don’t do our jobs so as to get some research done; we have to publish the outcomes of it for professional recognition and advancement; we are what you’d call a captive market. At the other end, the publishers have to stay in business and ideally make a profit, and so they have the interest in capturing revenue that we don’t. But the messy bit is the middle ground, and most especially peer review, which has to be done by academics, but traditionally at least is neither recompensed or of much professional use to us. It’s good for institutional or departmental prestige if we can say that we act as referees for presses people have heard of, I imagine, but our employers would probably rather at least that we do it on our own time (in as much as academics can calculate such boundaries) or that we didn’t do it at all, so as to deliver the maximum for our institution. Nonetheless, academic publishing couldn’t go on in its current model without peer review, and we all want to get published so like to help publishers when they ask, and so it struggles on. The same kind of things can be said about actually editing journals or book series and so forth; it’s vital work, but it’s not usually for our employers so it largely goes unrewarded.

Well, in Australia at least people have started making a noise about this, demanding review work be recognised in their national research assessment, as reported by Alice Meadows on the Wiley blog (them again) here. That would be one way, and a good one I think, though it will still surprise me if it’s adopted, and still more so here in England (unless it’s review work for England-based journals; but almost all journal publishers are multinationals now…). But there has also lately emerged another way that might actually be a way forward. I think it has come out of automated journal submission systems like ScholarOne or Open Journal Systems, but we now have two organisations who are trying to actually turn academic labour like this into a marketable service. The first is ORCID, which is a service offering something like a DOI for researchers, rather than research, so that links to projects and manuscript submissions and so on can all be aggregated. They say:

“ORCID is an open, non-profit, community-driven effort to create and maintain a registry of unique researcher identifiers and a transparent method of linking research activities and outputs to these identifiers. ORCID is unique in its ability to reach across disciplines, research sectors and national boundaries. It is a hub that connects researchers and research through the embedding of ORCID identifiers in key workflows, such as research profile maintenance, manuscript submissions, grant applications, and patent applications.”

Well, I’m pretty sure our names worked for this already, but ORCID is interested in tracking things that our institutions have generally not been, and it is also tracking the work we do in the industry at large, not just our institutions.

And then, more interestingly in some ways, there is also Rubriq, a portal that manages peer review of manuscripts by maintaining as large a database of potential reviewers as possible, thus exceeding the personal networks that usually limit the effective ‘blindness’ of peer review in the humanities, and actually paying those reviewers for prompt review, even if not very much. This has caused some controversy, but apparently it does get the reviews in on time. It’s not an economically viable payment, really, for the work involved, less than we’d get for contract teaching, but it does at least signify that the work is worth something. Rubriq, in turn, then charges the journals it serves for access to their reviewing service.

Now this is an inversion of the usual revenue flow in academic publishing, which is of course all to the publishers. Instead, here while the publishers are still the point where money enters the system, there is a trickle-down to the academy. It’s tiny, of course, if ideologically significant, but together with ORCID it offers the possibility of an outside assessment of our service work, usually unrecognised, in terms of quality and value that we might present to our employers, or through them to our funders, in England of course usually somehow the state. Of course the cynical maxim, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product,” applies to both these models. ORCID may be a non-profit but its operating revenues are still earned by the participation of recognition-hungry academics who don’t themselves expect to get paid, and it’s those academics who give ORCID anything to offer. Rubriq likewise only has something to offer if it genuinely has lots of people on board from all over the place, and they are getting paid but without them Rubriq has no product.

But still, maybe this works? If we wind up working on a commission basis for new third-parties who enable peer review (which would become better and faster), whom the publishers pay in turn, and then subscribers continue to pay the publishers, that seems to me potentially to break the current squeeze in which the only way we can meet expectations is to do more that we don’t have time for for free. Our service work could be quantified, valued even, and counted into our assessments. It would be, after all, a form of outside consultancy. Meanwhile the publishers, whose costs would now be higher, would maybe make less per unit but might well have more units and could compete for quality in new ways. It still wouldn’t balance but it would balance better. Only thing is, I’m still not sure how we pay for open access

A way publishers might make Open Access work (but probably wouldn’t)

It is an established trope of this blog that academic publishing is in trouble because of the Internet, and much like the music industry has yet to come up with a really viable alternative to a doomed defensive protectionism. This was already true before the Open Access movement started gaining velocity and a logo and so on, but that has greatly complicated things because, like so many radical movements, its ideological position seems to involve everyone doing more for free, and you can’t run large-scale quality control and distribution on no money, it needs full-time staff. About this time last year, however, some new pieces of the puzzle fell into place that seemed then to represent a possible way forward, and I stubbed a post to speculate about it. It turns out, on writing it up, that really this is two posts, one about how publication is paid for and one about how the work academics put into publishing is compensated. You’d think these were the same issue but it is, of course, the state that we’re in that it’s not. So here’s the first post, about making open access journals (and by extension other forms of open-access publication) work.

I should say straight away, by the way, that as usual with posts about Open Access this is really only a concern for a UK audience for the moment. Those interested in such issues elsewhere may still want to know what hoops the peculiar UK situation is making us jump through, however. My thinking process this time started with a blog post by Natasha White of the publishers Wiley, addressing the particular economic flaw of gold-standard open access in which a grant or an institution (hopefully) pays for an article to be published, and then has to pay again to buy the journal in which that article actually appears, because not everything else in it will be open-access. This is far from the biggest problem with gold OA, which is in any case basically irrelevant to the humanities due to its costs and our funding, but every little step towards a new model for the Academy at large could help, right? Ms White hits the kernel of the issue here:

A number of publishers, including Wiley, have introduced policies to adjust subscription prices for any shift from subscription-funded articles to pay-to-publish open access articles. Journals publishing more open access articles will see price decreases because the publication costs for those articles have already been met. Since non-UK authors don’t have the same type and level of funding to pay open access fees, the majority continue to choose to publish under the subscription model, keeping this the predominant publishing model. This means subscription prices haven’t decreased significantly and UK institutions continue to pay for journal subscriptions to obtain international research. So the UK is seeing an increase in publishing costs as they pay for both open access and subscription fees.

In short, as long as a journal is not entirely gold-standard OA (which would involve barring contributors who can’t do that, i. e. most of the world and, once again, also of the humanities), there will be a subscription price to pay for that journal, which even those publishing under gold OA must pay. Now, however, Jisc have come up with the idea of OA contributions also buying an institution credits, with which they can offset their journal subscriptions with a given publisher according to how much of its publication costs they have already paid. It seems fair as an idea, and represents a creditable willingness on the part of the publishers to make less money for a principle. Of course, an awful lot depends on the exact pricing, not least because nothing seems to require that the compensation actually equal the cost of the subscription and there’s a whole host of issues about who gets the compensation: the author’s university’s library, the grant-making body that paid for the research… So let’s have a play with some hypothetical numbers.

The publisher’s interest seems to be the crucial one here, so I did a bit of back of the envelope maths. Springer helpfully put their journal prices online, unlike most publishers, and the median price for 2014 was €715. The journal in the list charging closest to that was Pituitary, and that year they had a €2,200 open access article processing charge and published 87 articles that year. These are maybe not typical figures (especially for the humanities!), but they are at least middling ones that a real commercial publisher is or was actually using. So, simple arithmetic: if every one of those 87 articles had been published gold OA, it would have brought Springer in €191,400, which is to say, just under 268 subscriptions. I have no idea how many places do in fact subscribe to Pituitary, but there were about 22,000 universities in the world in 2013, so you’d think that Springer could certainly hope for more than 268 of them buying in.

Going full-on gold OA could thus cost Springer a substantial sum of money in that model. Article processing charges also have to be paid on articles that get rejected, however, and I don’t know what the rejection rate is. This suddenly makes a lot of difference, and if we are setting up a model in which publishers encourage us to give them money for being considered for publication, and then only the successful get compensation, it looks rather more sinister, doesn’t it? Imagine a humanities version of this, a fictional Exclusive Journal of Medieval Studies, publishing 16 articles a year fully open access, gold all the way, and charged for that at the same rate as Pituitary, but rejecting nineteen for each one it published. This is obviously not typical for the humanities, but as we’ve already said, the humanities ecosystem can probably support very few such organisms, if any, so the extreme is where we have to start. That high level of rejection would be to the journal’s advantage in terms of reputation, but it would also be greatly to the publisher’s financial benefit, because as long as they accepted their 16 articles annually the rejected submissions would be almost pure revenue. 19 times 16 is 304; 304 Pituitary-sized APCs is €668,800, which is 935 Pituitary-sized subscriptions. Suddenly it looks a lot better than capping your revenue at €191,400, doesn’t it? This might nearly make up for the shift of publishing model, and if it didn’t, prices could presumably be changed so that it would. And the more people who wanted to get into this highly exclusive journal but failed, the better those sums would look for the publisher.

So, now consider a halfway house in which this invented journal is still publishing half its articles on a conventional subscription model and the other half on gold OA. Let’s also say that Wiley’s prediction is accurate and that their subscription price remains the same in this world, but they compensate the gold OA authors or their institutions with a pay-out equivalent to the subscription. (Multiple authors obviously makes this model a lot more complex but let’s leave that for now and assume all authors are lone scholars.) Now, the publisher’s revenue comes only from subscriptions or the charges for the OA articles that it rejects. Think about what that means for its would-be authors and the open access agenda for just a moment… To me it seems that while the publisher would have every incentive to encourage open access submissions, that incentive would also pressure them to accept as few as possible.

This would mean, of course, encouraging an awful lot of lower-quality submissions somehow while still only publishing good ones. It’s hard to see such a policy working for long—why would you bother submitting unless you were pretty sure your work was excellent?—but even if it did, good authors might come to prefer to publish somewhere less notoriously keen to gather in APCs without return, because they would probably justly fear what the effect of that on the editorial agenda would be, and then the journal would only have less good work to publish and its reputation would drop. So there is probably a long-term cost to taking this path. But all this is to assume a lot of awareness among authors, which surveys about open access in the UK and the reactions to Elsevier actually enforcing the agreements its authors had signed suggest we don’t have! Nonetheless, even this dally with made-up figures should show that it really does matter what the figures actually are, and so the news that Jisc has basically negotiated a separate (and presumably private) agreement with every one of the publishers who’s so far playing may not be as good as it initially sounds…

The other thing it implies, of course, is a huge pool of reviewers willing to read a lot of bad work, which is probably the real reason this scenario couldn’t arise. But then, technology is also offering ways around that problem, and that’s where the second part of this post was originally meant to go. But this is already long enough, and so that can wait for a couple of days. Meanwhile your thoughts or corrections would as ever be very welcome!

Link

“They have chosen ignorance”

I found this a year or so ago, but you might still want to look at it. It’s an open letter by a number of scientists protesting about the defunding of research in higher education contexts, with a number of significant institutions (especially Spanish ones, perhaps not surprisingly) supporting them, and they are (still) looking for signatures.

http://openletter.euroscience.org/open-letter/

With a year’s perspective on this (and the all-important transition into an established post, no doubt) I find my views on this slightly less similar to theirs. I am still horrified at some inner level about the continuing pressure to cut and cut, but I understand where it’s coming from; we in the UK have been in an era where politicians see declaring actual policy as exposing vulnerability since about 1997, and since Blair at least that’s been not least, I think, because they know they don’t actually have any joined-up policy scheme. Making budgets balance, however, they understand as an aim (if not a skill) and believe the electorate will understand as well. In any case, no-one for ages has had a solution for where the money comes from for higher education that isn’t one way or another raising taxes, which no politician now has the courage to admit they need to do, so if it is solved it will be solved by stealth anyway. In recent months we seem at last to be moving into a position for UK higher education at least where the relevant bits of the state actually have something like an idea what they’d like to see, and I don’t like all of it but it’s not quite what the letter above is seeing. We’re still supposed to achieve excellence without money, of course, but the person in charge (an ex-historian, which I’d love to think helps) seems to understand that some kind of underlying structure is necessary to support that, even if it apparently has to run on less resource.* But there isn’t much less it can run on without losing either quantity or quality, given the decreasing rewards for students in terms of a graduate premium in salary, which means that making the voice of that letter louder may still do some good even if its detail doesn’t fit our particular case as well as it did when they wrote it and I saw it.


* I really would like sloganeers to look up the word ‘excellence’ at some point and realise that semantically it cannot apply to a majority. To excel is to be distinguished by quality; if everyone’s quality levels up, there is no distinction and therefore no excellence. This sounds like bad word choice, but I think it’s worse, it’s the hope that despite a general expressed wish to raise standards there will still be élite institutions, like those to which policy-makers largely go, that will remain worth more in social and career terms. You can aim for excellence, in other words, but their very use of the word shows that they hope most don’t attain it…

Publishers, copyright and the prevention of research-led teaching: a thought experiment

Being a year behind with the blog means, naturally, that things linked to the academic year come round again as I get as far as blogging about them, and in this instance the spur is making reading digitally available for students, which has propelled me into ranting again about how daft the way we publish is. I have one particular point in mind, so I will try and keep the post on target, but I’m not promising that other things that make me cross won’t turn up in footnotes. So, this is a post about how we make our research available to students for teaching purposes.

When I started teaching in 2003 the digital thing was quite new. I was the first user in that department of some new software they had of the sort that would come to be called a Virtual Learning Environment, a clunky slow thing called Sentient Discover that still worked better than Blackboard five years later (though as I’m now working with it again, I have to admit that Blackboard has come a long way since I first met it). At that point, though, there was neither file-space nor hardware available within such an environment to digitise materials from hard copy; Oxford simply aimed to provide sufficient hard copies, and so digitising actual readings is something I only really started to do at Birmingham. This post started off as a thought when I came to be doing it again the next year, to supply students on a big survey course with access to materials that a hundred-plus people would need in the same week.1

Copyright symbol

Obviously there are copyright implications about scanning stuff and sticking it online, even behind a firewall. It struck me while thinking this post out that academics’ somewhat offhand relationship to copyright is in some ways only to be expected; we almost never get paid from sales of what we write, we usually don’t in fact own copyright in it, that being either granted to a publisher and, if we’re lucky, licensed back to us, or else held by our employers.2 Consequently copyright, intended to protect the livelihood of authors, is actually of no direct monetary benefit to us, whereas it is very often in the way of our reading or accessing other information which we need to work. This is of course why there is an Open Access movement and Creative Commons licensing and various other alternatives set up by those who believe information should be free, but the fact of the matter is that lots of it ain’t. And so copyright applies to these materials, and the law in the UK is pretty clear: assuming that it’s not an exception (published outside the EU or out of copyright) you can photocopy up to five per cent of a volume or one single article or chapter, whichever is the larger, once only, for your own use (and you may not circulate that or pass it on to someone else), and you can scan the same amount of something and place it in a private digital repository as long as the managers of that repository are tallying it and making appropriate royalty payments to the Copyright Licensing Agency. I believe the rules in the USA are similar, but I’m not a lawyer and even this much may be wrong. Anyway, we now reach the thought experiment.

Often, in interviews, I have been asked how my research enhances my teaching, how I incorporate my research into my teaching, and so on, and research-led teaching is a phrase that has become almost hackneyed in the UK in the last decade or so. I have got a lot better at answering this kind of question over the years but it was always a problem for me, because I work on Spain, which is not very interesting to the average UK student, and most of my source materials are in non-Classical Latin and not available in translation. So it struck me early on that one excellent answer to that question would be, “I use this volume of translated documents that I myself have published for exactly this purpose!” And suddenly last year I realised that because of the way we publish, that is in fact not an excellent answer at all.

Consider. Let’s say that I convince some press that charters are, in fact, where medieval studies is at, and that if they publish a volume of charters translated by me it will be hoovered up by university teachers everywhere who want to use something that isn’t chronicles or literature and therefore by default the readings of the élite. So I translate the documents, they are published, my university duly buys a copy or few, and I want to set it for a course. Let us say that that course recruits fifteen students, and that I am not either willing or allowed to require that the students buy a copy each, no matter how much good it would do my royalties money (if we assume that the press I managed to persuade was such a one as pays them). I still have to make required readings available digitally, however. How much of this, my own work, can I therefore set to my students? Why, no more than five per cent, of course!

So, by publishing that material, I actually lock most of it away from the use for which I intended it. There are only two ways round this that I can see. One is to publish with a press that will publish it as an e-book and license that in terms that allow lots of people to access it at once. These are not in fact common license terms, precisely because they are constructed so as to minimise the number of books you need to buy; it shouldn’t surprise us when companies like Routledge sell e-books with licenses that mean that only one person in a university can use them at once, they are in the business of selling books!3 The other, of course, and by far the simplest and the most use to the world at large, is just to put the stuff on the open web, but this is a path with no reward in terms of professional recognition, for reasons both sound and stupid; it wouldn’t have to pass peer review, on the one hand, so is hard to rate, and on the other some people still don’t think databases count as real publication. Such a volume is something I actually want to publish, but it absolutely does my head in that somehow things have got to the point where if I picked the wrong press, actually publishing it is about the worst thing I could do in terms of making that material accessible to students…


1. FIRST RANT. Last year I was, of course, curating coins, so this teaching I did as contract staff for the Department of History. I don’t want to single Birmingham out here, because as far as I know their system for paying temporary teaching staff, often postgraduates, is usual, which is to say that it’s the system I’ve been paid with everywhere else I’ve done it or, in fact, better. The pay is by the hour, paid for contact time and an additional hour of preparation time for every classroom hour. That prep time, of course, is meant also to cover all the other work of teaching, which is to say marking, delivering feedback, answering e-mails and attending meetings with other staff, so in effect it all disappears. There is also a structural assumption that you know enough to teach a subject which is often explicitly not enacted. By this I mean that if you are new to a topic and have also got to do the reading, or even just refresh yourself about something you last read ten years ago, that hour is very quickly gone, with no other class prep done at all, but obviously it is expected that you will in fact learn enough to teach that hour anyway. So, maybe you’re more efficient than me, but I find that even now a classroom hour on a course that’s new to me takes me between two and three hours to prepare, and then there’s all the admin., so really one is getting paid at something like a third or a quarter of the rate per hours worked that one is in fact offered, all of which brings it very close to and even below minimum wage. Of course, universities largely couldn’t afford to deliver seminar teaching any other way, which is a system problem for which I don’t blame their staff, though I do blame staff who don’t recognise these economics. But therefore, when you are course leader for such a course, with five or six people being paid like that teaching for you, don’t expect them to do your photocopying or digitisation for you as well. You’re the one being paid a full-time wage: do what you’re paid for. I intend to stand by these words now that I am in fact the one being paid, of course, but it really does annoy me when people leading such courses don’t consider what their TAs actually get paid for.

2. The second rant would be about people who don’t realise they’ve signed away these rights and then protest about how unfair it is when the people to whom they’ve signed them stop them making free with what are no longer their own writings. Read your contracts.

3. I instance Routledge because these were indeed the terms under which they had licensed Dorothy Whitelock (ed./transl.), English Historical Documents volume I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), to Oxford when I taught there.