March 17th, 2013


Lisa Jardine and Open Access

Today's Point of View on the nascent culture of data sharing amongst astronomers in the latter half of the seventeenth century was quite well done. For Lisa Jardine, Newton may have been a bit of a bastard in his unwillingness to share credit, but it's Flamsteed's unwillingness to share data that makes him the real villain of the piece. There was nothing super-new here, but it was a nicely-crafted 10-minute piece, right up until the last couple of sentences, when Jardine sought to draw a modern parallel:

There is some anxiety currently in the academic community, especially in the humanities, over Government insistence that publicly-funded research must in future be Open Access. I declare myself to be a strong advocate for collaboration and sharing of data in all fields of intellectual endeavour.

Well, I've yet to meet an academic who isn't an advocate for collaboration and the sharing of data (perhaps it's more common in science), but this seems a very lopsided way of putting the case for Open Access - as if Open Access and free data sharing were the same thing, and the main obstacle in its path were the dog-in-a-manger attitude of humanities academics.

Now, don't get me wrong - Open Access is there to address a real problem. Academic publishers charge a bomb for their journals, meaning that most people can't read them unless they have access to a university library. Why shouldn't the public be able to get at publicly-funded research, after all?

Why indeed? From where I'm standing it seems that the academic publishers are a bit of cartel. They have some costs, of course - for materials, design, production, distribution, etc., but their copy is provided free by academics, and their main quality control mechanism - i.e. peer review - is also provided free, also by academics. So, one approach might be to try to get academic publishers to lower their prices. But those publishers are mostly international companies, and the government has a way of throwing its hands up whenever asked to make an international company do anything at all.

Instead, it's moving to Open Access, which sounds lovely, but is more accurately described as a move from a pay-to-read to a pay-to-publish model. In other words, under Government proposals anyone who wants to publish in a journal will now have to pay for the privilege, or get their institution to do so.

We're not talking a nominal sum, either. When I published my article "Critiqing Calypso" recently, I was given the option of publishing Open Access, but it would have cost me £2,000 - and that, I believe, is at the lower end of the scale. So I declined, and accordingly to read it at the official site will cost you £29.95 / $39.95 / €34.95. Alternatively, you can read an unofficial version for nothing here (because I do believe in actual open access). Yes, this is allowed under the terms of my contract with Springer - the free version has not been set by them - but it means that there are now two slightly different versions of the article out there, which can't be good.

As yet, my institution doesn't have a fund to pay Open Access fees. Perhaps it will, once the system's up and running - I believe they're considering it - but as you've probably gathered, there's not a lot of spare cash around in universities at the moment. It's inevitable that the universities with the most money - Oxbridge, obviously, but also other Russell Group universities such as Professor Jardine's own UCL - will have far more resources to fund academic publication than post-'92 institutions such as my own. Ironically, the result of Open Access may well be that research, far from being easier to access, doesn't get published at all in peer-reviewed journals - not because it lacks academic quality but because the researchers can't afford the fees. (Individual researchers working outside institutions, and researchers working in less affluent countries, will be in an even more parlous situation.) Of course, research can still be put out on the web, but that's not going to count for much when the REF (or whatever it's called next time) comes around. Open Access, which looks on the face of it like an egalitarian and democratic move, may in effect serve only to shore up the privileges of the already-rich. (This is, after all, the Russell Group's raison d'être - and I commend them for finding such a clever Trojan stalking horse on this occasion.)

What we really need, if we can't get reasonably-priced academic journals (seems unlikely) and we can't get properly-resourced Open Access (seems even less likely), is a workers' cooperative: a not-for-profit, peer-reviewed forum, web-based and low cost, that will operate on a genuine open access basis. I'd suggest this could be operated as a charity (hey, Eton manages it), or else funded through low contributions by authors that reflect the actual costs of running such a site - in which case, I would be surprised if that £2,000 figure didn't come down to something more like £20. The problem would then be a) to get academics to want to publish in it, which in itself would depend on b) getting the REF (or equivalent) to recognize its bona fides - a chicken-and-egg task, but perhaps one the Government should get behind?

A Query for Classicists and Archaeologists

"Swords like those we sent you are useful," Aska said. "They are
made by the Romans, and are vastly better than any we have. With
one of those you might chop down as many saplings in a day as
would build a hut, and could destroy any wild beasts that may lurk
in your swamps. (G. A. Henty, Beric the Briton [1893])

The speaker is an Iceni chief bartering with some fen-dwellers in the wake of the defeat of AD 60/1. The swords were captured from the Romans earlier in the campaign, and are presumably standard-issue legionary weapons, which I think of as designed more for stabbing from between the serried shields of a Roman line than waving about or chopping down saplings, but which I'm willing to believe could have done any of these things (though for chopping I'd rather have a hatchet).

My question is this. Is it likely that a British chief of this era (putting all partisanship to one side, for Henty's officer class is nothing if not realist) would consider a standard legionary sword to be "vastly better" than anything Made in Britain? Was Roman sword-making technology noticeably superior to that of the British, speaking in terms of quality rather than their ability to churn the things out on a large scale?