Open access, enhancement and a court injunction

SAGE Open

Yesterday, 19 May, SAGE announced publication of the first set of articles in its open access journal SAGE Open. The announcement about the event indicates that these articles represent the initial group of manuscripts accepted for publication from more than 400 submissions since the initiative was announced in January 2011. Such a volume within a four-month period exceeds the number most established titles receive within a year. Combining that volume with the fact that the open access model being used by SAGE Open requires author payment for publication, it appears there are many scholars across the social sciences willing to contribute to an open access journal. SAGE Open benefits, of course, from the reputation of the publisher, but the other common conventions of journal status, like ranking in the Web of Science and an acceptably high impact factor, are absent.

Very much present is accessibility of the published material available in different forms, depending on the interests of the reader. There is the conventional pdf file format, which is often used for printing a copy. In addition, SAGE Open provides a so-called ‘Full Text’ format that includes a range of increasingly standard forms of manuscript enhancement in a Web environment: pop-up windows of bibliographic entries when the cursor glides over in-text references, hot hyperlinks, tables and figures that can be opened in separate windows.

Another type of enhancement with which SAGE is experimenting in this and other titles in its stable of journals is search capability of the keywords assigned to an article. Clicking on a keyword results in a list of hits where that keyword appears in articles published in other SAGE journals. On those topics where this publisher has a larger number of titles, such as social science research methodology, this search feature can be helpful during the early stages of literature identification.

Enhancement and enrichment

There are other variations to enhancement conceivable and it will be interesting to watch whether these are rolled out as the journal becomes established. Based on this initial set of articles, however, it does not seem that SAGE will be following the more radical initiative by Elsevier, what that publisher called the ‘Article of the Future’ at the time of launch nearly two years ago in July 2009. That approach to journal article enhancement has become, as announced early this year, the standard among the score of biology journals in the stable of Cell Press, a subsidiary of Elsevier. It would be interesting to compare the two approaches to enhancement and the rationales by the publishers for including different kinds of enhancement. Much of the variation can probably be attributed to the cultural differences between biology as a discipline, well within the domain of the natural sciences, and a wide range of disciplines in the social sciences that have more affiliation with scholarship in the humanities. In a sense, the approach to enhanced publishing may be reflective of the thesis C. P. Snow sketched in The Two Cultures, more than five decades ago, then suggesting a schism nearly unbreachable between these two domains of scholarship.

Enhancement of scholarship, be that in the sciences or the humanities, probably should be distinguished from enrichment of scholarship, which is what the Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries (JALC) is striving to achieve with functionalities in its open access web-based articles that extend far beyond pop-up windows. This distinction was  persuasively argued yesterday during a presentation at an eHumanities Group (eHg) colloquium by Jeroen Sondervan, editor at Amsterdam University Press (AUP) and publisher of JALC. In that journal, enlargement and rotation of the

maps of archaeological digs and availability of datasets from research projects provide features to a scholarly publication inadequately suggested by ‘enhancement’. Such enrichment, especially as achieved through linking publications to datasets, is the really interesting next level of innovation in publishing, and a more deserving candidate for the label ‘Article of the Future’ than what either SAGE or Elsevier have thus far brought to the table.

Court injunction

The good news about SAGE Open is countered by a dark and ominous court action involving the publisher of this venture, SAGE, together with two arch-conservative university publishing houses, Oxford and Cambridge, regarding alleged copyright infringement at Georgia State University. A wide range of observers consider it ‘A nightmare scenario for higher education’ because of the far-reaching restrictions the injunction may bring should the court ruling be favorable to the plaintiffs. An avalanche of blog reactions have ensued in the few days since the injunction was filed on 16 May and one composed by Hoyner at Outside the Beltway described the action in strikingly harsh terms:

This thuggish tactic of bringing lawsuits and demanding damages or restrictions that are wildly absurd has become en vogue in recent years by those seeking to protect copyrights. The intent, rather transparently, is to frighten the defendants and cow them into settlements rather than take the risk of such crippling damages being awarded.

As bizarre and outrageous as this all is in the context of blogging and the like, it’s mindboggling in the case of academic use of scholarly journals. That’s the purest case of Fair Use.

In another post, Why Open Access is Imperative to Teaching, the author predicts:

If what the publishers want come to pass, there would be even more intense restriction, almost completely wiping out fair use, and practically criminalizing how professors give out reading assignments.

It should be clear that some publishers are antagonistic at best to the needs of academics, not providing them with a service. And that handing over to publishers our copyrights is against everyone’s best interest.

This court action illustrates that enlightened initiatives like SAGE Open are all too often accompanied by contradictory initiatives that dampen a spirit of openness in scholarship. The duality serves as reminder of a basic concern shared by most publishers across the spectrum, commercial and university-affiliated: retention of control of scholarship through restricted access to and use by the members of the scholarly community from which that scholarship emerges.  There is a ‘way out’ from such repressiveness, but the necessary course of action is far more radical than suggested by initiatives at enhancement and by ‘Article of the Future’ proclamations. That solution requires a break with and boycott of publishers repressive in policy and action. That  involves a move toward political action in defense of openness in scholarship by members of a community affiliated with institutions – colleges, universities, research centers – conservative in nature, much as the body of publishers involved in restricting access…and that is the difficulty and, at the same time, the dilemma.