Open Access: Great Awakening or Death Knell?

As discussed in the last post, scholarly journals are moving actively and aggressively toward open access. The push is being orchestrated jointly by academic scholars who want their work distributed more widely, by scholars unaffiliated with first-world universities who lack access to published research, and by the research institutions that pay exorbitant subscription fees to the for-profit publishing industry. While open-access online journals have proliferated across all disciplines, the high-prestige journals — those with the lowest manuscript acceptance rates — still charge a hefty subscription fee, typically paid by university libraries. But the universities are actively renegotiating less expensive, more open arrangements with the journal publishers, while individual scholars increasingly post their own work on open-access internet “pirate” sites to circumvent publishers’ restrictions. Most scholars don’t really need the publishers to publicize their work, which appeals almost exclusively to small cadres of fellow specialists who often know about each others’ ongoing work even before it’s written up for publication and who are adept at using online search engines to track down the latest publications and pre-pubs.

Open-access literary magazines, like open-access scholarly journals, already proliferate. As with the journals, the most selective literary periodicals still charge subscription fees. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that academic libraries account for most of the litmags’ subscription revenues. Still, many subscription-only magazines make their back issues available for free online. I don’t think there’s been a concerted push by writers and readers to make litmags open access — my guess is that supply sufficiently outstrips demand that only relatively few of the magazines can generate any revenue.

So there are parallels between short scholarly and literary texts — what about open-access books? I don’t know how energetic the push is for making scholarly books open access, but that impetus can’t be lagging too far behind the journals. Granted, textbooks make a lot of money year after year, but for the most part the readers of scholarly books are the same as those who read the journals: mostly specialists occupying narrow niches, small markets that generate small revenues. As with the journals, it’s mostly academic libraries that buy scholarly books. The authors might make a bit of money from their scholarly books, but it’s only a small supplement to their salaries as teachers and researchers. For scholars in most disciplines, writing a book isn’t even a high priority. What’s $3K in book royalties when students pay $3K apiece to enroll in your classes? Which is the better use of your time: writing a grant proposal that pays you up front to do the project you want to do while also funding the grad students who’ll do most of the actual work, or writing a book on spec that might or might not get published, and even if it is published the proceeds will compensate you for only a fraction of the effort you put into writing it?  Or you can have your cake and eat it too: include the writing of a book as a compensated task and a deliverable in your grant proposal. In all likelihood scholars would support open access to their published books, trading off a little bit of money for wider readership, wider recognition and influence, more leverage when applying for a job, coming up for tenure, negotiating a raise.

Like scholars who publish books, fiction writers don’t make much money from their published novels. Would they trade off royalties for readers? The ones with full-time academic appointments might. I don’t doubt that many novels and compilations of stories or poems written by academics, like most scholarly books, circulate mostly among a small cadre of specialists whose acclaim is worth more to the authors career-wise than the small change they might earn from book sales.

The main difference between scholarly and literary texts is that, in most scholarly realms, articles rather than books are the primary work product and medium of communication, as well as the main metric for evaluating scholars’ excellence and influence in the field. In literary circles, on the other hand, the short piece is often regarded as a stepping-stone to the long form. From Chad Harbach in his 2010 article “MFA vs. NYC”:

“[E]veryone knows that no one reads short stories. And it’s true that the story, once such a reliable source of income for writers, has fallen out of mass favor, perhaps for reasons opposite to that of the poem: If in the public imagination poetry reeks suspiciously of high academia—the dry, impacted arcana of specialists addressing specialists—then the short story may have become subtly and pejoratively associated with low academia—the workaday drudgery of classroom exercises and assignments. The poet sublimates into the thin air of the overeducated Ph.D.; the story writer melts down into the slush of the composition department. Neither hits the cultural mark. A writer’s early short stories (as any New York editor will tell you) lead to a novel, or they lead nowhere at all.

Maybe writers of short fictions who don’t land paying jobs in academe should just quit writing fictions, devoting themselves more fully to whatever career path they land on next. That’s what most grad students in other scholarly disciplines do: they write or collaborate on a few journal articles, join the hordes of candidates fighting for a small and dwindling number of academic posts, then move on to other lines of work when they don’t get the gig.

Maybe the boutique publishers of long fictions are performing a public service by narrowing the bottleneck, letting only credentialed academic authors’ books squeeze through. Maybe other fiction writers, like scholars in other disciplines, should concentrate their efforts on producing masterful short pieces, distributing them freely among one another in open-access litmags. And maybe academic fiction writing programs should shift away from training students to practice a profession that no longer exists (if it ever did) to a more scholarly model of education — a discipline that values the finished work, be it short form or long, not as a crafted artifact to be put up for sale as a commodity in the shop window (or given away for free at the open-access website), but as the end result of an extended investigation, an incremental contribution to fiction as a field of research and design and speculation.




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