Open Insights: An Interview with Ernesto Priego

Posted by James Smith on 19 March 2018

The Comics Grid: Open access challenges and opportunities

An Open Insights interview with Ernesto Priego

Dr Ernesto Priego is a lecturer at City, University of London and the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of The Comics Grid Journal of Comics Scholarship, a prize-winning open access journal hosted by the Open Library of Humanities.

His broader interests include comics scholarship, digital humanities, human computer interaction, library and information science, publishing, journalism, social media, altmetrics, open data science and scholarly communications. Today, we explore the pitfalls, logistics and possibilities of his varied interventions in and interactions with humanities open access.

OLH: Hello Ernesto. Thank you for agreeing to talk with us about The Comics Grid and the wider context of comics scholarship. You have a diverse background in information studies, cultural studies and digital humanities. How does your scholarly history inform your work in open access and your editorship of The Comics Grid?

EP: Thank you for inviting me to participate in this series. This is a very good question. In a way it is the question, for me at least. Everything starts in a galaxy far, far way (so close), which is my family home in my native Mexico City. I had the privilege of having parents who loved reading and more importantly loved to go to bookshops and collect books. I grew up surrounded by books. The first books that attracted my attention when I was old enough to choose my own books and read them myself were comic books, mainly Asterix and Lucky Luke albums. When I chose to study English Literature at university I did so because I loved reading and writing, and my love for reading and writing started and developed by reading comics. My undergraduate dissertation was a narratological study of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, which was the first Literary Studies thesis at UNAM to focus on comic books. So I faced quite a bit of resistance to my persistent wish to include comics and other popular culture and genre fiction in the Literary Studies curriculum.

My MA thesis was about ‘traumatic structure’ in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and my PhD tried to connect the disciplinary dots that could be used to approach the transformations of comic books and comic book culture as we came into the age of pervasive Web access, the tablet and the smartphone. Growing up in Mexico and having developed as a kid and as a young person a keen interest in international literature and culture I became acutely aware of the challenges to access the material I wanted to read. References in books and films and all sorts of texts and media were not always easily and even less immediately traceable or findable. Way before I read Landow’s Hypertext I dreamed of being able to locate the sources of references by merely touching them. So when the Web became mainstream it was a dream come true, but I quickly realised that the possibilities were being co-opted by commercial interests and that our understandings of ‘intellectual property’ needed to be updated to reflect the possibilities implicit in hypertext and what we used to call hypermedia.

It was through my colleague Isabel Galina, who had also studied English Lit with me in Mexico (we are from the same class/generation) that I became aware of something called ‘humanities computing’ around 1999-2000. At UCL, with Claire Warwick and Melissa Terras as PhD supervisors, a whole new methodological, multidisciplinary approach opened to me—what became ‘digital humanities´ was for me a natural progression into the study of literature and culture as media, and of information and knowledge as processes inherently interdependent with specific technologies. This answer is already getting too long, but it basically goes in that direction: for me The Comics Grid is a digital humanities project because for me the digital humanities are about the explicit becoming aware of how technologies of production and therefore textuality not only influence but determine and are essential to all cultural phenomena.

OLH: Tell us more about the journal and the story of its creation as a venue for comics scholarship. How does open access fit in?

EP: Comic books, for me, had always been at the core of the problems that the digital humanities was both revealing and trying to problematize further. It is quite poignant to me that one of the main challenges to using computational methods to study comics—or to use computational methods to disseminate them and disseminate their study—has been, precisely, specific understandings and applications of copyright law. Nowhere in culture has the history of copyright law been more defining than for the evolution of comics as a medium, as an industry and as a culture. Open access is a logical paradigm shift within academic culture, as it seeks to be in congruence with the possibilities of computational methods of creation, dissemination and discussion of information.

I find it a worrying indictment of the contradictions of scholarly work that there should be scholarship that contradicts, technologically, materially, the methods and ideas that make that scholarship possible. With The Comics Grid what we wanted to create was not only a resource that would not be paywalled but a resource that would recognise in practice that scholarship today is in great measure done online, and that if you study comics you need to be able to see at least some actual examples from the comics studied. Though there are other comics studies journals that are not paywalled, they often lack scholarly affordances I consider essential today, such as Digital Object Identifiers, diverse indexing, HTML and XML versions and not just PDFs, metrics, social media share widgets, dyslexia reading mode, anti-plagiarism mechanisms, use of ORCID and, most importantly, clear open licensing.

OLH: Your special collections are diverse, using the prism of comics to explore a wide range of themes. What unique opportunities does the field of comics scholarship and the format of the journal offer you?

EP: Increasingly my view is that The Comics Grid, like the Open Library of Humanities itself, can really be an umbrella for several mini ‘journals’. My idea with the special collections was to empower members of the Grid editorial board to come up with ideas and stimulate the development of bodies of work on specific topics and approaches. Unlike many humanities journals and conferences, we do not accept submissions based on an abstract only, which then puts editors in a tricky position if the actual full version is not up to the expected standards. I consciously wanted to follow the example of science journals where people have done research and they submit that research, rather than a model where research is done only when there is a guarantee it will get published.

Our special collections seek to give more specificity to our general ongoing call for papers and journal scope, and hopefully colleagues will feel more empowered to submit when the topic of the collection fits the work they are doing or are interested in doing. So the format of the journal allows us to both disaggregate and aggregate research, to decentralise while having a sense of unity. But what really counts is that when an article is published is both part of something larger and autonomous. When it's live, it is literally alive: thanks to the CC-BY license, it can be anywhere and everywhere as long as attribution is given. For comics scholarship in particular we hope we are offering something different in the sense that our ‘issues’ or ‘volumes’ are the accumulated publications over a whole year, but since we receive and publish articles in an ongoing basis, we are not determined by the constraints of the ‘issue’ as we used to have when print ruled scholarly communications.

OLH: Your journal is an innovator in the application of open peer review. What special challenges and possibilities for editors and reviewers does your peer review process present and how do they intersect with the open access nature of the publication?

EP: I have to say it’s all been part of an ongoing experiment. Openness in review is a huge challenge, especially when you have a combination of junior and more senior colleagues participating in the editorial and review work. Open review is possible when there is trust and good will. Ideally, I personally would love to be able to publish the reviews, and for all authors to know who review them. This has not been possible for several reasons. When you care about the work you do it can be very hard to get a rejection or a tough critique, and written communication can lack the nuance that other non-written cues could provide when critical or negative feedback is given. So on the one hand whenever reviewers accept to be identified we notice that they tend to be more careful in how they review, both in form and content. On the other hand reviewers are often overwhelmed in their own work and due to the voluntary nature of editorial and review work, all the communications throughout the process are not always shareable/publishable as-is. It’s not easy.

Our engagement with open peer review started very early on because for a year we used Google docs to work on submissions directly with authors. This was very labour-intensive, and 99 per cent of the times it led to a significant improvement of the work, as well as the development of working relationships between colleagues. I loved this workshop style of peer review, but not everyone is open for it and not everyone has the time, nor the skills. Using the OJS management system has professionalised our editorial and review workflow but it has also imposed new challenges, as the system is not that intuitive and it can also be very laborious if one does it properly without skipping steps/stages. I do think that peer review is essential but we all know that anonymity does not always produce the kindest of gestures and it can be used as an excuse to gatekeep, avoid transparency and perpetuate a status quo. I think openness in peer review is the way forward, but we are still in a transitional stage and the transition has to be done carefully.

OLH: What are your thoughts on researcher-led editorial labour in humanities open access?

EP: I have a few. I think there is an urgent need for employers and funders to recognise researcher-led editorial labour as research labour. Scholarly publishing, for better or worse, remains at the core of the Higher Education enterprise because it’s one of the main ways in which academics are assessed and all other conditions follow that assessment, including university rankings, and therefore also student numbers, reputation, etc. It beggars belief that researcher-led editorial labour—and this includes peer review—remains an unrecognised, mostly officially unrewarded labour. The fact that most of this labour is done for for-profit publishers that then sell us access to that very work we produced is a scandal, and the main practical reason why I had to prompt the foundation of The Comics Grid. Now we are, sadly, part of the problem as well, because we rely on the voluntary labour of colleagues.

No one working in the journal gets paid a cent extra for doing this work. And because I don’t work in a humanities department or school, I am not even sure it is considered at all as part of the work I do as a member of staff. I do Grid work out of hours and on weekends. For me publishing, the labour that makes it possible, is essentially a research activity. The fact that we have allowed it to be separated from the task of conducting research is disappointing and frustrating—laughable, almost—comparable to that story of the kids who, during a school trip, were shocked to discover that burgers actually came from cows….

OLH: Why do you think it's important to critically interrogate publication practices?

EP: We must critically interrogate everything we do. It is hard when people are trapped in a rat-race, pressured to churn out paper after paper. It’s been comfortable, historically, to leave publication workflows to commercial third parties, to outsource the work that makes it possible for other work to get recorded and documented and archived and disseminated and measured and assessed. 

Submit submit submit, next next next, without really ever having the time or the will to step back and think about what is at stake.

OLH: What is your impression of open access in the humanities more broadly and colleagues’ awareness (or otherwise) of the issues involved?

EP: I think we still need a lot of work in this sense. I think it all starts when people join university as undergraduates. Anyone in a university should be aware of what are the issues involved in access to the information that university researchers produce. There’s been, no doubt, progress, and seven years ago we weren’t really sure if anyone would be submitting to the Grid as we heard so many expressions of concern. I think there is less fear in relation to open licenses, but there is also higher pressure from employers and other colleagues to publish in particular venues by particular publishers. The big challenge for new researcher-led journals and platforms is reputational value, and this is only developed over time. 

I also think we need to interrogate our understanding of ‘reputation’ and change it significantly. Reputations can be ruined quickly, and reputations can be undeserving. This is why the importance should be placed on individual articles or outputs themselves. Reputation by association is not a rigorous method of assessment.

OLH: If you had one wish for the future of open access within the broader future of the humanities, what would it be?

EP: I want it to be interoperable and sustainable in every sense. This includes infrastructure in terms or data management and the required budget to make publication possible. My vision is universities and funders allocating specific funds not to pay APCs to hybrid legacy publishers but to enable consortia like the one represented by Open Library of Humanities. I would like to see journal editors and reviewers and journal managers rewarded, either directly or indirectly depending on their role, so that the labour is not done out of hours or without payment.

In the meanwhile I would like to see authors thinking twice about publishing in paywalled journals, and universities and funders actively discouraging publishing in paywalled journals with post-print embargoes.

OLH: Finally, what does humanities open access need more of, and what does it need less of?

EP: We need more awareness of why open access is important in the first place. We need less of this understanding of open access as an administrative process that is meant to keep funders happy. 

We need more authors to care about why it matters to regain control over our own work. We need less reinventing the wheel and more supporting the initiatives that already exist and are already demonstrating ongoing success. I could go on but I feel I have already taken too much of your time! Thank you.

OLH: Many thanks for your time, Ernesto!

Join us again soon for more #EmpowOA Open Insights. See the tweets from a Twitter chat on this topic collected here on Wakelet.