Open Insights: The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales
Posted by James Smith on 2018-04-03
Heading for the Open Rogue: The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales
An Open Insights interview with Alex Mueller
Image: William Blake's engraving of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims.
I suspect that scholars and librarians feel roughly the same way about academic publishers. They find it increasingly difficult to live with them, but fear they cannot live without them. When skyrocketing subscription costs, delayed peer review processes, and extended publishing timelines restrict access to research, scholarly recognition, and progress toward tenure, academics become stuck within the trap of a dysfunctional relationship. Open access movements propose a way out through the elimination of price and permission barriers, making scholarship available to all, accelerating the speed of publication, and enhancing the potential impact of research. Even publishers and governmental agencies have responded to this attractive model with alacrity, developing policies that ensure that scholarly work, especially that which is publicly funded, is openly accessible to all. To mitigate the loss of subscription fees for such access, publishers have introduced Article Processing Charges (APCs), which require authors to pay up to thousands of dollars for their work to be published. While APCs can be written into grants, the majority of research in the humanities is either underfunded or not funded at all. Humanists, therefore, find themselves unable to afford the cost of the divorce and forced to endure an austere, obligatory, and often bitter, relationship with their publishers.
As someone who knows the cruel irony of publishing research on Wikipedia and digital forms of debate in printed venues with no online existence, I have occasionally fought feelings of despair about the future of academic publishing. Four years ago, though, I began to develop a new way of thinking about the problem of access. I was teaching a summer course in Italy about the history of letter writing that asked students to follow the footsteps of Dante and Petrarch, tracking the venerable history of the rules that govern written correspondence—from the private letter to the public tweet—through seminars, workshops, hands-on manuscript study in medieval archives and libraries throughout the city, document digitization, and social networking projects.
While APCs can be written into grants, the majority of research in the humanities is either underfunded or not funded at all. Humanists, therefore, find themselves unable to afford the cost of the divorce and forced to endure an austere, obligatory, and often bitter, relationship with their publishers.
During the planning of the course, the Italian faculty and I developed a bibliographic description project that asked students to select, handle, and digitize medieval manuscripts housed in the university rare books library. A week before the course began, my Italian colleagues informed me that the head librarian refused to allow our students to select manuscripts during our visit—she insisted they be selected in advance. Disappointed but not discouraged, I selected ten manuscripts that suited our course objectives. The day we arrived in Italy, the head librarian had another requirement: no photographs would be allowed, which meant that the publication of the manuscripts would be limited to textual descriptions on the course blog. This news was deflating, but I reassured myself that students would still be experiencing these precious materials firsthand. When we arrived for our first day at the library, the head librarian imposed yet another constraint: students would not be allowed to touch the manuscripts. Faculty would have to scurry from book to book, turning pages for students, and readjusting snake weights and cradles so that students would only interact with the manuscripts from a safe distance. My resolve fading away, I whispered to my Italian counterpart, “What do we do now? How can students complete their projects without touching the manuscripts?” Making sure the head librarian was out of sight, she replied confidently, “Siamo italiani. We’re Italians. We’ll do it anyway.” Slowly but surely, the students began to touch and photograph the manuscripts, at first clandestinely, and eventually within the sight of the head librarian, who began to grow fond of us, even inviting us to view deluxe manuscripts that few eyes had ever seen. By going rogue, we had gained entrance to the archive and assumed an interpretive power I suspect the students will never forget.
This mantra of “do it anyway” has become a motivating force for my scholarly publications ever since. And it has become increasingly clear to me that I am far from alone. Take for example The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales (OACCT), which brings together forty-eight scholars, teachers, and even a student to provide an introductory set of chapters and pedagogical resources designed to increase the audience and impact of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, specifically his Canterbury Tales. This project is grounded in the vision of Brantley L. Bryant and his co-editors, Candace Barrington, Richard H. Godden, Daniel T. Kline, and Myra Seaman, who desired a companion that would be accessible in all senses of the word: available on the internet at no cost, compatible with a wide variety of devices (printable PDFs or e-reader formats) and, perhaps most importantly, written for readers who had no previous experience with Chaucer. Most companions address scholarly audiences and rarely consider the needs and backgrounds of the students who are often required to read them for their coursework. Rather than assemble the usual cohort of experts from research universities, the OACCT gathered contributors from a wide variety of institutions, ranging from the Ivy League to the state college, in an effort to represent the wide array of pedagogical and scholarly perspectives on Chaucer studies. The current companion’s twenty-eight essay chapters (each devoted to an individual tale) and six reference chapters (addressing relevant background such as “Chaucer’s Difficult Lives” and “What Does It Mean to Read a Medieval Text?”) address a wide variety of audiences, animated by the companion’s insistence that the chapters “speak urgently to the interests, concerns, desires, nightmares, fears, and fantasies of our shared world.”
Rather than assemble the usual cohort of experts from research universities, the OACCT gathered contributors from a wide variety of institutions, ranging from the Ivy League to the state college, in an effort to represent the wide array of pedagogical and scholarly perspectives on Chaucer studies.
This urgency for such a capacious companion encouraged the editors forego the usual and prestigious route to publication—following the stop-and-go guidance of the academic press—and head for what I would call the “open rogue,” paying no tolls and speeding along the information superhighway to the humble destination of a university hosted website. One of the central aims of the project is to explore “how working outside of traditional publishing frameworks can open up different ways of reaching an audience and shaping a book, methods governed by the needs of the field and readers—not the needs of the market.” By abandoning the initial credential of the academic publisher, the OACCT sacrifices customary forms of prestige for speed, impact, and audience, effectively wagering that the quality, utility, and accessibility of the work will distinguish it as a model for scholarship in its own right. This kind of “doing it anyway,” however, is a gamble that not all can afford to make. When I decided to submit a chapter, I was enjoying my post-tenure sabbatical and seeking to participate in risk-taking projects I had been previously encouraged to avoid. One potential contributor shared with me that she decided not to submit an essay because of the repeated warning from mentors and administrators that this work might not count towards tenure, mostly because the term “open access” would be misunderstood to mean “not peer-reviewed.” Such misconceptions will continue to accompany similar publishing efforts, but, as editor Dan Kline emphasized in an e-mail exchange, “[a] solid peer-reviewed project like this might create a foothold for the recognition institutions need to grant for this kind of work.” With over 43,000 site visits since its October 2017 publication, this foothold is strengthening the OACCT’s potential to climb up the reputation ladder.
Perhaps the most significant evidence of the OACCT’s dedication to impact and audience is its facilitation of what editor Brantley Bryant calls a “sustaining and nurturing” form of open peer review, which asked contributors to display drafts of their work on CommentPress for thorough evaluation by invested readers. As I have argued elsewhere, open review can create transparency within scholarly evaluation processes, enhance the utility of peer feedback, increase the number of reviewers, and ultimately maximize the quality of the work. Since the OACCT is written for readers new to Chaucer, students were also encouraged to participate in the review—this increased the number of readers of my essay from the usual two to a staggering seventeen (!). And even though the first round of peer review is complete and the revised essays are now published, the OACCT is committed to a perpetually unfinished state (akin to the incomplete nature of the Tales themselves), calling this incarnation simply its “first season.” The online nature of the project makes it updatable for revisions or corrections and expandable for future essay and reference chapters.
Since the OACCT is written for readers new to Chaucer, students were also encouraged to participate in the review—this increased the number of readers of my essay from the usual two to a staggering seventeen (!).
Most academics have become accustomed to giving away their work for free (or for meager stipends or royalties), but few can tolerate the notion that their work will be unread or inaccessible. The monograph I published in 2013 was made available online a year later, but I didn’t have free access to the online copy because my institution’s library did not have a subscription to the database. When I became a visiting scholar at Harvard during the spring of 2017, the first thing I did with my library card was download my book, an exhilarating yet depressing experience. As OACCT editor Candace Barrington noted in an e-mail to me, “Published resources are difficult for many readers to obtain. While we’re all aware how book costs hamper students, we often forget what this can mean for libraries—and not just our libraries, the ones affiliated with research universities, well-endowed colleges, and strong high schools. Vast underfunding means public libraries, rural and urban high schools, community colleges, as well as colleges and universities outside the sphere of Anglophone privilege are limited (at best) to outdated publications.” Candace has encountered this impoverishment of library resources in the ongoing Global Chaucers project, an online archive of post-1945 non-Anglophone versions of the Canterbury Tales, which range from Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales to José Francisco Botelho’s Contos da Cantuaria. She and her collaborator Jonathan Hsy have discovered that many of Chaucer’s global translators either have limited access to up-to-date publications or find recent scholarship unapproachable. The OACCT, in tandem with projects like Global Chaucers, make a global audience for Chaucer achievable.
While such an “open rogue” may be a shortcut to access and impact, I do not believe it’s a sustainable direction for the future. Projects like the OACCT need the stability offered by presses dedicated to toll-free or low-cost forms of open access, along with organizations committed to empowering libraries as institutional homes for academic scholarship. Many of these, such as punctum books, have been ardently advocating for a revolution in academic publishing and effectively creating venues for risk-taking work that never existed before. The Open Library of Humanities, running a publishing platform through a network of university subsidies, offers another promising model for such sustainability, one that makes libraries, not publishing houses, the central station for scholarship. If this ideal can be achieved, fewer academics will have to hit the road to find an audience for their scholarly tales. They won’t even have to leave the library, except maybe to revel in the April showers (#WhanThatAprilleDay2018).
 This and the quotations that follow are from the “Information for Contributors” that was written by the OACCT editors. I am very grateful to the editors for their generous answers to my additional questions over e-mail.
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