• Open Insights: An Interview with James Smith

    Posted by Paula Clemente Vega on 2018-10-15


Open Access and Open Data: Perspectives from an Early Career Researcher and OA Advocate

An Open Insights interview with James Smith


Dr James L. Smith is an author, editor and former marketing officer for the Open Library of Humanities. He recently started a Postdoctoral Fellowship in the department of geography at Trinity College Dublin within the spatial and environmental humanities. His first monograph is Water in Medieval Intellectual Culture: Case-Studies from Twelfth-Century Monasticism (Brepols, 2018). James is also the editor of The Passenger: Medieval Texts and Transits (punctum books, 2017), and co-editor of the Open Library of the Humanities collection ‘New Approaches to Medieval Water Studies’.


OLH: Hi James, thanks for talking to us! To start, what is it that sparked your interest in open access and open scholarship?

James: It’s great to be involved! 

I suppose the start of my open access journey began with my first article, back in 2012. It was in a multi-lingual CC BY-licensed OJS journal, niche but enterprising. It meant something to me: I was drawn to the volume theme by an early obsession with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, and it was coincidental that it was open access. I went on to publish with more traditional journals, but openness really helped this first article to get out there and was good for my research. Once it was published, I got to see first-hand how openness leads to exposure as a PhD student – people do want to know that you think. I really got the message about the long-term impact of OA for an Early Career Researcher early on, somewhat by accident. Since then it has been a gradual opening of horizons.

I got the bug and moved on to zealous green OA archiving of post-prints, as much gold OA as I could negotiate, and the eternal ECR dance between prestige, cost and accessibility. I slowly and clumsily gained confidence and awareness. I have also edited several volumes, which were all open access and with an increasing insistence upon CC-licensed Gold OA, and have pledged that I will keep on this path. I met some real OA trailblazers early on who taught me how to be brave and creative by example. I never thought I could be like them, but I tried. I, like many scholars, have not published 100 per cent open access, but am on a journey towards that goal. I find that a combination of strategic choices, cajoling and something of a “do it anyway” attitude goes a long way.

I, like many scholars, have not published 100 per cent open access, but am on a journey towards that goal. I find that a combination of strategic choices, cajoling and something of a “do it anyway” attitude goes a long way.

Then came OLH: I thought the model was great from its earliest days in 2013-14 when I first heard of it. People like me (an unfunded ECR at the time) could publish high quality OA. This led to co-editing of a volume on New Approaches to Medieval Water Studies – which my co-editor Hetta Howes and I are very proud of and has offered an early gold OA avenue to our ECR authors – as well as my time as OLH marketing officer and continued advocacy.

OLH: You are currently involved in several initiatives related to open scholarship and fair open access. Could you please tell us more about them and their long-term goals?

James: I’m really interested in open data and the FAIR data principles as well as fee-free scholar-led gold open access, and am trying to practise what I preach as part of my postdoctoral project at Trinity College Dublin. I have four goals going forward: to make my data fully open and to follow best practice, to experiment with new forms of open spatial scholarship (beyond the conventional article), to continue editing gold OA only, and finally, to aim for 100 per cent fee-free gold OA publication for all postdoctoral outputs. This is a difficult task, especially when ECRs have to negotiate a minefield of privilege, conflicting advice, differing levels of conservatism from both senior figures and contemporaries, and the aforementioned issue of prestige in ECR work. I freely admit that ECRs struggle to achieve OA, but we are not limited to the path of least resistance. I have no money for APCs and would consider it a misuse of my funds if I did. Problem, or challenge?

My personal philosophy for both open data and open access is now this: don’t be afraid to publish openly, but don’t be ashamed when you encounter structural factors that impede you. Like all actors, we’re caught in a web of structure and agency. 

My personal philosophy for both open data and open access is now this: don’t be afraid to publish openly, but don’t be ashamed when you encounter structural factors that impede you. Like all actors, we’re caught in a web of structure and agency. I would contend – and not be alone in doing so – that ECRs have more agency than they might realise within the structures that they encounter. To take a Marxist angle for a second, ECRs are developing a class consciousness within a world of precarity, inequality and neoliberalised academia: we didn’t ask for this struggle, but it has opportunities for change and renewal. This also applies to open access, and we are actors who can influence, and not only be influenced by, the current publishing landscape. I strongly feel that losing our chains and losing our careers need not follow one from the other, as some might have us believe. ECR-led projects such as Free Our Knowledge are proliferating, and the paradigm is shifting. I am betting on the future, not the status quo.

OLH: You previously worked as the Marketing Officer for the OLH. Can you please tell us more about #EmpowOA? What did you set to achieve with this initiative?

James: The core of EmpowOA can be summarised in one sentence: the best way to promote OLH is to strengthen the humanities open access context in which it operates. When OLH is strong, then scholar-led open access is strong, and vice versa. Scholar-led publishers are increasingly doing more to build the capacity and solidarity of OA – see Radical OA’s resource list and focus on horizontal alliances, for example. EmpowOA – twitter chats, resources, articles, interviews – is a contribution to this conversation. 

We have the business models, we have the ideas, we have the energy. We all have to work together to thrive and to push back against the “openwashing” and pseudo openness of the legacy publishers, and shared knowledge is our strength.

Scholar-led OA is a school of small fishes in a big sea full of sharks, and we can only be strong collectively. This is true in books – see the recent advent of ScholarLed – and in journals. We have the business models, we have the ideas, we have the energy. We all have to work together to thrive and to push back against the “openwashing” and pseudo openness of the legacy publishers, and shared knowledge is our strength. In this post I wrote for OpenAIRE, which explains EmpowOA in more depth, I pointed out that we are effectively paying the big publishers to be marketed to and influenced, and we have to fight back and find our own voice. I approached the OLH marketing activities as a conversation-starter and a network-builder, not a stunt. We need to have these conversations: if we don’t form our own scholarly commons, then someone else will form it for us – this didn’t work out well with academia.edu. Apathy is a void that well-funded marketeers will occupy. 

The question is simple: shape or be shaped? OLH chooses to be part of building up the community, and other actors are doing the same. We’ve had great fun and learned a lot along the way, and I hope that you have too.

OLH: Do you see any particular barriers that could prevent people working in higher education from fully engaging with open access? In which ways can #EmpowOA help to empower librarians and academics?

James: The barriers are very real, and if removing them were simple then they would not exist. I have sympathy for those urging pragmatism and structural reform from the top down – as Jennifer Edmond recently discussed – in OA but feel that there is a place for idealism. As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of limitations, largely as a result of pressure from structural sources. Jennifer’s piece for OLH rightly pointed out that we can’t rely on a natural generational shift towards OA as a foregone conclusion. I would add, I think, that this does not mean that ECRs are powerless to bring about change. 

Librarians are entering a new world: cancelling big deals, avoiding business as usual, being smart with their money. Mike Roy recently wrote a stirring piece on the matter. He advocated for proximity, re-framing, discomfort and hope in order to effect social change. Scholars need to follow the upheavals in scholarly communications, be close to their librarian colleagues, learn from them, and talk to them. Together, we can challenge our received notions and find some hope for the future. OLH is trying to make it easier for the larger community of professionals to form intellectual communities and overcome their obstacles.

We need to be more aware of our own agency and be unafraid to learn more and make decisions that can seem very scary. Few scholars start where they would like to be with their use of OA, but it’s what we do that defines us, as the movie trope goes. 

The challenges of doing so are not to be taken lightly. Many countries have tenure requirements that mandate certain publications decisions, or systems that assign points based on impact factor etc. This is before introducing the structural inequalities that make the OA proposition entirely different depending on whether one is in the Global North or Global South. This creates a lot of fear and indecision. Even when scholars are pro-OA in principle, this often fails to translate into action. It would be insensitive to imply that these limitations do not exist, but there are always choices. We need to be more aware of our own agency and be unafraid to learn more and make decisions that can seem very scary. Few scholars start where they would like to be with their use of OA, but it’s what we do that defines us, as the movie trope goes. I published my first monograph with a traditional press and am proud of it, but I own and am comfortable with the fact that this was a conservative choice. I will be trying something different for my second. I also hope that when I see someone struggling, I can reach out a hand and give them a boost. I have a lot of kindness to repay!

Knowledge is the key to navigating the way through this minefield. A scholar frequently encounters limitations making OA difficult, but they do not have to resign themselves to having no agency. For example, the need to sign over the copyright of one’s work is an illusion that can be punctured with good use of the SPARC addendum. There are always more or less open choices regardless of the scenario. EmpowOA contributes to this dilemma by ensuring that librarians can provide the information to scholars that they need to make their decisions while also making better decisions themselves. 

OLH: You are now coordinating the new OLH advocacy network. How did the idea of creating an advocacy network emerge? Why is it important to have one?

James: Looking back at one of my earlier answers, the advocacy network is another step in building a community. We can have a conversation, come up with our own initiatives, give feedback to OLH, and think of better ways to be OA ECRs, scholars, editors, librarians, or information specialists. I am a big admirer of those who have devoted their time to building up communities around the scholarly commons, and I want to do my part as coordinator. If you are interested in being a part of what we’re building, then let us know. Open access moves very fast these days, and one of the best investments that any actor can make is in listening: keep an ear to the ground, be prepared to hear things that challenge you, and be responsive to change.

OLH: You earned your doctorate in 2014, what would you consider the role of early-career researchers to be in devising more sustainable models of open access publishing?

James: The role of ECRs is to know their OA, say yes to experimentation, resist coercion and heavy-handed advice, dodge punches from above, trust in the value of their contribution, and back the future and not the past. Simple, right? … Actually, that’s a lot. 

Most of the scholar-led publishers around today, OLH included, came into being because ECRs got sick and tired of the profound unfairness of paywalled research. 

The best advice I can give is to find your people, and devise together: maybe you can be the change you want to see and start your own OA publishing initiative with your co-conspirators! Most of the scholar-led publishers around today, OLH included, came into being because ECRs got sick and tired of the profound unfairness of paywalled research. Find mentors who believe in you and colleagues who you trust, and you could do great things.

OLH: One of the main issues with ECRs and OA is precisely the pressure of having to publish in highly ranked impact factor journals as the main prerequisite to achieve tenure and career progression, and most of these journals still function under subscription logics. As early career researcher and a strong advocate of open access, how do you navigate in this complex world of academic publishing?

James: With difficulty! The Impact Factor is completely irrelevant to humanities publishing, yet still I have found myself filling it out on research applications. Metrics in general are only useful when controlled by the scholar and not the measurer. And yet, we can’t shake them. Although I have sympathy for initiatives like HuMetricsHSS, I feel like we need to be the shapers of our own prestige, our own value. We need metrics noir, as a session at the recent Radical OA conference memorably put it. Fortunately, there are encouraging signs – the mandate in the UK REF 2021 that publications are assessed in a venue-neutral fashion, for example. We have to be in the room as humanists, making the case for our uniqueness again and again for our own measurements of value.

The Impact Factor is completely irrelevant to humanities publishing, yet still I have found myself filling it out on research applications. Metrics in general are only useful when controlled by the scholar and not the measurer.

My thoughts are that there are two extremes in the “ECRs in OA” spectrum: you can either be a hung ho OA publisher (do it anyway, you may as well, you have nothing to lose, you may never get a job anyway) and the conservative (I won’t jeopardise my career, I will be as safe as possible, prestigious journals and publishers are all that matter). I think that the risk of a more “reckless” (but is it really…?) form of OA publishing stratagem for ECRs is fading as more and more venues offer solutions. That said, locking yourself away from OA may give you a boost in the short term, but it puts you on a road to being behind the curve in the future. How will your publishing record look to assessors in, say, 2028? 

Take the middle road: be bold, be creative, adapt to the scenarios you encounter. Own your own prestige: trust editors, collaborators, trusted colleagues. You are important, and your ideas deserve to be open. Hiding is a zero sum game. For the senior academics and librarians reading this: we appreciate your support, but don’t mistake conservatism for protection. You are not helping your junior colleagues by wrapping them in paywalled cotton wool. 

A scholar whose opinion I value greatly once told me that ECRs should ignore all conservative advice or attempts to infantalise them: I always remember this when I feel lost or railroaded in the publishing wilderness.

OLH: Do we need collective action among all members of the academic community, from ERCs to academics in more senior positions?

James: I think we need to cultivate a kind of mindful disdain for subscription publishing, and flawed stopgaps such as hybrid open access. We are treated with contempt, so why not return the favour? I am actively furious about the manipulation and coercion that academics and librarians are subjected to from legacy publishers on a daily basis, and hopeful for the future, but deeds are all that matter. We own our labour. Our governments and scholarly societies pay for our research. Period. 

What can we achieve if we rediscover our power? We aren’t 18th-century scholars with great ideas and no printing press. The tools are there, and they are open. 

Be loud, be informed, be persistent, be open to new developments. Be angry when necessary. But honestly, this is our thing. Be brave. Let’s just all sit down and concentrate on creating the future that we want. What can we achieve if we rediscover our power? We aren’t 18th-century scholars with great ideas and no printing press. The tools are there, and they are open. 

We can have our own party, and we have the resources we need to make it a good one. The legacy publishers are like a classic Stoker-esque vampire: they feed on our vitality, and they have the keys to the blood bank. They also need to be invited in. Slam the door in their face, and focus on new, exciting community activities and scholarship! This may seem like a dramatic analogy, but we have moved beyond a phase in publishing where the publisher-author relationship is equitable, and something needs to change. Open access will recreate the problems of subscriptions if we leave it to the big actors, but we’re resourceful people. I bet on us!


Our thanks to James, and keep an eye out for more #EmpowOA Open Insights soon! 


Competing interests declaration: James Smith worked for the Open Library of Humanities for the first half of 2018 



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