Open Insights: Early Career Researchers and the Importance of Open Access

Posted by Paula Clemente Vega on 25 May 2022

Early Career Researchers and the Importance of Open Access

An Open Insights blog post by Lindsey Beth Zelvin 

Lindsey Beth Zelvin is the CHASE Editorial, Marketing and Technical Intern for the Open Library of Humanities. She began this placement in November 2021. Lindsey is in the first year of her PhD in Narrative Nonfiction at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Her work investigates the methodologies and ethical responsibilities involved in creating narrative representations of chronic mental illness. She is currently writing a hybrid memoir of her own lived experience with anorexia, anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

I began my PhD in the autumn of 2021 after a year-long delay due to Covid. My goal after finishing my Masters in December 2019 was to begin my research the following year. I planned to go home to America for six months to work, save money and refine my proposal before returning to the UK for the next step in my academic journey. The universe had other plans. Moving to another country is difficult at the best of times; trying to do so in the height of a pandemic did not seem like the best of plans. So I waited. I researched on my own. I reached out to dozens of potential supervisors. I read as much around my topic as I could so that when things (hopefully) got better, I would be ready to hit the ground running.

My work, as is found with many PhDs, is a bit niche. I explore the ways in which we narrativise stories of mental illness, using my own experience as a case study, in the context of the other creative and critical works that have come before me. I hope to create a methodology that approaches a more ethical and authentic rendering of chronic mental illness, as I argue that the way in which it is often represented in media is not only lacking but often actively harmful. My work combines studies of narratology, medical humanities, the genre of memoir, and trauma theory. It is inherently interdisciplinary and firmly rooted in the humanities. It is also, as one might have guessed, not a well-funded field. With the difficulties brought on by Covid, funding for the humanities in general has become even more scarce, let alone for hybrid projects like mine.

Humanities disciplines are often the first to experience funding cuts when universities are trying to save money. There are a number of arguments to try to justify this but what it most often comes down to is the idea that humanities are thought to bring in less money and prestige than their STEM counterparts. This affects the kinds of events these departments host, the staff they hire, and the support they provide for their students: academic, administrative, emotional, and financial.

In practice, this means a few things for researchers like me. It means there are less fully funded PhD opportunities, therefore many qualified researchers are unable to begin their doctorates due to lack of financial resources. This results in valuable projects and ideas not being explored due not to lack of ability or innovation but lack of funds. Those who manage to continue without institutional funding are then put in the incredibly stressful situation of completing an intensive research degree while also figuring out a way to support themselves. This kind of system inherently favors those fortunate researchers with families who are willing and able to support their work and puts up yet another class barrier to those with fewer financial resources.

This lack of funds fosters an incredibly competitive environment in which proposals for funded PhDs must be not only at the top of their game, but also as desirable as possible to the department for their future relevance to the field. Potential researchers must be familiar with the history of their field, its prominent theorists and discussion points, as well as the new and emerging research currently being undertaken to craft a proposal that is not only firmly situated within its chosen field but also offers new insights into that field. In order to accomplish this, these researchers require access to significant amounts of discipline specific literature, a task often easier said than accomplished.

I came face to face with this issue while crafting my PhD proposal over the course of the pandemic. I was lucky enough to have resources from both my masters and undergraduate degrees that I had saved and flagged for future work, but the more I delved into my topic the more specific my research needs became. This would not have been a problem if I had still been affiliated with a university, but because I had already finished my masters, I no longer had access to my previous institution’s resources. And as my need for specificity increased, the ability of my local library to satisfy my research requirements decreased. To my disappointment, I realized that the Glenview Public Library not only did not have a section on narratology but didn’t even have one book related to the topic. Its section on literary criticism was only a couple of shelves.

This is not a failing on the library’s part. I was fortunate enough to live in an area with an excellent local library that consistently goes above and beyond to serve the needs of its patrons, even and especially during a global pandemic. But local libraries are not designed to support intensive doctoral research. These kinds of projects require access to the latest scholarship and in depth writing by experts in the field. Researchers needs are most often only met by institutional libraries and access to their vast databases. Which causes an issue when a researcher does not yet have an institutional affiliation.

Luckily, I was also fortunate in another way. A lot of the resources I needed were published open access. This meant the articles I used for my research weren’t hidden behind a pay wall, so I was able to download them without being affiliated with an institution or paying an exorbitant amount of money. These resources were invaluable when shaping my proposal, as they helped me to demonstrate that not only was I up to date with the recent developments in narratology, chronic illness narratives, and the wider field of medical humanities, but they also helped me to articulate how my project would fit into and contribute to the wider growth of these fields.

Open Access was not only essential to my securing a place on a PhD program but also helping me to refine and develop my proposal for funding competitions. When I went home to America over the winter break, I was in the midst of applying for CHASE funding. Not being on my university’s campus, I was unable to access many of my institution’s resources, but thanks to a wealth of open access papers and journals, I was still able to improve my proposal for the next round and ultimately move forward in the competition.

My story is one of privilege. I was already in a very fortunate position to have finished my masters and to be able to draw on resources and contacts from my previous institutions. I was regularly emailing my previous supervisors and was provided with resources for how to craft a successful research proposal. I also had the support, both emotional and financial, of my family. Had I not had these things, I don’t know how I would have fared in the PhD application process and funding competitions. Luckily, it was something I didn’t have to think about. But many others do. My experience is in the minority. Most potential postgraduate researchers do not have access to the financial, emotional, and academic support I received. They must rely on their own determination and limited resources to make themselves standout within their field. And with a growing lack of institutional funds to support them, those without a certain level of support find themselves at a massive disadvantage.

Open access publishing does not fix this problem, but it does help to lessen the gap where academic resources are concerned. By making humanities research more accessible, we increase the possibility of potential researchers finding the necessary resources continue their study and contribute to the field. This is why the mission of the Open Library of Humanities is so important, not just to increasing the dissemination of information and research, but also to encouraging potential researchers to continue their work despite institutional and financial obstacles. I am grateful for my opportunity to work for and learn from OLH as an early career researcher, and I hope to be able to support and advocate for open access throughout my academic career. I believe it is something we should all be passionate about within the humanities, as the work that we do depends on our connections to those around us. Supporting and uplifting each other only benefits everyone. Open access publishing is one excellent way for us to do just that.

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