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Traditional publishing houses need to change if they want to retain their authors

“Traditional publishing houses need to change if they want to retain their authors”
Name: Prof Dr Kurt Möser
Position: Professor of History
Expertise: Cultural history of technology, contextualised history of mobility, military history in the Industrial Age
Institution: Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Institute of Philosophy
Country: Germany
More info: Home Page Blog

An interview with Prof Dr Kurt Möser on 30 November 2015

What got you originally interested in Open Access (OA)?

I got in touch with the university press of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, KIT Scientific Publishing (KSP). They explained the Open Access idea to me and convinced me of its advantages.

What Open Access activities are you currently involved in?

So far I have published one Open Access monograph with our local publisher, KSP, and since I was very happy with KSP’s OA model and the services offered by KSP, the second monograph is currently under development. I also make many of my essays available online as I want to convey the knowledge of my area of research – history of technology and cultural history of technology – more widely and more publicly.

I strongly support public academic discourse and I want my work to be read and discussed. Time and again I receive feedback along the lines of: “That‘s great what you’re doing. Why haven’t we heard of it before?” Therefore, my area of research really presents itself for OA, especially considering the popularisation of these topics. For example, if journalists approach me, I do not have to point them to a specific title in print: I can just point them to an online OA resource and the journalists can check it themselves with a few clicks.

Why, in your opinion, do we need Open Access to research?

For the Humanities, Open Access is a great opportunity to spread ideas, stimulate discussion, and make research papers more easily accessible. The Humanities profit from OA in particular, since they are a discipline that builds very much on discourse, i.e. they rely on putting their research output into the open and making it available for discussion. Some critics might say that the process of reflecting on ideas or the intensive thought process is disturbed by this accelerated process. However, I do not actually share this opinion, mainly because there is another important means of communication for my area of research: conferences. Every time I return from a conference I acquire new ideas, new stimuli, literature recommendations and new contacts.

“The Humanities profit from OA in particular, since they are a discipline that builds very much on discourse.”

Traditional commercial publishing houses need to change if they want to retain their authors. For example, American publishers in particular are becoming more and more accommodating towards their authors. Publishers have become aware that they have to offer more to the scientific community. I published my professorial thesis (Habilitation) with a traditional commercial publisher 10 years ago, and I was very happy with their editing process, i.e. their general support throughout and their marketing activities. As an author, good editing is the most important service that a publisher can offer. Therefore, as long as the publisher fulfils their traditional tasks to my satisfaction – editing, author support, and marketing – I am still interested in publishing with them. However, to my mind, this is an exception nowadays. Big publishing houses demand a lot of money and make author promises that aren’t always honoured. You can find your book on the backlist very quickly. For example, I noticed that a certain one of my books can now only be obtained from antiquarian bookshops online and Ebay! This would be different if my book had been published OA in the first place.

In addition, OA has helped us get the information we need much easier and faster. Before OA, the academic communication process was slower. Even today, conference proceedings need two to three years to be published in print. It then takes even longer until they are made available in the relevant libraries: you suggest the publication for acquisition, the acquisitions department purchases it, it then has to be catalogued and only then does it become available. This whole process has helped us get what we need much faster, thanks to OA.

Can Open Access have a positive effect on research careers?

Open Access is a great opportunity for young researchers. Before OA, young researchers had to wait a very long time until their research got published. They tried to negotiate with publishing houses but were financially exploited because researchers had no choice but to publish with those publishing houses. All this is now much easier, thanks to OA.

Also, in contrast to the Life Sciences, we have a slower turnover rate in the Humanities. That is to say, some of my essays that date back to the early 2000s are only now being noticed in the community (which would be out of the question in the Life Sciences where research might be out of date after six months). If such old publications are made available OA, they can still be easily accessible today and this can have a positive effect on a researcher’s career.

What can scholars and/or administration do to promote openness to research?

Authors need to do more of what we are doing just now: taking part in interviews like this and publishing them, and more generally just spreading the message. My institutional publisher, KSP, is very active in this area, promoting OA at conferences and amongst the research community. However, I must admit, success is very dependent on the right kind of personality to best promote the OA idea, especially when faced with authors who might be initially sceptical.

Who do you engage with to spread the OA message, and how?

I am not a specialist in the various licensing models available in the OA area. However, my local publisher keeps me informed about these issues, and I strongly support open licenses such as CC-BY-SA. Many scholars are afraid that by assigning CC-licenses to their work, they lose the copyright to it, which is just not true. In fact, an open CC-license helps make the publication known, and that is the best argument in favour of OA: your work just gets read more!

What are the challenges with OA advocacy?

I see a couple of challenges: Some of my older colleagues are not quite so open towards OA and I think that this is simply a generational issue.

“I think that this is simply a generational issue.”

There is also still a strong scepticism towards OA in that some authors fear that their own authorship gets lost through OA and that their research circulates online without their name even being mentioned. For example, if you voice an idea or contribute to a discussion at a conference, someone could publish your idea half a year later under his or her own name. (Conference proceedings are still the main type of publication in the Humanities.) Of course, this would be plagiarism, but this causes a lot of concern among some colleagues.

Researchers in the Humanities are also anxious to build or maintain their reputation, and this is why they continue to publish with traditional commercial publishers. This problem is notably apparent among younger colleagues; they still want to publish with the traditional publishing houses because it is a matter of prestige where one has published one’s thesis. As a result, they fear that by publishing their thesis OA, their growth in prestige could be threatened. Of course this is connected to personal habits; when you receive catalogues from commercial publishers and flip through them, you think that if an author has published with a certain publisher, that his or her research is of a certain standard. However, I think that this is a very ephemeral factor that will lose traction over the next 10 years. I also believe that if good people move towards OA that the quality of OA publications will automatically improve.

Something we need to take heed of is that the possibility to get published faster and more easily must not lead to sloppiness! Everyone involved in the OA process, from authors to publishers, needs to maintain self-discipline in this respect. An OA publication must not be of a worse quality than an “old-fashioned“ print publication.

What still needs to be done to get more Open Access to research?

I am about to publish an article in a Swiss journal that is not OA. However, the journal is sponsored by a private foundation, and this organisation enables a wide distribution of free copies so that nearly all German-speaking libraries get free samples. This would be one way of achieving Open Access to research, but of course, this only works with substantial financial support.

It is a question of money really; as mentioned above, scholars in the Humanities still publish with traditional, commercial publishers simply for reasons of reputation. The problem is that traditional publishers do not know how to make money with OA. Publishers see OA as an economic attack on the traditional publishing business model. They needn’t worry, however, as publishers could take new opportunities by starting with putting their titles online and requesting just a small licence fee. Such models could enable more Open Access to research.

In addition, when I look at the steep prices of journals, especially Anglo-American ones, I think that this is quite concerning. I have been working for around 30 years now and I see how libraries – particularly from smaller institutions with low budgets – have to cancel journal subscriptions. Some even need to tell their researchers that if they want to read a particular journal no longer stocked that they have to travel 50 km to the next library! Such arguments will help us move away from the traditional publishing business and open up more of our research.


Copyright: Maike van Wasen, KIT Scientific Publishing. Creative Commons CC-BY Licence.

Tags: Creative Commons, EBay, Humanities, Open Access, accessibility, advocacy, business models, career development, commercial publishers, commercial publishing, conference proceedings, copyright, costs, discourse, dissemination, essays, fear, funding, habilitation, ideas, journals, licences, licensing, monographs, papers, plagiarism, prestige, quality, reputation, scepticism, scholarly communication, speed, subscriptions, theses, thesis, traditional publishers, traditional publishing, university publishing

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