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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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I recently participated in the American Historical Association’s open peer review experiment on the manuscript of ‘History Can Be Open Source’. I enjoyed reading the manuscript and welcomed the experiment.

I would like to offer some experiential observations on the meta-process, in the open. I’ve used CommentPress before, so the technology was familiar. It was interesting to see where my views collided with others’. I did wonder whether seeing how others had already commented affected my feedback and thoughts – there’s quite some evidence out there already that shows that comments affect our perceptions of the original work.

Where it gets thorny, though, is in the politics of the editorial letter. This letter, by Professor Alex Lichtenstein, was commendably made public as part of the process – in the spirit of the process. Aiming to synthesize the views of many reviewers with many comments, Professor Lichtenstein admits that it is towards the ‘challenging’ end of the spectrum; and I do not envy him this task.

I do take some mild offence though at the characterisation of some of the letter, which may prove cautionary for those who wish to pursue open review techniques in the future.

For instance, Professor Lichtenstein writes: ‘As someone who opposes the universal ideas of “open access” journals precisely because it presumes the uncompensated labor of copy-editors, proof-readers, fact-checkers, and article editors’…

Now hang on a minute. What is the evidence for this? Is it just a vague supposition that this is what advocates for OA actually believe? Is there some definition of OA I have missed that says “OA relies upon free labor”? Some OA advocates probably do believe this. But it is by no means a universal. I have written about precisely this topic, here: Eve, Martin Paul, ‘Open Publication, Digital Abundance, and Scarce Labour’, Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 49.1 (2017), 26–40 This is not my view and I am in favour of open access journals.

I have spent the last seven years of my life building a publisher that employs four people full-time – on salaries – that is fully OA. Big commercial publishers are “doing OA” and making money from it, to employ professionals. Open Book Publishers, punctum books, and others have compensated labour that is paid for, while doing OA. We are the living disproof of the universality of this statement. We recently published the following piece on how we built a new OA business model: Eve, Martin Paul, Paula Vega, and Caroline Edwards, ‘Lessons From the Open Library of Humanities’, LIBER Quarterly, 30.1 (2020), 1–18

Further, many many publishers (say: Taylor and Francis or Wiley as two examples) do not provide copy-editing or proofreading or fact-checking (beyond peer review) of their subscription journals, to the best of my knowledge. This is hardly a phenomenon due to OA. I believe that AHR is, itself, happy to benefit from the unpaid labour of peer reviewers? (The editor has previously referred to ‘those who graciously give of their limited time to read manuscripts for us’ (‘From the Editor’s Desk: The Perils of Peer Review’, The American Historical Review, 123.2 (2018), xiv–xvii Editorial labour is a difficult one. We do not pay editors at OLH. But then other publishers – with large profit margins – do pay editors, even when their journals are OA. Again, this is decoupled from open access.

There are other issues of interpretation in the Editors’ letter to which I take exception: ‘I would take issue with this reader’s statement that “the labor of editors and copyeditors” is supported by public funds’. At my institution, our subscription to most journals is supported by public funding to some extent, through the QR stream that is awarded to UK universities. Sure, this isn’t a direct grant to AHR, but it’s money that is routed, through academic libraries, from ‘public funds’. (I will add, as an aside, though, that I do not like this accounting for public funds in this way as it tends towards a horrible logic that research that can be shown not to be publicly funded is fine to sit behind a paywall, a view with which I disagree. See Suber, Peter, ‘The Taxpayer Argument for Open Access’, SPARC Open Access Newsletter, 65, 2003 [accessed 1 May 2014] for more.)

(I would add at this point that I was not the reviewer being questioned here – and this reviewer, him- or her- self, is quite critical of my work on the economics of OA for not going far enough, even while praising some of it.)

All of which is to say that it doesn’t make for a terribly satisfying experience of reviewing to find, having offered up one’s time, that comments offered in good faith have been countered by an editor with contestable statements. Certainly, it is challenging to balance many views against one another and I do not underestimate the difficulty. An editor may come down on the side of one or another of the reviews, drawing on ‘a wide range of suggestions’ (‘From the Editor’s Desk: The Perils of Peer Review’, The American Historical Review, 123.2 (2018), xiv–xvii It is also certainly the case that editors should reject inaccuracies in reviews that they receive. I have received peer reviews before in my field that make basic mistakes about the novels that I am covering – and editors have not always spotted this. All I am going to say, in leaving it here, though, is that it feels that one of the reviews here gets short shrift based on the editors’ pre-conceived views, rather than on the basis of the evidence itself.

Perhaps it is good that we were able to see the editor’s letter. Perhaps there is an editor’s prerogative to… editorialize. But did it make me feel like reviewing for AHR again, given how I think that my views were (mis)characterised there? It did not.