Open Access and the Environmental Humanities

Posted on Oct 23, 2013 in Miscellaneous | 10 comments


To mark Open Access Week (21-27 Oct 2013) we decided to get a conversation started about OA and the environmental humanities. We asked the following question of a few people who know a lot about this topic:

Does open access publishing have a particularly important role to play when it comes to research in the environmental humanities? Why?

Below are some of the responses we received.

Please join the conversation with the “comments” function below or email the editors with longer replies to add to this page.

Andrew Murphie

School of the Arts and Media, University of New South Wales

Editor: The Fibreculture Journal | @andrewmurphie

I think EH and OA share quite a few obvious things. They have dedicated communities. They don’t quite fit the established practices of the academy yet provide many new practices and attitudes that push/guide the academy when it confronts its future. They emphasise collaboration and sharing—across a very wide range of registers. They make new methods and forms of circulation possible. They are also about conserving the old (I don’t mean institutions here so much as valuable forms of existence or practice), if in a better way. Of course, at an everyday level, I think OA and other forms of more open scholarly and para-scholarly forms of communication have been important to EH in its founding as a discipline—for the obvious reason that they have enabled EH to form communication networks and publication opportunities quickly, and outside of traditional channels (not that the latter have excluded EH).

Indeed one might say that EH and OA seem to have a natural affinity—seen in the current lists of the Open Humanities Press book series, in journals such as this one [Environmental Humanities], in a complex understanding of networks and indeed “ecology” (broadly understood), in a challenge to existing ethics and practices, and in their reliance on and fostering of extended communities of sharing, support and practice. Finally they have a shared affinity for questions of what is sustainable—across I guess something like Guattari’s three ecologies of environment, self and social, or even just Latour’s “modes of existence”. More bluntly, and of course across very different registers, they raise troubling questions of survival and extinction—over exactly what has the supposed “right” to survive or be extinguished, and who can, should or should not assume such a right, on behalf of others or themselves, and under what circumstances.

For me, in all this the key link is something like shared or overlapping forms of discipline. As I suggested above both EH and OA provide two of the best opportunities for whatever it is we think the academy, scholarly communication or intellectual engagement are/should be remaking themselves to be. They both provide the ideas and means that would allow broad fields of practice such as the humanities to transform themselves, at a time when this is very much needed. Yet for EH and OA themselves, this raises a series of complex questions of discipline. By this I don’t really mean questions about their “field”, or where we might place them in relation to other “fields”, how we might get grants for them, establish programs and practices within faculties and so on, etc. All this is important but more than this both need a peculiar kind of discipline to bridge the old and the new, in terms of ecologies of practice, in the context of a series of practices that are often seen to threaten the old. In short, while EH is obviously concerned with sustainability in terms of the environment, there is also a different kind of sustainability at issue—of institutions and practices, of key cultural forms of thought, modes of existence (see David Ottina on this topic).

Dolly Jørgensen

Department of Ecology and Environmental Science, Umeå University | @DollyJorgensen

A case for “click through” environmental humanities

Environmental concerns regularly make the headlines in the 21st century. Whether it’s the newest IPCC report or rhino poaching or radiation poisoning, journalists who write on environmental issues are forever busy covering the many stories out there. Since joining Twitter in June, where I follow both academics and science journalists, I’ve realized that much of the information obtained and spread about these issues happens online. Stories are written for online outlets, whether they are online only magazines or newspapers that have both online and print versions. Stories are disseminated electronically through tweeted links. Stories are read by clicking through to them.

This system works fabulously, as long as the click you are clicking either when acting as a researcher or reader takes you to the text. The most frustrating thing is seeing those 140 characters with a link that sound really relevant to your project, but when you click, all you can see is an abstract because a scientific article is behind a journal’s paywall.

For a long time, scholars have been satisfied with content provided in one of two ways: either you personally subscribed to a journal (often because it came as part of a society membership) or your university did (or it could ILL a copy of a specific article for you). But this model doesn’t work for 21st century environmental humanities for a number of reasons:

1. Environmental humanities have relevant findings to share with journalists and the public interested in environmental issues, and those people will rarely have institutional access to journals. I see this all the time in tweets from journalists who remark that an article sounds interesting, but it’s behind a paywall so they can’t read it.

2. Universities are more and more likely not to subscribe to journals you need. As the number of journals have proliferated and the subscription prices escalate, universities are having to make tough decisions about what to buy. On top of that, more and more academics do not work for large research universities and the libraries at smaller places are even more limited.

3. Even if someone has institutional access to a particular journal, we live in a “click through” world where much knowledge acquisition happens through mobile devices, and those devices are often accessed outside of the institutional boundaries. I mostly read my Twitter feed on my phone and I have to regularly use the “favorite” flag to keep the link for something that I want to read but will have to do it on my computer logged into the university network. Unfortunately, I never come back to about half of those flagged items.

This is where Open Access comes in – and specifically Open Access for the environmental humanities. I believe environmental humanities scholars are doing extremely timely and relevant research, research that can and should affect contemporary policymaking. Thus, we need to make sure that our research does not disappear behind a non-accessible barrier. Our research needs to be read, and Open Access can serve as a facilitator permitting it to be read. I’m not saying that Open Access will guarantee an audience for environmental humanities, but without it, an article is almost guaranteed to not be read by many. We need to make environmental humanities available to “click through” readers because environmental scholars don’t have the luxury of just talking amongst ourselves anymore if we want to make a difference. Maybe we never did.

Fred Gibbs

Assistant Professor of History, University of New Mexico | @fredgibbs

Environmental humanities particularly requires open access to scholarship and data because of how local environmental studies can be aggregated to understand much larger and complex ecologies. Maintaining priorities for open standards and accessibility facilitates exchange between macro and micro studies that are otherwise far less effective when stored behind paywalls, inappropriate technology, or accessed in isolation. The significance and viability of collected, created, and organized (and hopefully standardized) data and research becomes manifest only as far as they remain visible and available for reuse and re-appropriation–both within the environmental humanities as well as for other design and planning efforts. In this way, open access helps environmental humanities continually engage with its core interests, especially the intersection and interplay between past, present, and future environments.

Wilko von Hardenberg

DAAD Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental History, University of Wisconsin-Madison | @wilkohardenberg

The stress when talking about open access is usually put on a radical change of the process leading to the distribution of finished, and peer-reviewed, articles, as to allow a wider audience to access the results of academic research. This is definitely a very important issue, in particular in any discipline that analyses and debates environment-related issues. In front of a global environmental crisis like the one we are currently facing it is, in fact, crucial that as many people as possible have access to the results of our research. This might both allow a greater number of scholars to be able to build upon those results and provide the wider public with a vast treasure of thoughtful and carefully crafted information on the humanities perspective on the “state of the environment”.

But I believe that there is another component of open access that is often overlooked and might also greatly help to foster better research in the environmental humanities: open access sources and notes. Natural scientists seem well aware of the fact that open raw data and laboratory notes are a pivotal part of a wider movement for open access, but this seems less true for practitioners of the humanities.

The increasing amount of digitised books already allows, at least in some instances, to explore new research topics, refine existing ones, or check the odd reference from the comfort of our armchairs (or rather office desks). The need to prioritise scanning and digitisation processes on the basis of criteria of perceived importance, language, and rarity, mainly out of budget constraints, however, often means that primary historical sources related to environmental issues, in particular for the late modern era and non-English speaking countries, land at the bottom of the heap.

Most historians I know, nowadays, however take pictures of the archival documents they are interested in. Technically it would be extremely easy to make this bounty of self-digitised resources available to other researchers on the internet, granting underused documents the light of day. Journals and websites active in promoting OA in the environmental humanities, such as this one or the Environment & Society Portal could even provide researchers help and support in producing such repositories. This way it would be possible to promote research on a number of environmental issues that up to now have only scarcely been analysed. The main hurdle in such a plan is the fact that usually to make such documents public we need the formal agreement of the archives where they are held, and this is usually a rather lengthier process and one that does not fit easily into our already overcrowded schedules. Trying to convince museums and archives to change their reproduction rights, at least for materials that are not covered anymore by copyright, is probably a long and hard battle, but it definitely would be one worth fighting.

There is however also another way to make the results of our archival searches available to more scholars, one for which we do not even require the archives to change their current rights policies: making our transcriptions and research notes freely available to the public, as suggested by W. Caleb McDaniel . I believe that if more of us would adopt such an approach, getting rid of the jealousy of the sources that has often characterised practitioners of the humanities, we could “crowdsource” a vast amount of information that would help more and more scholars to perform fruitful research in the environmental humanities (and in a number of other disciplines as well).

PS I am still working on setting up a wiki, like the one set up by Caleb, (or some other system) with all my research notes and transcriptions, but for the time being you can have a look at the sources I use and a few of my research notes on my Zotero library.


  1. Thank you for such a useful post!

    I am an early stage eco art practitioner attempting a practice-thesis phd. Part of my creative practice is blogging, not to document my inquiry (although it does this and handles all the different elements of my work well) but to think/make through my ongoing questions. So sharing my work is a given and I have made my exploratory papers available on the free only magazine platform ISSUU ( if you are interested)

    I felt compelled to do this as there is no digital repository at our college and like one of the commentators above mentioned my blogging/facebooking/tweeting has allowed me to share my work to a growing audience, both academic and those who have a general interest with my ‘raw’ material, or ‘studio’ (rather than ‘lab’) notes.

    I too am gathering many of my thoughts from online publications and I do remember reading that people engaged in environmental concerns are early adopter of new technologies.

    Can I make a suggestion that this post might be written up as a open access article 🙂

  2. This is interesting stuff, and an agenda that I am in many ways sympathetic to, but none of the contributors address the question of: who pays? Whether that is in terms of covering a money cost, or time, someone has to pay. And producing, reviewing, archiving, and communicating academic work are all costly; maintaining websites is costly.

    Equally, I think we should be cautious of treating all potential ‘accessible’ documents as the same. I like Wilko’s stress on sources, but again: who pays? Someone (I hope!) is paying Wilko to make his transcriptions. Most of mine are indecipherable to anybody but me. Turning those into public documents is a big job. If research funders want to invest in making documents public, great. But I worry about scholars being exploited too.

    I am not so convinced that the future of the academic world rests in Twitter or the like. I am an intermittent user, and agree it is useful for communicating with certain audiences. But my experience is that the intellectual return diminishes rapidly once you have a map of who is out there, and I suspect by and large the time spent following Twitter would be better spent, say, browsing the shelves of a library – actually, a much less predictable store of information. Is that old fashioned? Of course, it depends what you are working on. I also suspect that most non-academics will never read academic articles to any great extent. There is demand then for certain kinds of output, and perhaps more digested pieces; that’s not he same as getting all the original research on OA.

    But to be clear: get everything on OA. But who is going to pay?

    • Who pays is the perennial questions. But it is also a question for more traditional publishing venues – where “we” (universities, scholars, the public) pay in the form of huge subscription costs to journal publishers. And, of course, “we” also pay to do most of the relevant work – writing, peer reviewing, editing.

      In contrast, many open access journals run on very small contributions from universities or societies. Environmental Humanities runs on a few thousand dollars a year – plus, of course, the wonderful contributions of all of our authors, peer reviewers, editors, etc. The end result is that universities and public institutions end up paying out a tiny proportion of what would have gone to a publisher, and all of the material published is freely available to everyone.

      I completely agree that we need better funding models – it needs to be easier to get small amounts of money to establish open access journals and they need to be re-valued in the humanities (which has tended to be far too conservative about what counts as the ‘right’ publication venue). We need more initiatives like the Open Humanities Press and eventually for more of our leading journals to be open access (like PLOS Biology, a great example from the natural sciences:

      In short, someone always pays. The question is how much will be paid, who will pay it, and who will end up having access to the material? My (far too simple) answer is that in all of these areas open access tends to yield better, more equitable, results for everyone (except perhaps some publishers…).

    • Again, I want to be clear that I am in favour of OA, I am just worried about what model of funding can be devised. For example, I help run a learned society in the UK that basically revolves around its journal (not tied to a big publishing house). This is available very cheaply to students, but is also sued to subsidise all sorts of other conferences, bursaries, etc. I suspect it likely that making the journal completely freely available will kill the society and the community around it; why will people join, and how else could its activities be funded? But maybe I am working on an old-fashioned model of what constitutes a community. Of course, in the UK, the government is driving an OA agenda in part to cut costs, but with the argument that the taxpayer pays, so the taxpayer should read for free (although this doesn’t actually apply to lots of other government services).

      Yes, all of academia runs on a lot of goodwill – including profit-making journals. At the moment, though being an editor of a big journal is quite widely recognised in workloads; on the grapevine, so is being a respected reviewer. So in a sense, there is a mutuality about that work that is recognised among peers, and there is often some kind of cost-covering involved in the core editorial work. Can an OA world sustain this? Is being part of an OA journal something our home institutions will take seriously? The danger is that each OA publications can only last as long as the enthusiasm of a handful of people that set it up, and can’t become a sustainable and respected entity in the field, able to recruit good peer reviewers, able to develop intellectual continuity, able to shape our discussions over time (and allow newcomers to negotiate the confusing field when they arrive). This is all something we’re very familiar with in the fate of websites. Of course, the old model can lead to ossification and complacency.

      As it stands Environmental Humanities is in an interesting situation; it is one of a handful of journals in the field in the whole world. So that investment brings an enormous return. But most larger countries have dozens of history journals (I’ll take that as an example, us being historians). It’s much less clear that many of those would survive in an OA model, just as one suspects the publication of monographs would suffer very badly if they all had to pay their own way… sorry to be a pain…!

    • Hi Paul. I agree that there are lots of fun and interesting challenges ahead here. Many of them are being resolved though.

      I spent a few hours the other day chatting with a range of fascinating academics working in open access publishing. One seemed to be in a very similar situation to you – running a society, needing their journal to cover costs. I’m sure that every situation is unique, but they were surprised to discover that when they switched to open access (and stopped printing their journal) they weren’t much worse off financially and society membership didn’t drop off. In many cases this change may also improve the appeal of small society journals that aren’t readily available online or through universities. As I said, each case will be different.

      Similarly, I think that Open Humanities Press is showing us that books can be both free online and available to purchase through print on demand – which is now virtually indistinguishable from conventional publishing in terms of quality.

      In short, I don’t think this is a question of choice any longer – for academics of publishers. It’s a question of adapting to survive (to introduce some crude evolutionary terminology).

      I share some of your concerns about the longevity of journals. Time will tell how open access will work in the humanities. In areas of the sciences with much longer (and more prestigious) histories of OA publishing, the signs are very promising. For our part, this is one of the reasons that we have such a large Editorial Team and it is something that we are actively engaging with.

      Thanks again for joining in the conversation!

    • Thanks Thom. I should perhaps elaborate on particular UK concerns, where the model has looked like it might be a ‘big bang’ one of publically-funded research having to go OA, and the requirement that research isn’t eligible for appraisal (linked to university funding) unless it is OA. Universities would then pay publishers for publication, and of course would have little incentive to do so unless they felt that was going to increase their funding through a positive appraisal score (in what is called the ‘Research Excellence Framework’). The danger here becomes that universities start to police output – while currently publishing companies may charge a lot (although not all do), they don’t try and control content and leave the assessment of ‘value’ up to the academics. Of course a world where OA publishing develops organically and demonstrates its value (in all senses) over time is very different. I confess I am slightly bewildered by the open access book model, but perhaps I don’t know enough about it. Who pays for copyediting, language correction (increasingly an issue in an ‘Anglophone’ world), etc.? Of course, admittedly, big publishers are cutting back on all this stuff, but it leaves me worried that – yet again – academics will actually be paying the cost in terms of their own time; and I guess I am writing as someone who has no time for any of this any more. Something has to give. Research? Teaching? My fear is that ‘doing it cheaply’ is in fact exploitative, but in a different way to the current model.

      This relates a bit to Wilko’s observation. Currently, the universities pay for journals through subscriptions, and are arguably being ripped off in many cases. But of course each university only pays a very small amount, relative to its publication budget, for single journal. It doesn’t police so closely whether we ‘really need the journal of environmental humanities’ if its staff say they do. It could well be a harder sell to persuade administrators they need to carry the full cost of any particular journal (clearly though EH is managing it!). It’s a different prospect trying to persuade universities to fund entire journals, even if the net cost to the sector as a whole didn’t change….

  3. Paul, but who is paying now? Our universities and our libraries, I imagine. Who is going to pay? Again, our universities and our libraries, while at the same time opening up research results to a wider audience (whether the wider audience wants this access is a completely different matter). There is also the possibility that OA models might prove cheaper than the current model (, freeing up some money from subscription fees to fill up those shelves that you invite us to get back browsing.
    As regards my idea that we need more open “raw data” and that we as scholars should act to make our research processes more transparent, I envision that possibly as a voluntary endeavour. Mine aimed to be a call for action, rather than a request for funding agencies to impose us these chores (I am the first one who is lagging horribly behind in making my data freely available).

  4. Thanks again Paul. I’ve moved down here because the site doesn’t seem to allow me to ‘reply’ – again 🙂

    I completely understand your reservations about the UK government’s approach to all this. While it might technically be “open access” it is clearly a perversion of the basic principles and one that contains within it many threats to the future of free and flexible research and publication for academics.

    Australia is going down a similar path with regard to requiring publicly funded research to be open access. Here there are many ways around those requirements that you pay conventional publishers to make your article “open access”. In addition to just publishing it elsewhere (an OA journal), you can self-archive a slightly older version (“post print” version) in an institutional or disciplinary archive. This way the publisher can keep their version behind a pay wall but the research is still technically available to the public. Or, in Australia, you can wait for up to 12 months to make it publicly available on an archive – in which case many publishers don;t mind if you use the final PDF. Tons of great info on how to navigate this space is available here:

    I’m sure that you’re right that academics will end up doing more unpaid, unrecognised work here. As always, the struggle will be to find ways of having this work recognised.

  5. I am an academic librarian at the University of Utah and the librarian liaison with the Environmental Humanities Program.

    I have recently been working on a project to identify journals that support our Environmntal Humaniites program and my ongoing work is recorded in this Environmental Humanities Research Guide:

    I have found that there are different kinds of journals particularly relevant to the environmental humanities:

    • Scholarly journals
    • Literary journals
    • Activist journals

    Scholarly journals (presumably) have some commitment on the part of a supporting university or organization to collect and preserve archives, so the articles will still be available in the future. However, most of the new OA journals are not (yet?) listed in major scholarly indexes such as Project MUSE or MLA Bibliography. As a result, environmental humanities literature is simply missing when scholars search these standard databases. A good project for EH scholars and librarians would be to identify core OA journals so that they could be included in standard indexing. OA publishers should also take steps to make sure that their content is searchable on the Web. I find that in order to find relevant articles in OA publications I often have to visit multiple journal web sites and search each one separately. Since there is no comprehensive list of core EH journals (even at ASLE which has lots of excellent bibliographies) that means that I have to be aware of what these OA journals are. I keep finding new ones, which makes research even more problematic.

    Literary journals present a different problem. These publish poetry, essays, fiction and such, and many focus specifically on themes of environment and place, while some offer special issues with environmental themes. Some are OA, some are not. Many are not housed at universities and may vanish at some future date. Libraries should buy and preserve these because many are running on shoestring budgets and could easily disappear from the Web. However, the importance of place to Environmental Humanities means there is no core set of literary journals— for example, the University of Utah would want publications like “High Desert Journal” or “Weber” that focus on the Western U.S. while other universities would want literary journals that represent their own bioregional interests. One big problem is that librarians absolutely hate to buy single issues of periodicals and will resist buying and cataloging special issues that focus on EH themes. It is up to you to persuade your library to make a special exception for the needs of your discipline.

    Activist journals are often available OA but are particularly vulnerable to the problems of no indexing and poor archiving. Some subscription based publications like “Orion” or “Yes! Magazine” are actually very influential speaking directly to citizen activists, but there are also a zillion local citizen groups working on a zillion local projects. These local projects are often the grassroots expressions of the kinds of issues that interest EH scholars, but they also often need some kind of financial support if they are not located at a university.

    Why is careful archiving so important? For example: I was horrified to discover that “High Country News”, a major regional environmental journal for the Western U.S. lacks a complete set of issues to create a historic archive. ; Likewise “Isotope”, a pioneering EH literary journal from Utah State University, recently disappeared entirely from the Web when it ceased publication (luckily, we have paper copies at the library).

    So my concern with OA is not about the OA model, which librarians like me strongly support, but with a kind of archival sloppiness that seems to come along with OA. People tend to forget that the Web is a real-time performance and not a library or an archive. These days most academic libraries have digital collections and institutional repositories that would help assure that OA journal content will persist even if the journals themselves cease.

    My suggestions to EH scholars to support OA would be:

    1. Develop a list of core EH journals, including OA so that scholars know what’s out there
    2. Investigate how to include the major EH journals including OA in research databases
    3. Investigate how to include OA EH journal content in academic library digital archives so that there is a commitment to preserve and migrate digital files.
    4. Ask your library to purchase relevant regional literary and activist publications because organizations outside of academe need the financial support and probably lack the resources to create permanent online archives.

    –Amy Brunvand, Librarian

    • I fully agree with all issues Amy mentions. In particular I am concerned about the possible loss of information and sources due to the poor archiving and indexing of activist journals. These are crucial sources for current and future research in the environmental humanities.
      To preserve at least part of this richness and make it available to as many people as possible the Environment & Society Portal has recently started a major project involving the retrodigitization and OA archiving of such radical environmentalist journals as Earth First! and Wild Earth. At the moment the collection is limited to just 4 issues of Earth First!, but the plan is to have the full series of both journals available soon. Have a look at what is available:

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