Kunze, Rolf-Ulrich: “Providing open access to research has become a necessity” – An interview with Rolf-Ulrich Kunze on the opportunities of open access and the challenges that lie ahead

Rolf-Ulrich Kunze ist Professor am Institut für Geschichte des Karlsruher Instituts für Technologie. Im Wissenschaftsverlag des KIT sind bereits zahlreiche Veröffentlichungen von ihm erschienen.

Im Rahmen der Aktion “A European Open Access Champion Showcase” der Organisation SPARC Europe (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) hat KSP mit Prof. Kunze über die Chancen von Open Access-Publizieren speziell für die Geisteswissenschaften und die Herausforderungen auf dem Weg zur Öffnung des Wissenschaftsprozess gesprochen. Das Gespräch wurde am 25.11.2015 in der KIT-Bibliothek geführt. Biographische Informationen und Kontaktdaten finden Sie am Ende dieses Beitrags.

1. What got you interested in Open Access originally?

My editor, Regine Tobias from KIT Scientific Publishing, first made me aware of Open Access publishing opportunities. At that point I had noticed that up to a third of public grant money for research projects in the Humanities needs to be used to cover the costs of publication raised by commercial publishers. Each monograph I have published so far cost me about six to ten thousand Euros. I am not liable for that amount, in some kind of reincarnation this is being financed by the tax payer. But the question may arise, if this still in line with due political transparency. The Humanities as such are poor, we do not have the same financial resources as the technical & hard sciences. But research in the Humanities also by far does not incur the same tremendous costs as does research in the life sciences. What do historians do? Historians work in an archive, maybe they travel abroad sometimes, but we do not need a laboratory, and we do not have a lot of staff. E.g., if a funding agency asks me to calculate the amount of money I need for my research team I can only reply: I do not have a research team, it’s just me and my desk, and this is where I am writing books! The measure of my productivity is books per time unit. Historians are authors, writers. And as an author I am confronted with commercial publishers as a bottleneck. If they publish one of my books – which is possible thanks to public grant money in the first place – they already make their profit even without selling a single copy of that book because I have to pay them such a high fee. Looking at the academic discourse as a whole, this is disastrous.

I was very unsatisfied with this situation of cross-subsidisation. With a business model based on subsidies this ultimately is a problem in the area of democratic practice: if we have public funding of science there has to be some kind of a democratic control. I miss the democratic concept of checks and balances, I think Americans would even use the word corruption in this case. So in the beginning it simply was the cost-factor that got me interested in Open Access.

But then I also noticed that some of the publishing houses did not jump aboard the e-publishing train. They missed the trend because we just threw all that money after them. But even so, these commercial publishers still have a monopoly due to conventions in the scientific community. I.e. if I want to reach certain groups within my community, I sometimes need to publish with this and that publisher. So actually I do not have a choice.

When I got in touch with KIT Scientific Publishing, Mrs Tobias agreed that for those research questions which we want to examine here at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology especially, such as material culture of technology or historical reflexions of technology in general, there are no existing book series. So we wanted to launch a new kind of series covering these topics – but in a different way. Mrs Tobias really was the motor for this in a double sense:

First because she introduced me to Creative Commons licensing which I did not know before. And I can say that I was very sceptical of that concept in the beginning. Using this kind of license model allowed me to realize works which I could not have completed with a different publisher, especially using a wide range of illustration. The use of illustrations is of utmost important for the subject of cultural history of technology since the perception and acceptance of technology depends very much on pictures and media and it’s tragic if I cannot use all of that material. So I was basically able to start writing a whole new genre only by means of Open Access publishing and licensing options. Of course that was terrific and if I am counting correctly this has resulted in 8 monographs up to now.

Also, through Mrs Tobias I got to know a typesetter who could release me from my biggest concern, namely that my research could end up as a boring PDF-document on the internet. He managed to show me that although I publish electronically, we still look at a real book with a layout fit for reading on a screen and in print. And I can see a big difference between the typeset of books by publishers who only think in print and publishers who have the electronic version in mind.

The second reason why I feel that Mrs Tobias helped me along was the launch of the open access e-journal „Journal of New Frontiers in Spatial Concepts“. The journal accepts articles in both German and English. The layout resembles that of the blog of a renowned national newspaper in Germany. And that is something that if we had wanted to launch a journal with a commercial publishers we could never have realized it in this way.

2. What Open Access activities are you currently involved in?

I regularly publish Open Access monographs with KIT Scientific Publishing, eight so far, which are available electronically and in print based on the print-on-demand model. I am also Editor-in-chief of the Open Access „Journal of New Frontiers in Spatial Concepts“. As mentioned above, the journal was launched after input from KIT Scientific Publishing and has now become a sure-fire success. The journal offers an open access to all interested readers. It thus ensures the widest possible dissemination worldwide. All papers can be downloaded by everybody in the world because we understand research as a public good. All articles are indexed by major databases. This gives authors a higher visibility and therefore a higher chance to get cited. Additionally, I often contribute to the H-Soz-Kult portal, the German equivalent to the American H-Net. The decisive argument for using H-Soz-Kult is interactivity.

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

This is a political question. Publishing electronically and providing open access to research has become a necessity simply because this is the media reality. The market and the conventions have changed. Scientific discourse takes place online and the humanities should not exclude themselves from this. Open Access offers a lot of opportunities for young researchers which they did not have before. Also, free access to research leads to a much broader and much more interactive scientific discussion. I noticed that nowadays I, for example, receive invitations to very relevant conferences which I had not heard of before simply because the organizers were able to read my research. Open Access publishing made the discourse more international, too.

So by publishing my works Open Access I can reach out to a wholly different community. This also becomes apparent when looking at download statistics. The structure of this new community is international and English-speaking. I now receive very different feedback to my books and different requests than before, like for example spontaneous invitations to conferences which were not at all on my mind before. So the decisive advantage of open access publishing is interactivity.

This also becomes apparent when looking at search result rankings: maybe the most important point for both my open access monographs and the articles in the open access journal of KPS is the number of clicks. Since my monographs which I have published with KSP are hosted on the relatively mighty server of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, they appear among the first three hits of Google. So for the academic discourse this means: relevance is achieved by using the right servers for depositing the publications. I could not achieve this kind of visibility with my traditional commercial and non-open access publishers. Despite of paying other publishers for internet marketing activities, I do not see the same results as with my Open Access publisher. Of course, if I as an author pay my traditional commercial publisher seven thousand Euros for the print publication this publisher may not be highly motivated to implement any measures to increase the online accessibility and visibility of the book.

Also, what frustrates me enormously is that with traditional print publishers my titles disappear relatively quickly from their catalogue, that is after three to five years.

4. Can Open Access have a positive effect on research careers?

Definitely. There is no research career without Open Access today! Young researchers today have very different possibilities now than some years ago. For instance, by presenting their research output online Open Access they are much more and more easily visible to the community and can engage in the discourse from the start. The academic discourse as a whole benefits from this heightened interactivity.

In H-Soz-Kult I can for example recommend reviews and reports which are only there nowadays thanks to the new interactivity in academic discourse. Conferences of historians are no longer only visited by elderly men and do not just have one slot where some ten young, frightened historians can present themselves to get evaluated. Today, this is realized by submitting papers online for review through the community. This way, and only because portals such as H-Soz-Kult allow open access to the papers, the authors are known by name and the discussion starts earlier. This process of medialization plays an important role, and interactivity and speed are the decisive paradigms in the process. One can today post questions in a forum and receive answers from a global community. Not each and every answer will be to the point, but it results in a bigger stock of solution strategies. Somehow this also puts into perspective the close connection students once had to one academic teacher. Students can today help themselves much more effectively and this is also necessary, since career paths are changing.

I notice that many well-established book series are slowly dying out. But this phenomenon is not due to a negative competition through online Open Access publishing. It just has to do with the fact that the relevance of such traditionally published printed book series cannot be conveyed plausibly anymore to young researchers. And I think that is actually a good thing in terms of autonomization.

5. What can scholars and/or administration do to promote Openness to research?

They need to change their mind. People shouldn’t always tell the story of degression and they should not participate in the German „Kulturpessimismus“ (clutural pessimism) – we are good at that! Especially scholars in the humanities need to change their mind. They need to learn about the opportunities and advantages offered to them by Open Access publishing.

I do not tend to convey the story of Creative Commons licenses as an erosion of scientific standards and culture. I instead see it as an alternative. The only reason left for licensing work under more restrictive terms is actually just if there is a personal connection to an editor or publishing house with a long-running book series which you want to respect.

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

I am in constant exchange with my publisher Regine Tobias who is very actively spreading the OA message to the researcher community and I appreciate her continuous engagement in promoting Open Access. Apart from that, as a historian my research speaks to a kind of general audience. So it is not unusual that we are asked to speak at jubilee events or that a journalist from a public broadcasting companies contacts me and asks for an interview etc. And since my works are available from an Open Access publishers such as KIT Scientific Publishing I can use this opportunity to present my work to a broader audience and KIT Scientific Publishing supports me in doing so.

7. What are the challenges here?

Telling the story to younger people. I need to incorporate the Open Access idea into my teaching. The students today have a different a different viewpoint. I feel I need to show my students where to go otherwise the Open Access idea moves into a direction where I lose control over my content. For example, many of my colleagues put their lectures online. But I for one am very sceptical about this, since speaking freely during a lecture completely different from publishing something in the written form. We need to do our job, and teaching is not publishing. Even with all due care to the transparency of one’s argumentation, I do see the problem of accidentally committing plagiarism: during my lectures I at least try to make transparent what I do, but when lecturing one almost inevitably paraphrases other people’s thoughts, and you cannot possibly always indicate the quotation marks, i.e. adequately citing other people’s ideas as such while speaking. So publishing a recording of a lecture might cause problems in terms of copyright. Some colleagues are not yet aware of these issues.

Further challenges: This point reminds of the situation when I ask my teenage son to explain to me what he thinks „science“ is. He goes to show me a YouTube video where some weirdos mix stuff together and let it explode. So whether I like that or not, this, YouTube, is also scientific communication and my son has quite a different idea of it than I have. So on the one hand my kind of scientific communication works by means of publishing books. But on the other hand, the market and conventions are changing. I can no longer ignore that the internet offers me opportunities to reach people which I could not reach before.

In the humanities especially one challenge is to dissipate fears and reservations regarding open access. The two main concerns certainly have to do with personal copyright – so the fear of handing something over and never seeing it again, which is just not true – and with a change in the mindset. By the latter I mean that we as authors have to learn that our medial public as a social construct is changing. Historical scholarship is a good example: when I was a student in the early 1990s and wanted to read a conference proceedings volume this could mean quite a lengthy wait. Sometimes a proceedings volume was published a year after the actual conference and sometimes it was just never published. Today however it is nearly common practice that the proceedings volume is already available online while the conference is taking place.

There are always those who criticise everything and might say that the quality of readily-available open access publications is worse compared to old-fashioned printed books. I would reply in saying that the quality is objectionable, but that is precisely what the academic discourse is for: discussing existing standards and stressing that one adheres to those standards. Still, the interactivity and the speed are wholly different. I see this very positively and this reflects directly back to our teaching.

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

It depends on us! We need to talk about Open Access and, more importantly, we need to practice what we preach. We may also eventually have to voice our concerns with regard to the business practices of commercial publishers. I can very well understand what happens in the Netherlands currently, where a kind of civil war broke out because researchers want to get rid of the practices of some monopolist commercial publishers who offer such restrictive contracts to authors. This is not necessarily a general call to resistance but you simply should not blindly accept everything.

Über Rolf-Ulrich Kunze (3 Artikel)

Prof. Dr. phil., Rolf-Ulrich Kunze; geb. 12.11.1968 in Osnabrück; Studium der Rechtswissenschaften, Geschichte, Germanistik und Politischen Wissenschaft in Frankfurt am Main und Würzburg, 1989–95. Stipendiat der Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes. Promotion zum Dr. phil. 1995 in Würzburg. Habilitation für Neuere und Neueste Geschichte 1999 in Mainz. Lehrt im Studiengang Europäische Kultur und Ideengeschichte am Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT). Forschungsschwerpunkte: Kulturelle Konstruktion von Konfessionen, Nationalismus, Wissenschaft und Technik.

Veröffentlicht unter Autorinnen und Autoren, Geisteswissenschaften, KSP Talk
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