Open Access is the major movement in scholarly publishing today. The humanities are behind other disciplines in understanding and adopting Open Access, but as the sciences are already discovering, Open Access is reinventing the field of academic publishing generally and will ultimately eclipse traditional publishing.
"Open Access" does not mean something is electronic or available online--not alone. After all, as my previous post emphasized, it is all too possible for something to be highly restricted in its access even though it is digitized and (through some means) available electronically. No, Open Access means that a digital work is available for free and without those licensing or copyright restrictions that would limit its reuse. If you are unfamiliar with Open Access, there are many sources for getting up to speed--especially Peter Suber's Open Access site. Or see my detailed PowerPoint on Open Access (via Slideshare).
How does Open Access publishing differ from conventional publishing? Conventional publishing is a restricted-access paradigm based on the limits of print publishing. To recoup the costs of print publishing, a payment by the interested reader (to a publisher for a book or to a journal for a subscription) has been required to get to the information. Open Access eliminates the cost for access altogether and shifts the costs for preparing publications from the point of distribution to the point of production.
So here's how it works. Instead of individuals or institutions forking out $25 for an article or up to $20,000/year for a journal subscription (not kidding), readers pay nothing to read the publication in question. Instead, the individual author (or his/her granting agency or host institution) pays an Open Access fee in order to get his/her work published. The fee could be $300 or $3000 (depending on the discipline, subventions, etc.).
I've been in meetings where administrators balk at this, seeing red flags because it appears that universities (in the short run) are going to be paying for subscriptions and books (as usual) AND for Open Access fees. Others (especially noted Open Access scholar John Willinsky) have addressed the viability of the Open Access model and spelled out the host of evolving hybrid approaches that reduce the anxiety about the business model for the new paradigm.
For authors and scholars themselves, they need mostly to be aware of the fact that an Open Access publication will significantly leverage the exposure of their work by making it instantly available and searchable (through metadata and the semantic trawling of data harvesters). Many studies have been done to confirm the increased citation rate of Open Access publications (see examples in my PowerPoint, linked above).
There are two ways to publish your work as Open Access. The first is to publish in a traditional journal that offers authors the opportunity to pubilsh their work as Open Access (for a fee). For example, you submit your article to a conventional journal that restricts access to its publications via a subsription fee (during an embargo period, usually, that may be a year to five years). However, if you front the Open Access fee, your work will not be quarantined but will be immediately available, full text, and reachable through various search services (including Google and Google Scholar). This has not really caught on in humanities journals, though it may as it has in other fields. Oxford has this option now ("Oxford Open").
The second way to publish humanities scholarship as Open Access is to submit work directly to an Open Access journal. Unlike traditional journals whose access is commercially restricted, Open Access journals are freely available to the public. These are generally governed by a creative commons license which allows re-use and derivative works if appropriate attribution is given. There are some 322 different Open Access journals in the humanities journals available to date (tracked at the Directory of Open Access Journals, here. Another authoritative listing of Open Access journals in the arts and humanities is kept current by intute). Open Access journals are also peer reviewed conventionally. They differ chiefly in their distribution, exposure, and ultimately, impact. OA journals in other disciplines are beginning to rival the reputations of established journals, and we can anticipate the same in the humanities.
However, the new media are not simply opening up the access to conventional kinds of scholarly writing and publishing; they are making possible new ways to collect, research, and represent scholarly knowledge. In the next two posts I will look at the role of repositories as a publishing outlet (not simply an archive), and then at new modes of "born-digital" scholarship that move beyond modes of scholarly communication that print has been restricted to.