Open Access: Opportunities in the Changing Landscape of Higher Education

Editor’s Note: Ethnomusicology Review Editor In Chief Alex W. Rodriguez is participating in the roundtable presentation “Ethnomusicological Perspectives on Open Access Publication” at the upcoming Society for Ethnomusicology meeting in Pittsburgh, alongside Darren Mueller, Guthrie Ramsey, Justin Schell, Wendy Hsu, and James Cowdery. Over the next few weeks, Sounding Board will post a short position paper by each participant. Please join us at 10:45 am on Thursday, Nov. 13, to further discuss these pieces.

Publishing is at the heart of the changing landscape of higher education. Libraries are facing new challenges in how to archive and provide access to digital materials. Academic publishers, facing increasing costs and decreasing sales, are being forced to rethink all stages of the process from manuscript to publication. Meanwhile, scholars at all ranks are feeling increased pressure to publish early and often. Digital publication has increased exponentially, impacting the scholarly work of academics, the archiving work of librarians, and the modes of distribution for publishers. Within this environment, “open access” has become an important issue, both for what it means for networks of scholarly distribution and for the production of scholarly knowledge.

So what does this mean for junior scholars and graduate students? 

Scholarship has always been a slow process, out of necessity. Meaningful research questions take months, often years, to develop. Gathering enough material in the field or archives to see these questions through is a similarly temporal undertaking. And then there is the additional time necessary for writing and revision. The process of peer-reviewed publication—a necessary step for meaningful feedback and evaluation—further extends the time from idea to scholarly product. This lengthy timeline has advantages. Anyone that has written long-form scholarship has had the experience of working hard on a piece of writing only to realize after the fact that its not the right direction or not the right fit for the current project. There is much to be said in favor of this incubation process.

In recent years, however, scholars have adopted new media technologies, creating new possibilities for scholarly conversations and for what Cathy Davidson has labeled Humanities 2.0. Online and hybrid academic journals have emerged alongside widely adopted blogging management systems like Blogger, Wordpress, and Tumblr. Social media has its place, too, as Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines have expanded scholarly channels of distribution. It has become faster and easer for scholars to contribute to a wide variety of conversations with simply the click of a button.

The scholarly timeline is shifting.

Not everyone has embraced this new (scholarly) world order. Here is a sampling of “advice” that I (or my graduate school colleagues) have received in recent years about digital forms of publication: 

•     Your blog is out there for the world to see and someone will certainly take your ideas

•     Online publications are not as rigorous as other forms of scholarly production and, as such, they devalue your work

•     Don’t publish your dissertation material online because it will negatively impact your potential for book publication

•     Once you are finished, do not make your dissertation available online because it will negatively impact your potential for book publication

•     Participating in online scholarly communities like HASTAC takes time away from the important scholarly work you should be doing

The problem is not that this is bad advice. On the contrary, it is important to be strategic about publishing your research, especially since the processes of tenure still depend on formal channels of publication and peer review. For early-career scholars, your dissertation is your calling card and it takes time to learn how to write meaning long-form scholarship. Additionally, it’s also important to stay focused on the work that you will ultimately be judged on when entering the job market or preparing your tenure portfolio.

Yet, it is no coincidence that the largest scholarly societies of music have begun embracing this movement towards digital distribution. Both SEM and AMS have recently launched blogs titled Sound Matters and Musicology Now, respectively. In doing so, these organization joined other scholarly societies such as IASPM-US, which has kept an active and varied blog for several years. In 2014, Cultural Anthropology went open access—in part—to make their content more publicly available and to circumvent a system that places universities at a financial disadvantage. This post finds itself in a journal, Ethnomusicology Review, which has similarly been on the forefront of experimental scholarly publishing, especially in the ways that digital distribution allows for the integration of audiovisual media.

This new world order of open access publishing is not without its problems, as has been well documented. Ethical issues of publication, including the rise of predatory open access journals, have become a hot topic in the past year. The finances behind publishing and the shifted burden to university libraries is similarly a growing concern.

Still, for someone like myself—a late-stage PhD student—the open access and accompanying digital technologies have had an important role in my professional and intellectual development. For one, it has helped me engage with the field at large and participate in current conversation. This has led directly to professional opportunities outside of my home institution that otherwise might not have happened.

This Sounding Board at Ethnomusicology Review is a good example. The idea of a conference panel on open access began at SEM 2013 as ER’s then-future editor-in-chief, Alex Rodriguez, and I began talking about forms of digital publication. Although Alex and I first met at an alumni gathering for Rutgers-Newark’s program in Jazz History and Research, what spurred this particular conversation about open access began our separate contributions (here and here) to a special edition of the IASPM-US blog: “Music Scenes: Reflections on Performance.” This conversation turned into a conference abstract and invites to other music involved in open access modes of production. Alex’s idea to gather preliminary thoughts on this subject soon followed.

Another example comes from a digital sound studies project called Soundbox that I co-founded in 2011 with two colleagues from Duke. As we sent out a CFP (call for provocations) seeking projects that integrated sound into digital scholarship, we got in touch with many scholars already deeply involved in such pursuits. These included Steph Ceraso, whose work I already knew from her activity on Twitter and her role in co-editing a special edition of Harlot (no. 9 2013) titled “Sonic Rhetorics.” Several steps down the road, Steph eventually contributed a wonderful piece to Provoke! Digital Sound Studies, a digital collection of sonically based projects that will launch in October 2014.

Provoke! also includes several other contributors from scholars I initially “met” through their digital work. This includes fellow panelist Wendy Hsu, whose blog has remained a source of inspiration for me—especially her work on digital ethnography. (Her recent article on the subject can be found in the open access Journal of Digital Humanities.)

Sharing my work digitally and creating space for others to do the same connected me to a network of scholars with similar interests. Such activities has allowed me to engage with the field in ways that traditional forms of publication would not necessarily have allowed at this early stage in my career. Significantly, it is has led to conference presentations, scholarly collaborations, and publication opportunities—the kinds of professional activities that are tangible and mean something for my future. 

Distribution networks of knowledge of changing at more rapid pace than the traditional modes of peer review can keep up with. This has meant that there is potential for scholars to reach a wider—and, dare I say, a more public—audience. More and more people consume scholarship online, something that is not bound to change anytime soon. In sum:

•     If you an early-career scholar, take those opportunities when you can and if they makes sense for you career goals.

•     If you advise PhD students, encourage thoughtful engagement with the larger field through the ever-evolving channels.

Being a part of such conversation will open up doors in unexpected and meaningful ways. Who knows where such opportunities may lead!


Darren Mueller is a PhD student in the music department at Duke University, where he studies, teaches, and writes about jazz, recording technology, and music performance. His work as a writer and researcher includes contributions to and to the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, housed at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. He is also a jazz saxophonist and has appeared professionally all over North Carolina and the surrounding region.


"Sounding Board" is intended as a space for scholars to publish thoughts and observations about their current work. These postings are not peer reviewed and do not reflect the opinion of Ethnomusicology Review. We support the expression of controversial opinions, and welcome civil discussion about them. We do not, however, tolerate overt discrimination based on race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, and reserve the right to remove posts that we feel might offend our readers.