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Leveraging the strengths of teaching-first institutions to support OA book publishing: An interview with Matthew Cheney

Published onMay 28, 2024
Leveraging the strengths of teaching-first institutions to support OA book publishing: An interview with Matthew Cheney

An interview with open access (OA) author and professor Matthew Cheney explores the intersection of teaching-first institutions and OA book publishing. Reflecting on the anniversary of his book About That Life: Barry Lopez and the Art of Community, Cheney shares insights into his experience and the invaluable support received from Plymouth State University.

We just passed the one-year anniversary of your book About That Life: Barry Lopez and the Art of Community, which you published OA with Open Book Collective publisher member, punctum books. Looking back on this milestone, could you share what initially motivated you to choose OA publishing for your book?

Open access is a concept I’ve long been familiar with, but I hadn’t thought of it for myself because I wanted to give the traditional academic publishing route a try, and I did so with some essays and then with a book from Bloomsbury Academic. I was trying to establish a traditional academic career. I had bills to pay and needed a job. From everything everyone told me, the path to employment was to get my work locked behind paywalls.

Before I started publishing academic work, I was publishing short stories, essays, and book reviews in nonacademic venues. A lot of it was online and openly accessible even if not specifically open access. I always preferred online venues because it meant people could read my stuff easily, and that was the point. When I first published a review in an academic journal and got a publishing agreement that required signing over copyright to the publisher, I was horrified. In the nonacademic work, unless they’re paying you really well, signing over copyright is a sign of a scam. Yet academics give in to such thievery all the time. 

Soon I understood that academic publishing will provide little to no money, will steal your copyright, and then will lock your writing behind a paywall or will price it ridiculously. (Buy our $99 PDF!) In that situation, there’s no reason not to go fully open access in some way or another. I lose nothing and gain something important—indeed, the thing that should be primary for all academic publishing: my work enters the knowledge commons.

Cover of “About That Life: Barry Lopez and the Art of Community” by Matthew Cheney.

How has the reception of your book matched or differed from your initial expectations, and what would you tell other aspiring authors who are on the fence about publishing OA?

Our goal as academics is to contribute to the knowledge commons, but too often academia has created knowledge enclosures. No matter what, open access means what it says: access. No other form of publishing can promise that. There are all sorts of paths to open access, flavors of open access, decisions to make around open access, but no matter how terrible the system, it still has that one quality that any other form of publishing lacks: its goal is to be available to as many people as possible.

The most wonderful thing about the reception of About That Life is that the book is clearly out there in the world. People have told me they’ve recommended it to students or assigned pieces in class, people who are interested in a variety of subjects have found it via keyword searches, people who have no connection to academia have looked at it. This is not true of any of the work I’ve had stuck behind paywalls or sold for ridiculous cover prices.

And for me, working with punctum was (and continues to be) a pleasure. Moving from manuscript to book was what we always hope publishing to be —editors who worked closely and thoughtfully on the manuscript, designers who had ideas of their own but never shut me out, a whole company (really, community) that seemed excited to publish this weird little thing I’d written. Few of us in academia are going to get rich off our writing, but we ought to be able to experience a supportive publishing process that will offer the world access to our work. Sadly, that’s not the norm … except with folks like punctum.

You are teaching at Plymouth State University, which is a teaching-first university. Could you elaborate on your experience at Plymouth and publishing your book as OA? Did Plymouth contribute to facilitating this process?

Since punctum is truly open access and does not charge fees, the university did not need to support the process of getting the book published (which is good because we only have a fund with a total of about $2,000 annually for the entire faculty for OA fees). But they were completely supportive of my publishing OA, and it is not at all a barrier for promotion or tenure for us. I’m lucky that I work as part of an innovative center at my school, the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative (which we call the CoLab). I used to joke that since the director of the CoLab at the time was a fierce advocate for access of all sorts, Robin DeRosa, and Robin was my tenure evaluator, not publishing Open would have been counted against me! This is a rare privilege.

One of the things those of us who care about OA need to do is work hard to educate our colleagues on promotion and tenure committees to understand what OA is, how its value is in many ways the core of academic work, and how those committees can value OA in faculty portfolios.  I’m lucky that my own institution had ways to value a wide range of scholarship, particularly through the Boyer model, but what I’d most like to see is an acknowledgment that anything short of fully OA is a betrayal of what academia ought to stand for.

You recently organized the event “Everything you ever wanted to know about open access publishing but were afraid to ask,” and you spoke about the strengths of teaching-first universities in shaping tenure evaluation criteria, suggesting that these criteria could benefit OA. How do you believe faculty at teaching-first universities can shape evaluation criteria in ways that support OA initiatives?

Regardless of the type of school they’re at, faculty who care about the knowledge commons have got to be more proactive in fighting against the ideas that lead to things like citation counts and impact factors driving promotion and tenure. Those metrics may be useful at times, but many of the ways they are used are symptoms of the managerialist thinking that has deformed so many institutions (see Chris Shore and Susan Wright’s recent book ​​Audit Culture: How Indicators and Rankings are Reshaping the World for an overview of the insidious ways these ideas slither through our lives). OA publications can have all sorts of impacts, including impacts that show up in traditional measures, but if something is published openly then its potential reach is greater, though less quantifiable. 

My school can value scholarship in broad, innovative ways because we’re a place where teaching is our primary job. That gives us some freedom in evaluating scholarship. We aren’t set up to compete with major research universities. So why should our criteria for evaluating scholarship be those of major research universities?

How do you believe the emphasis on teaching and engagement with undergraduate students at your university aligns with the principles of OA publishing?

Plymouth State will never be on any sort of US News-type rankings because we’re a regional state school whose basic purpose is to serve the people of central and northern New Hampshire. We’re a good school with a deep commitment to students, and I think students who want it get a great education here, but we’ve got few resources. What do you do when it’s obvious to your students that, unlike Dartmouth or another wealthy institution, their school is not a hedge fund with a university attached?

For me, OA intersects with a lot of ideas in Matt Brim’s important book Poor Queer Studies (ironically published by a publisher at a wealthy school, Duke University Press—but don’t hold that against it!). Right at the beginning, Brim asks, “how can rethinking the work of Queer Studies in the context of students’ relative material need and raced/gendered precarity, academics’ professional liminality, and underclass institutional identity inform and potentially enrich the field, its pedagogies and theories, and the academy beyond it?” I don’t think it takes a lot of work to extrapolate how ideas of access and openness intersect with Brim’s ideas.

Really, the central questions for higher education right now, at least in the U.S., are questions of access, precarity, professional liminality, and various sorts of what I think of as underclassing—just as the humanities are not dying but being killed, educational underclasses are made, and there are all sorts of behaviors and policies that enforce the creation of those educational underclasses. OA may not on its own be a solution to any of this, but it’s a powerful tool on the belt of anyone seeking to smash through some of the walls of the gated communities academia creates.

In what ways do you think teaching-first universities can continue to champion OA publishing and contribute to the broader movement toward accessible scholarship? How do you envision the relationship between teaching-first universities and OA publishing evolving in the future, and what opportunities do you see for further collaboration and innovation in this area?

Teaching-centered universities are ignored, under-resourced, and scorned because in the U.S. teachers of any sort are considered untrustworthy, unprofessional, soft-headed fools who need to be controlled, corralled, and surveilled. The collapse of support for the idea of public goods (and the idea of universities as public goods) along with the fondness of the managerial class for austerity measures—vowing never to let a good crisis go to waste—means most teaching-focused schools have to rely on a lot of open resources because other resources are closed to them. We’re the schools that have to shiver in the cold outside the paywalls. For our faculty to be publishing in ways that our own students and colleagues can’t access is, it seems to me, both a professional and ethical failure.

Here’s an example. At my school, the library budget keeps getting cut. This year, it’s getting cut 13%, which is effectively closer to 20% given the rising cost of online databases (one of our biggest discretionary lines of expense). We’ve been having to cut for years, so now, hit with another big cut, we’re letting popular things go. One of those is the MLA International Bibliography. This is a real concern for some of our English faculty in particular, who not only assign students to use the bibliography, but who themselves rely on it for research.

The MLA used to offer access to the bibliography to all members, but now it’s no longer even a benefit of membership (which itself is expensive). By choosing to let EBSCO sell access to the bibliography, the MLA has made a choice to keep that information out of the grubby hands of those of us who happen to work at less prestigious, less resourced places. They have walled off their little section of the knowledge commons, creating an enclosure.

This is not to say that MLA is anti-Open. Their collaboration with Humanities Commons to create the CORE repository is great (and reminds me I need to upload some of my recent stuff there). I published an essay in an MLA collection and though it’s not OA, the publishing agreement was one of the better ones I’ve seen from an academic publisher. After a one-year period of exclusivity, the agreement “is non-exclusive, and you may license, publish, and distribute (including by making available online or otherwise) the Contribution, and exercise any other right of copyright in the Contribution, at your discretion” as long as there’s proper credit for the original volume. That’s a remarkably good agreement from a publisher that isn’t specifically OA, and if more academic publishers had such clauses, we’d all be better off.

Now I think one of the things we all need to do is continue to pressure MLA to be more open, and to help them understand how they can afford to do so. MLA’s been struggling to figure out how to maintain revenue at a time when the profession is changing in ways that undermine a lot of the traditional ways MLA has paid for its work. I expect that’s why they moved the bibliography to EBSO—not for reasons of access or knowledge, but for reasons of revenue. 

We’ve got to create new avenues by which to pay for our work, and we need to help our professional organizations understand how they can be part that. I’m not an economist and barely have any head for business, so I’m the wrong person to ask how to do this, but I know it’s a necessity. 

At this juncture in the history of higher education, our publishing systems are facing a change or die moment. Publishers like Elsevier, Wiley, EBSCO, Routledge, and others are working on extractive models that are going to impoverish us all. True open access—no publishing fees, no access fees—has to be part of the change, because otherwise the knowledge commons will grow barren. A commitment to knowledge stewardship is what we all ought to share as academics. From that commitment, we can work together to figure out how to build better, more sustainable systems. But the commitment has to come first.

Author Matthew Cheney sitting in a chair a reading book. Photo courtesy of Matthew Cheney.

About Matthew Cheney:

Matthew Cheney ( is Associate Professor and Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. He is the author of About That Life: Barry Lopez and the Art of Community (punctum books, 2023), Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form: Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee at the Limits of Fiction (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), as well as two short story collections: Blood: Stories (Black Lawrence Press, 2016) and The Last Vanishing Man (Third Man Books, 2023). His most recent book is Changes in the Land (Lethe Press, 2024), a novella of queer horror.

Banner Image: Photo by Wander Fleur on Unsplash.
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