Open Scholar Stars interview series: Interview with Dr. James L. Smith

Real Open Science happens in translation. In the continuous exploration of how the core values of Open Science – such as innovation, transparency, accountability, equity and social-cognitive justice in knowledge production – make sense in our own scholarly practices and in the variety of contexts our work is embedded into. Only by listening to and understanding truly diverse voices can we gain a deeper understanding of the various issues surrounding Open Science in the arts and humanities. By launching the DARIAH Open Scholar Stars interview series, we wish to share a range of perspectives and personal experiences of researchers, librarians, and other practitioners with openness to explore these pathways to the open research culture, to strengthen our communities of practice and to learn how to put things into practice more easily.

In the first episode, we talk to Dr. James L. Smith, Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow in geography at Trinity College Dublin, editor and Open Access advocate about the many ways in which creativity and openness fuels his scholarship. 

James - holding an Open Access book! Image credit: James L. Smith.
James – holding an Open Access book! Image credit: James L. Smith.
  • Hi James, and thanks for joining us here! Could you start off by letting us know a little bit about your background? What brought you to humanities research and what are you working on now? 

Thanks for inviting me! It’s actually pretty apt to describe my work as “humanities” research rather than my PhD discipline of history. I started my university career by completing a double major in political science and international relations and medieval and early modern studies. The latter was something I eagerly discarded a history major to do, since I could complete courses from across the humanities disciplines and we had inter- and multi-disciplinary core modules. Then I ended up “branded” as a historian for my doctorate even though, once again, I wasn’t strictly all historian all of the time. I recall having a conversation with my supervisor about this. The reality is that it helps to be able to pin yourself to an established discipline and demonstrate expertise in it so that you “make sense”. I somewhat resent this, but recognise that it is very much the case. The good thing about intellectual history is that it requires the synthesis of a large number of other approaches to be successful. I was lucky to have two supervisors, one a social historian and the other a literature expert. They worked together very well and set a high bar in both disciplines. To this day I feel comfortable in both.

Now am in geography with a historical geographer as a mentor, and I love it because it allows me to bring all of my interests together – the environmental humanities, the digital humanities, history, literature – under the umbrella of the spatial humanities. I am also enjoying human geography very much, and getting in to its literature and methods. So all in all, I am a disciplinary wanderer but a historian by training. Both are important labels. Negotiating multiple identities is exciting but constant work.

As for right now, I’m doing a few things. I am working on a postdoctoral mapping project of Lough Derg in County Donegal, have recently organised a knowledge exchange event on Aquatic Cultures and the Digital Environmental Humanities, and recently attended a summer school on Crises in Democracy through the prism of Cultural Trauma. I like big capacious topics that bring people together and force the researcher to learn new skills – like DARIAH! In October I’m helping to organise a Sprint Camp in Spatial Humanities called iSHCamp.

  • When did you first hear about open access/data/science? What were your initial thoughts?

I think the first time I heard of open access was during my PhD when I was involved in a postgraduate journal at the University of Western Australia called Limina.

I’d recently been experiencing the “joys” of paywalled publications during my early PhD, and so publishing open access was exciting and liberating.

I’d recently been experiencing the “joys” of paywalled publications during my early PhD, and so publishing open access was exciting and liberating. I was the submissions editor in 2012, and part of the collective between 2010 and 2013. Since 1995, the journal has been a crucial and open publishing venue based on a collective editorial team co-reviewing articles and then sending them out to expert reviewers (starting in print form, and then migrating to digital). Since then, the journal has become CC-licensed and an exemplar of quality open access publishing for PhD students and early career researchers. I know a lot of other scholars got their start working on postgraduate journals, so it is an important thing to try if possible. This activity led to supporting other postgraduates in founding another journal called Cerae, which demonstrates the importance of trying to pass on what you’ve learned at an early stage. Horizontal alliances, as the Radical Open Access Collective term them!

As for open science, that really came later through my exposure to the European funding environment once I had moved from Australia to the UK and Ireland. I’ve learned a great deal from DARIAH and the PARTHENOS training suite, and the digital humanities training events offered through the Trinity Centre for Digital Humanities. I’m now using a lot of what I have learned in my postdoctoral project, so I am very grateful to have access to so many excellent resources! It’s really important to be able to keep brushing up on these skills and become more familiar with and proficient in open scholarship practices. I am now part of a task force at Trinity College Dublin focused on responding to the challenges of open scholarship at a university, national and consortial level, so I am trying to share what I know again. I will continue to be more ambitious with my practices as I plan new research projects, and enjoy the continuous development of learning more about open science and its potential (and often very imaginative) applications.

  • Can you name us people or communities who were especially influential on your way of becoming a(n open) humanities scholar? 

As mentioned before, I owe everything to my supervisors at the University of Western Australia, Philippa Maddern and Andrew Lynch. They let me be myself and supported me in developing my own style. Philippa passed away just after I completed my PhD, and I recommend reading this account of her life. She was a remarkable person, an excellent mentor and a broad-minded and flexible scholar. She never allowed the status quo to prevail for long, and always used her power to help others. I also owe a great deal to my thesis examiners Megan Cassidy-Welch, Ellen Arnold and Veronica Strang for providing really extensive feedback that made the book writing process much easier. I was very lucky to have them.

In open scholarship, my first influences were Jeffrey Cohen and Eileen A. F. Joy. Those in the open access world may know Eileen as one half of the powerhouse directorial duo running punctum books, together with Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei. Jeffrey was an early editor of punctum volumes and a great supporter of open research. He and other collaborators in his projects  taught me that making time for early career scholars to speak and space for them to publish is paramount. Eileen taught me that research does not need to be stiff, thin-skinned, self-conscious or self-important. In fact, if it is, then run! And sometimes, when the system fails, it is time to take a stand. The legacy of the BABEL working group, a repository of this ethos, has changed the discipline of medieval studies for the better, and provided a platform for more work to be done. I don’t want to be a medievalist, a scholar or even in the academic sector if we can’t have fun and support each other. The BABEL community taught me that you should always find your own people, but remain open to new friends.

I’m very proud to have written for and edited for punctum, and Eileen and Vincent continue inspire me with all that they have achieved, as do all of the members of ScholarLed and the Radical Open Access Collective. I’m genuinely very excited to see their efforts rewarded with the amazing £2.2m grant from Research England for the Community-led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs (COPIM) project. I am inspired by the vision of COPIM members of a monograph system that isn’t beholden to the interests of legacy publishers and a system that is about good infrastructure and freedom to publish how, where and when an author wants. The other vision for open scholarship revolves around a nexus of money, structures and platform capitalism that will stifle the creativity of scholarship and exploit/disenfranchise the vulnerable and precarious.

I have also been influenced a great deal by another powerhouse duo, Martin Eve and Caroline Edwards. Martin and Caroline created something very special when they co-founded the Open Library of Humanities (OLH), my former employer. The reason OLH works is because it is an ethics-based endeavour, dedicated to equity and inclusivity but with a sound consortial funding model to back it up. I would particularly like to emphasise the strong OLH commitment to paid and adequately compensated work in scholarly editing and open access, which is crucial and a key sign of solidarity and support. Volunteerism is an increasing problem in a world of author and editor precarity. 

  • You are working in the field of spatial humanities. What are the biggest innovations in this field? Could you name us a couple of tools and practices for doing research collaboratively? 

I argued to the Irish Research Council that my project on Lough Derg in Ireland’s County Donegal was only possible due to a treasure trove of available open data such as public domain books, government data (from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) and the collections of cultural institutions. I guess it worked! I am building on existing work done by a lot of hard-working people, both scholars and information specialists. Spatial humanities is often like this: working off existing datasets and resources, and using them to tell spatial stories. The discipline emerged from geography, where working across disciplines and on relational spatio-temporal themes is a core concern.

As a result, the practices of spatial humanists/geohumanities researchers both generates and uses a lot of open data, especially items such as geographic information system (GIS) tabular data, shape files, databases and so on. One major innovation has been the growth of the open source QGIS software, which has removed the reliance of spatial humanists on the proprietary ArcGIS software. 

The biggest innovations in the field, to my mind, are projects that place spatial tools in the hands of those without extensive GIS training. So I use Omeka in my project, which works very well out of the box and is open software. Lots of talented people have created plugins that made the system very useful for spatial research. The same goes for projects such as Pelagios. DARIAH has invested in creating even more tools (the DARIAH-DE Geobrowser is a good example) and the new Geohumanities and GIS working groups will ensure that there are collaborative tools available to make this complex work much easier.

We recently had a reading group on this topic for iSHCamp, the Irish Spatial Humanities Sprint Camp, for those interested in reading more!

  • On your personal website, you are explicit about your own Open Scholarship principles. Why is it important for you and why do you think it’s important for researchers to be open about their research? Is it always easy to stick to these principles or are there any potential downfalls to being open about your research? 

I think that the principles on my website are for two reasons: as a code to keep me on the right path and so that others know what to expect of me. The idea came from listening to Mike Eisen, one of the founders of PLoS, at Trinity as part of our talk series. He argued that one of the ways of bypassing the discrimination often experienced by those attempting to publish open access in evaluation and hiring practices was to be absolutely crystal clear about why you publish the way that you do. For example, I have recently published two articles in the Open Library of Humanities Journal (OLHJ), each in a different themed collection. I did this deliberately and purposefully as part of my publishing plan, paid no APCs, and got top quality peer review and editing that I was very pleased with. I feel that I (and all of us) make more sense in the current moment when we publish open access if we communicate our ethos and code. This code is a way of interpreting my publication record as well as a guide to my future behaviour.

I do not publish my articles based on a strategy of the most well known and prestigious journals, but based on the best fit in terms of openness, practices and fit with the journal. I actually couldn’t care less about journal prestige when left to my own devices: all that matters to me these days is good peer review, good editing and quality digital presentation.

I also value innovative experimental journals in non-traditional formats, of which there are now many. Give them a chance! Some of these journals are very new and don’t have an established track record, so it is important to show your support.

I also value innovative experimental journals in non-traditional formats, of which there are now many. Give them a chance! Some of these journals are very new and don’t have an established track record, so it is important to show your support. That said, I know that not all of my decisions are entirely mine to make, and I have endeavoured to make my principles flexible and able to accommodate compromise. If I am writing with a team that want to publish in the biggest journal in the field and it is paywalled, I will have a conversation about that. If I am overruled, then I will do as much as I am able to share the research openly, but I am not a zealot. We should all recognise our limits in terms of agency, and I feel that one of the worst ways to advocate for open access is to set oneself up as a paragon of virtue and look down on everyone else and their petty concerns. How is this open? How is this compassionate? How will this support others?

  • You are regularly blogging and tweeting about your research.  Did this form of openness influence your career? 

I blogged a lot as a PhD student, and found it a great writing tool. It also started a lot of conversations. Today, I find that my project blog is still a great open writing tool, and I have always gained a great deal from engaging with others in this form. I am not a prolific blogger like some, but I find it a useful way of gathering and sharing my thoughts. I love the blog function on humanities commons, and use my profile to collect and share my research as well as depositing my publications. I prefer to live my academic life in the open, and I feel like it is actually the main node of my identity. I like always having something to share with people, and a recent twitter paper really gave me a chance to experiment with this form of open sharing. So to conclude I feel like I don’t really want to exist in the academic world if I can’t share my ideas.

I prefer to live my academic life in the open, and I feel like it is actually the main node of my identity. I like always having something to share with people, and a recent twitter paper really gave me a chance to experiment with this form of open sharing. So to conclude I feel like I don’t really want to exist in the academic world if I can’t share my ideas.

  • Working as a postdoc at the Trinity College Dublin, you have been involved in institutional efforts to establish open scholarship and open research practices in the college more widely. What drives you in this? Can you tell us about your experiences of how students and researchers engage with open research in your institution? 

This keeps coming up, but I feel that it is extremely important to pass on what you know. I learned a great deal during my time at OLH, and I feel a duty to share it. I want to be a good colleague, a good collaborator, a structural enabler and normaliser of open research, and an advocate for a vision of openness that is generative and brings people together. I want to practice what I preach, in short. Trinity is very supportive of this attitude, and has been extremely far-sighted in getting behind open scholarship at a crucial time, supporting DORA, Plan S and other local initiatives such as a College open scholarship plan and a policy for NORF, the unified Irish response to open research. Trinity is active in LERU, and has made its position clear and recent policy discussions at a European level.

The Trinity Library has been running a really great set of events called Unboxing Open Scholarship, which has given its staff and students a chance to discuss their challenges and opinions, supported student open access, advanced education in citizen science, and interrogated the plural cultures of evaluation that make open publishing so complex. Part of these initiatives have been bread and butter activities such as better support for journals hosted at Trinity, and support for open teaching resources. We have been raising the profile of open scholarship at the College, and are looking to the future to see what structural changes can be made to support new initiatives. The library staff are endlessly knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and I have loved working with them.

  • How can younger students commit to open research practices without the fear of career or scooping risk hanging over them and how older generations can support the growth of Open Scholarship? In short, how power dynamics in academia affect the growth of Open scholarship? 

One thing I have said in the past that I will say again here is that early career researchers should not be afraid to publish openly, but should also not be ashamed if they encounter obstacles. This is especially apparent in group projects. It is always possible and desirable to push for open access and open scholarship from within any team, organisation or committee that you are a part of, but sometimes you do not get to make the decision. This is fine, and not something to be ashamed of. That said, it is very important for older scholars to listen when their junior colleagues are advocating for ambitious open solutions, and to do their best to assist them. Everyone will win.

One thing I have said in the past that I will say again here is that early career researchers should not be afraid to publish openly, but should also not be ashamed if they encounter obstacles. This is especially apparent in group projects. It is always possible and desirable to push for open access and open scholarship from within any team, organisation or committee that you are a part of, but sometimes you do not get to make the decision. This is fine, and not something to be ashamed of. That said, it is very important for older scholars to listen when their junior colleagues are advocating for ambitious open solutions, and to do their best to assist them. Everyone will win.

This may become less of a problem in the future as Plan S pushes project publications into open formats and incentivises different behaviours, but I think that there is also an element of fiscal responsibility to advocating for fee- free gold open access rather than spending potentially tens of thousands of dollars or euros on project article processing charges or book processing charges. Why should the ERC or any other funder be a piggy bank for publishers? 

In short, younger scholars should aspire to being ambitious and be informed in their arguments for open access, and their mentors and supervisors should listen when they speak. That said, structure and agency are never simple dynamics. As for scooping of research, I genuinely think that open publication should be seen as publicity rather than the risk of giving away ideas. If managed right, early awareness of your work coupled with later open publication will get your research out there extremely fast and allow you to be as visible as you deserve. Being overly cautious with your publication may be safe, but it also fails to engage with the full possibilities of your early career. Some managed risk can lead to great rewards. That said, nobody should ever be forced to make a decision that they are not completely comfortable with. Open access should be about community and solidarity, not bullying or dogmatic attacks on those who do not have the power to participate as they would like.

  • If you could give one piece of advice to a student wishing to start a research career, what would it be?

Do it in the open. You may not have a large amount of institutional power, but if you can show the research community via social media and publications that you are unique and have something valuable to say, then they will respond. If you don’t have an article yet then tweet and share your ideas. If you have an article then use social media and open access to share it. If you are going to a conference and you don’t know anyone, share what you are doing and you will meet people. Nobody knows who you are, yet, but digital infrastructures are a great leveller.

  • A bonus question at the end: how does or how can DARIAH support your scholarly work? Do you envision potentials for future collaboration? 

As I mentioned above, I benefit hugely from DARIAH training activities and resources. I could not have won my postdoctoral funding without them, and that’s no exaggeration! In the future I would love to be more involved in the working groups (including the new Geohumanities and GIS groups) and coming to the annual events. Who knows? One day I might be involved in forming a new group! I think that the working group system is an increasingly essential dimension of open research practice. It is important to come together and work on shared resources and be able to openly talk about what you have learned.

Thank you for your time, James! It has been great to learn from your insight and experience!


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