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Not So Fast on 'Open Access'

September 24, 2012

The movement toward "open access" publishing -- in which scholarly journal articles are available free -- is taking off without consideration of the impact on humanities scholarship, says a statement being released today by the American Historical Association.

The statement notes that there are many frustrations with the current system of journal publishing, in which high journal subscription prices limit access to scholarship. But the AHA statement says that proposed solutions such as open access may do more harm than good.

Specifically, the statement says that the arguments for open access in the sciences (where most work is supported in part by federal funds) could soon be applied to the humanities (where most work is not supported with federal funds).

"In today's digital world, many people inside and outside of academia maintain that information, including scholarly research, wants to be, and should be, free. Where people subsidized by taxpayers have created that information, the logic of free information is difficult to resist," the statement says.

But it goes on to say that it is time for historians to engage in "thoughtful conversations" with colleagues about potential problems with open access. The statement was prompted by several developments, including moves by faculties of major universities to create repositories for all professors to put their published work, in effect bypassing journal paywalls for work produced there.

Much of the statement questions the logic of the "Finch Report," released in Britain and endorsed by the government there, which calls on all journals to shift to open access. Those recommendations go well beyond the push in the U.S. to require open access for federally supported research. The historians' statement particularly takes issue with the Finch Report recommendation that one way to phase out subscriptions would be to charge authors (or their institutions) a publication fee.

Jim Grossman, executive director of the AHA, said that the organization released the statement because "we want historians and other humanists to start talking about these issues." While there has been no Finch Report for the United States, Grossman said that "we don't want an influential report" on publishing in the United States "framed that way." And "if we don't enter the conversation," that could happen, he said.

Whether in favor or opposed to open access, the issue involves "financial, ethical and scholarly" issues, he said, and they need careful consideration from the perspective of all disciplines. "The conversation has been driven by the imperatives of the sciences," he said, not the humanities.

Open access has been been a challenging issue for many disciplinary organizations outside the sciences. The American Anthropological Association has applied open-access principles to its flagship journal for material that is at least 35 years old -- a gesture derided as insufficient by open-access advocates in the field. The Modern Language Association won good reviews from open-access supporters when, in June, it revised author agreements for its journals (including the flagship PMLA) to leave copyright with authors, enabling them to post versions in open-access repositories, or on individual or departmental websites.

A challenge for the associations is that they depend on subscription revenue from their journals. The most recent financial statements from AHA show that just under $570,000 in revenue (out of total annual revenue of $3.28 million) comes from the American Historical Review, the association's flagship journal. But that figure probably understates the revenue impact of the journal. All of that revenue is from library or other institutional subscriptions. The AHA does not sell individual subscriptions, but provides them as a membership benefit, so some of the $1.15 million in annual membership revenue may also be attributed to the journal.

Grossman said he wasn't sure how much the dues depend on members who want to receive the journal, but he said he preferred to think about the equation another way. "Without the membership dues, there would be no AHR," he said. "It's like National Public Radio. When I send my contribution to National Public Radio, I know that I don't need to send it in to listen to NPR, but I know that if I and other people don't pay that money, there will be no NPR. It's the same with AHR."

One good thing about the Finch report, Grossman said, is that it acknowledges that there are true costs to running a journal with a respected peer-review system. But he said that the idea floated there of charging authors was a step in the wrong direction.

The AHA statement says, "Would the unfairness of unequal access be replaced by a different unfairness, one of opportunity to publish based on the availability of funds? Rich universities (and rich authors) can with equanimity pay a charge to have work published. So can those funded by research grants with provisions for publication subventions built in. But others, especially junior scholars and those with only tenuous institutional arrangements, cannot pay. This different unfairness would be at least as pernicious as the current one."

And the statement raises particular concerns about flagship journals such as the AHR. "Would the finances of the most comprehensive 'flagship' journals be imperiled?" the statement asks. "While they accept roughly the same number of articles as others, they must evaluate many more submissions across a much wider swath of their disciplines, and have larger sections devoted to book reviews and other content that produces no revenue? Last year the American Historical Association spent over $460,000 to support the editorial processes of the American Historical Review, such as arranging double-blind peer review for articles, administering the selection of books and reviewers, and copyediting the content. How could AHR and others like it maintain the highest editorial standards without lowering its standards and accepting many more articles?"

The AHA statement is just being released today, and it may face criticism from some scholars who have embraced open access -- a group that includes historians. As far back as 2005, the AHA was publishing calls for it to consider new business models for its journals, models that would make all or most of the scholarship freely available.

Dan Cohen, a historian at George Mason University who is a leading figure in digital humanities, said via e-mail that he understood "the bind that professional societies outside of the sciences are in, with pressure toward open access while worrying about the sustainability of their relatively small publishing units. In that context, this statement is understandable." But he added that "my main concern is that it is now 2012, not 2005, and thus this statement feels a bit like treading water."

He noted that there has "been a great deal of thinking over the last decade about sustaining open-access publishing beyond what the Finch Report recommends with subvention fees." And he added that "open scholarship on the web and new open-access journals are flourishing beyond the gated flagship journals, and it would be nice for the AHA to be equally supportive of these fledgling efforts in addition to protecting the American Historical Review. Many of us in the open-access movement stand ready to help achieve this balance, and I hope that this report is — as the request for comments suggests — a first step toward an energetic discussion about creative solutions that allow historical scholarship to reach the broadest possible audience."

Grossman of the AHA acknowledged that criticism may be coming about the statement. But he said that it was important "to start the conversation."

 

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