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WASHINGTON -- If the open access movement can’t replace the traditional publishing model of scholarly journals, what problem is the effort trying to solve? 

Participants during a session titled “Open Access and Publishing in History and the Social Sciences: Opportunities and Challenges” at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting clashed over that question Friday afternoon as they debated the role of open access journals in promoting scholarly research.

Journal subscriptions have traditionally funded the dissemination of research, but supporters of the open-access movement have experimented with shifting the costs elsewhere. One model, gold open access, requires articles to be made available free online when they are published in print, and the author pays a processing fee -- often about $2,000 -- to offset the costs. Another model, green open access, makes a rough copy of a published article available through a public repository. Some universities have also adopted policies that require faculty members to make their published research publicly available.  

Those and other open-access initiatives were championed during the session by Mary Ellen K. Davis, executive director of the Association of College and Research Libraries. The ACRL made its scholarly journal, College & Research Libraries, open access in 2011, and the publication will this month go online only after members “begged” the organization to end its print edition, Davis said.

“I really believe open access is not a passing fad,” Davis said during her presentation. “I believe open access is a durable feature of the landscape of scholarly communication.”

But Davis faced opposition from fellow panelists Robert A. Schneider, professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington and editor-in-chief of the American Historical Review, and Harold J. Cook, a professor of history at Brown University who serves on the journal’s board of editors.

Cook pointed out that some critics have derided prestigious journals with high thresholds for publication as “luxury journals, as if high-quality publication were a luxury rather than a necessity.” He concluded his presentation by saying open access journals should be considered new types of academic journals, not replacements for established ones, and that individual scholars are best suited to decide how their research should be disseminated.

“Publishers are not the enemies of authors, but partners of authors,“ Cook said. He suggested the two parties should come together to negotiate the future of scholarly publishing.

As the panelists finished their prepared remarks, Schneider challenged Davis’s assertion that funding scholarly publishing through a journal subscription model (such as the one used by the American Historical Review) is becoming unsustainable.

“You say that the subscription process is broken,” Schneider said. “It does work to some degree -- arguably to a great degree. I would argue, however, that the author processing fee is ... not only broken, it’s wrong. If really the choice is going from subscription -- which has got problems or is increasingly difficult -- and to another process which I think is utterly unacceptable, then I think the choice is pretty clear.”

Davis, who specified in her presentation that open access is not intended to be a business model, rushed to clarify that she did not think the debate should come down to subscriptions versus processing fees. “I think author fees is one possible solution, and I don’t think it will work well in the humanities. I don’t think it will work well in the social sciences or librarianship,” she said.

“The question is how we get from here to there, if that’s where we want to go,” Cook interjected. “Without a working business model, I think we need to be very cautious and not give up what has developed over generations successfully on a hope that something will come of this that will solve our problems.”

“I agree, but I think neither should we stick our heads in the sand,” Davis replied. Later, after another back-and-forth with Cook and Schneider, Davis paused and said, “I feel like I’m in high school debate,” to laughter from the audience.

A show of hands at the beginning of the session revealed that about half of the roughly 40 people in attendance supported open access, while only one or two hands went up in opposition.

Despite the often lively debate, some audience members said they felt the panel should have included input from those at the heart of the open access movement. “The scholars, the graduate students, the undergraduates ... for whom open access has become a rallying cry,” said Konrad M. Lawson, who earlier in the week presented during a panel on experimental dissertations. He asked Cook and Schneider to give those “confused idealists” some constructive criticism.

“I think that certainly people need to experiment and give us examples of how things would work,” Cook said. “I would like to have access to everything for free on my desktop -- who wouldn’t? The ‘ask’ here is really big. It means a complete change and a new system. Nobody knows where we’re going.”

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