Peter Suber’s “Promoting Open Access in the Humanities”—eight years later

Momentum in the adoption (by scholars/researchers) and support (by colleges/universities, funding agencies, and libraries) of open access scholarly publishing is growing in all academic disciplines. But the pace of adoption and support is much quicker in the sciences than in the humanities. Why is that?

Open access advocate, Peter Suber, who is himself a humanist scholar (philosopher), gave a presentation in 2004 at the Annual Meeting of the American Philological Association in San Francisco, later revised as an article entitled “Promoting Open Access in the Humanities.” In the article, Suber enumerates nine cultural and economic differences between the humanities and the sciences to explain why open access is “moving so slowly in the humanities.” Many of Suber’s points (summarized from the article here) continue to hold-up—now eight years later—though changes are clearly evident.

  1. In the humanities affordable journals defuse the urgency of reducing prices or turning to open access as part of the solution.
  2. Much more STM [science, technology, and medicine] research is funded than humanities research. Hence, in the STM fields there is much more money to pay the processing fees charged by open access journals.
  3. The taxpayer argument for open access (that tax-payers shouldn’t have to pay a second fee for access to the results of tax-payer-funded research) is stronger in the STM fields than the humanities.
  4. On average, humanities journals have higher rejection rates (70-90%) than STM journals (20-40%). This means that the cost of peer review per accepted article is higher in the humanities, lower in the STM fields.
  5. There is more public demand for open access to research on (say) genomics than Greek grammar, which is one reason why genomics has more federal funding than Greek grammar.
  6. The urgency of timely notification of other work [through the use of preprint archiving services] is greater in the STM fields than in the humanities.
  7. Demand for journal articles in the humanities drops off more slowly after publication than demand for articles in the STM fields. This means that humanities journals will worry more than STM journals that offering open access to articles after some embargo period…will jeopardize their revenue and survival.
  8. It’s much harder to get reprint permission [for poems or illustrations] for open-access distribution than for a limited-circulation, priced and printed journal. And when permission is granted, for either kind of distribution, it usually costs money.
  9. In the humanities, journal articles tend to report on the history and interpretation of the primary literature, which is in books. STM faculty typically need to publish journal articles to earn tenure, while humanities faculty need to publish books.

Until a few years ago, I would have added (only half-jokingly) that humanities scholars had just recently become fully comfortable working with computers in an online environment! Putting this in a more culturally-sensitive way, many areas of humanities scholarship (including religious studies) have historically operated from a strong engagement with the substantive physicality of printed texts and artifacts. This engagement has carried over into a long tradition and preference for a printed mode of scholarly communication. Part of the “weight” of a scholar’s research and argumentation is communicated through the equal physicality of his or her printed journal article or monograph (preferably in hard cover). Since open access as a mode of scholarly communication operates almost entirely in the online environment, the challenge for humanist scholars is to admit the legitimacy, viability, and preservability of the non-substantive virtuality of their research work now in electronic form. I’ve been told that folks are getting over this concern, though I still encounter hesitation from scholars and librarians who wonder if their bit-based articles and books will endure half as well and as long as the paper-based tomes and ancient manuscripts they have committed their scholarly lives to study.

A simmering “journals crisis” in the humanities?

Suber’s first point about the relative affordability of humanities journals compared to journals in STM is certainly still true. But that doesn’t mean libraries haven’t experienced significant “sticker shock” in institutional subscriptions, especially after scholarly societies and associations turn their journals over to commercial publishers. Suber referenced the 2002 Library Journal periodicals price survey, which compared the average prices for journals in various disciplines. He writes:

[T]he average subscription prices for journals in STM fields were 10-20 times higher than the average prices in the humanities. For example, compare biology ($1,097.01), chemistry ($2,143.22), and physics ($2,218.82) with history ($126.35), literature ($110.51), and philosophy ($146.60).

Yes, the prices of STM journals are dramatically higher than those in the humanities. But it is interesting to look at the average prices from the 2011 Library Journal price survey, and compare the percent change over the last 10 years for Suber’s sample. Biology $2,167 (+98%), chemistry $4,044 (+89%), physics $3,499 (+58%), history $266 (+111%), literature $269 (+142%), and philosophy & religion $328 (+123%). Although absolute prices for STM journals are still dramatically higher than humanities journals, prices in the humanities disciplines have risen at a greater rate (some significantly so) than STM. This is not sustainable.

The 2011 survey also tracked the average percent change of prices from 2009-2011. Over the last three years, biology increased 13% (4.3%/year), chemistry 11% (3.7%/year), and physics 7% (2.3%/year). But during the same period, history increased 16% (5.3%/year), literature 29% (9.7%/year), and philosophy & religion 22% (7.3%/year). Language & literature and philosophy & religion, in fact, reported the highest percent increases of all subject categories for 2009-2011.

Although there was some reason to hope at an earlier point in this transition, it now comes as little surprise that the shift from print to electronic format for journals has not resulted in cost savings for customers. Subscription prices just continue to rise. As I discussed in an earlier post, commercial publishers have readily invested in online infrastructures in order to benefit from the economics of marginal costs that come from selling bits. This both reduces costs previously associated with print (raw material and printing, warehousing and managing physical inventory, physical distribution, etc.), and gains in editorial management efficiencies (electronic submission and peer review management). All to enhance the bottom line.

It would be interesting to speculate whether wider adoption of open access in STM is having an effect in slowing the rate of increase for traditional subscription-based titles as commercial publishers sense a backlash from libraries, and (more recently) from researchers. But what about in the humanities? There certainly isn’t any big money in the humanities. This is why I continue to wonder about the aggressive buy-up of journals by commercial publishers from societies and associations. Perhaps it’s a volume proposition—make less per title, but build a larger stable of titles. Or maybe publishers are just thinking it’s relatively easy money, especially if they don’t sense resistance from humanities librarians and scholars.

Maybe it’s time to generate some resistance. Even if not a “journals crisis” of the magnitude that provoked the birth of the open access movement in the first place, the comparatively high rate of price increase for humanities journals should be grounds for librarians to sound a note of “urgency” with faculty and scholars.

Doing better with less

It would appear another significant impediment to greater open access adoption in the humanities as highlighted by Suber relates to lower overall levels of funding, and the perception of value gained from such investment. There is a common public perception, to use Suber’s example, that genomics research is more useful, and therefore more worthy of being funded, than Greek grammar. Of course, value and usefulness are subjective qualities, and Suber tells a wonderful story from his philosophical background.

There are two kinds of usefulness, which is why the sciences and humanities coexist wherever civilization takes root. But each kind of usefulness tends to be dismissed or misunderstood by champions of the other. The most succinct wisdom on the usefulness and fundability of humanities research was uttered by Aristippus, a Greek philosopher who sought patronage from one rich Athenian after another. Dionysius once asked him, “Why do I always see you philosophers knocking on the doors of the rich, but I never see the rich knocking on the doors of philosophers?” Aristippus replied, “Because philosophers know what they need and the rich don’t.”

I would of course argue that society should be interested and willing to fund intellectual research that enriches and deepens human understanding, experience and creativity with at least as much enthusiasm as it seems willing to grant to solving practical problems (as important as those things are). But that isn’t the way things are typically prioritized in our society. Suber noted in his article that the 2002 budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) amounted to less than 1% of the 8 federal agencies funding STM research. Although I didn’t check to update Suber’s findings on federal funding for the humanities, I can’t imagine the situation has improved much, if at all.

Large commercial (e.g., Springer), large nonprofit (e.g., Public Library of Science), and smaller for-profit publishers (e.g., Co-Action Publishing) who are promoting open access as an alternative to the traditional subscription model, all fund their efforts using government grants, institutional subsidies, central budgets, or author/article publication fees. This seems to be working in STM where producer-side costs can be fairly easily rolled into overall research funding. Suber made this a recommendation for the humanities, though he framed it in terms of universities and colleges allowing existing library monies that go to pay for subscription-based journals to be diverted to support open access initiatives. Can this approach scale (downward) and still cover costs, and also satisfy commercial interests in turning a profit? Conversations I have had with publishers at both Springer and Co-Action (both for-profit publishers) exude confidence. But they also admit that entry into this market has thus far been slow-going.

If revenues cannot be increased then costs need to be brought down. We have been getting very good at this, and that may not be such a bad thing. It is often a challenge that drives innovation. I found it interesting to read Suber’s mention of Open Journal Systems (OJS), which had then only recently launched (in 2002). OJS is one innovative response enabling scholars to do better with less. It is a highly effective and low-cost platform (the software itself is free) that puts the capacity for publishing a journal in the hands of practically anyone, providing efficient management of journal production (such as article submission and peer review), and simplifying widespread distribution to readers via the Internet. According to a forthcoming article by Brian Edgar and John Willinsky, OJS is now used by approximately 5,000 journals worldwide and is available in 20 languages. That’s incredible uptake in just ten years!

I don’t want to minimize the expertise and infrastructure benefits of engaging a professional commercial publisher to handle open access if the budget allows. But it is also good, and actually quite exciting, to know there are low-cost “do it yourself” solutions available for committed groups of scholar-publishers to produce their own high-quality journals. As was surfaced in my recent profile of Theological Librarianship (which publishes on the OJS platform), there is a growing body of “learning by doing” experience that can be tapped and shared to assist others in getting up and running quickly.

What about that book?

Humanities disciplines tend to expect and reserve the higher honors (tenure, career advancement, respect of peers) for scholars who publish their research in monographs as opposed to just journal articles. It is assumed that success in presenting a sustained and comprehensive treatment of a topic is only possible in book form.

Ironically, for this expectation, the publication of scholarly monographs is becoming an increasingly tenuous economic proposition, as transformations of dissertations treating specialized and arcane topics often have difficulty finding a wide, much less a popular, audience/market. University presses might hope to sell a few hundred copies to academic libraries and a few copies (okay, maybe it’s more like a case) that the scholar will buy to give to family members and immediate friends. That is usually the extent of it. These presses were founded to help advance the dissemination of knowledge, but they also need to be able to keep the lights on. Recently and increasingly, many presses have been shifting to e-books and print on demand as a way of reducing costs.

What about open access for monographs? Suber was aware of the potential for online open access distribution of scholarly monographs in his article. He mentioned, for example, The National Academies Press as a possible model. NAP has long had a “read for free” online option, but now also offers many of its titles as free PDF downloads, with purchase options for print. But platform options for monographic open access have really only started rolling out in recent years. See for example, Open Humanities PressUniversity of Michigan Press’ collection in HathiTrustOpen Monograph Press, a new initiative at the Public Knowledge Project (the same folks who developed OJS), and Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB), a new initiative just announced by Open Access Publishing in European Networks (OAPEN), which would run parallel to DOAJ. One example of a monographic open access effort in religious studies is the Ancient Near East Monograph Series, published by SBL and edited by Ehud Ben Zvi.

A clear and desirable benefit of open access is wider dissemination of a scholar’s work. The value of this exposure can often compensate for any illusions of getting rich off book royalties. But again, whether giving books away in hopes of generating print sales can be sustained as a business model for university presses remains an open question.

Caroline Sutton, publisher at Co-Action Publishing, who wrote an article (PDF) in 2010 to engage Peter Suber’s nine points, had an interesting idea.

I was reminded of a debate that was brewing while I was in Sweden working on my own PhD in Sociology. At that point in time sociologists wrote books to fulfill their dissertation requirements. Due to a shift in national funding policies the university administration was putting pressure on the department to move towards dissertations that consisted of a collection of published articles with an introduction (sammanläggningsavhandling [the term in Swedish]). We were outraged, because as sociologists that just was not what we did. We wrote books. Period. …

I could argue here that change comes to those who wait, but I’d rather point out a more self-serving argument (for humanities researchers) in favor of publishing articles in the humanities. At the same time, however, I do not want to argue that one should throw the baby out with the bath water. Rather than regarding articles as a replacement for books, humanities researchers might choose to regard articles as an opportunity to market themselves, making themselves more discoverable to book publishers. Articles allow you to publish ‘teasers’ of your work, and if that work is Open Access, this means wide dissemination to a greater number of potential publishers. (pp. 10-11)

This sort of reminds me of the reverse of Charles Dickens’ episodic writing style, where his monthly or weekly story installments in magazines were only later reprinted in book form. Why couldn’t a scholar’s yet to be published monograph be “serialized” as a series of peer reviewed articles over several issues of an open access journal? Such a venue would be more easily discoverable, and it could create sustained interest and exposure in a format that readers might find easier to digest with minimal upfront commitment (time and money). If the topic and treatment grabbed their interest and attention, options could be provided for full free access, or print on demand. My point is one made by both Suber and Sutton—that humanities scholars can and should be empowered to experiment.

Forging new scholarly traditions that include open access

All academic disciplines develop formal and informal traditions to differentiate themselves from each other. Sometimes the tradition insists on the use of a particular writing style manual, or citation format. The teacher gives perfectly rational reasons for it (consistency, clarity, completeness, conciseness, etc.) though the sophomore student is often just mystified and confused (especially if the professor in another class is insisting she use an entirely different style manual). Does the teacher have the heart to admit to the young student that behind the reasons it’s also part guild “turf” and part initiation rite?

Sometimes the tradition is formulated more credibly by virtue of the subject under inquiry, and this in turn shapes the appropriate medium of scholarly communication. Is it the results of an experiment that needs to be reported, or an analysis of the significance of an historical event that requires renewed evaluation and interpretation of available primary sources and thorough engagement with previous treatments in the secondary literature?

Scholarly traditions build an important sense of continuity within a discipline, and they are reinforced and sustained generation to generation. But sometimes disruptive forces surface that provoke new ways of thinking, and invite substantive change of even long-standing traditions.

The sheer ubiquity of desktop (and increasingly mobile) computing and networked technology—most powerfully manifested through the Internet—has made an inevitable and unavoidable impact on the humanities. Even the most curmudgeonly scholar has by now turned-in his Underwood for a word processor. Although he still claims to hate it, he’s been using email to communicate with scholarly colleagues around the world for years. And when, really, was the last time he was in the library scouring indexes and bibliographies for that needed citation? The ease, immediacy, and I would say especially, the openness of communication online has eroded some of the rationality of historic modes and preferences. Even if it isn’t speed that is required in humanities scholarship, it should strike scholars as increasingly odd that while their day to day communication is open, access to the larger conversation—including their own contribution to that conversation (whether as a researcher, reviewer, or editor)—is often locked behind a publisher’s paywall.

Suber’s article holds-up so well after eight years because he understood the power of scholarly traditions operative in the humanities. He was measured and even deferential in his response. But reading closely, you get the sense that even then he was hoping his colleagues would pick up the pace. In the summary of his original nine points, he writes:

[O]pen access isn’t undesirable or unattainable in the humanities. But it is less urgent and harder to subsidize than in the sciences. Progress is taking place, and as more humanists come to understand the issues, and the strategies that work, we should expect to see progress continue and accelerate.

I think we are, at last, coming “to understand the issues, and the strategies that work.” So maybe it’s time to forge open access as a new scholarly tradition in the humanities.

Posted in Book/Article Review, Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Libraries & OA, Open Access, Peer Review, Publishing Platforms, Scholarly Associations
8 comments on “Peter Suber’s “Promoting Open Access in the Humanities”—eight years later
  1. Peter Suber says:

    Hi Gary. Thanks for responding to my article and bringing the data on journal prices up to date.

    For more news and comment on OA in the humanities over the past few years, see the “oa.humanities” tag library from the OA Tracking Project.

    • Gary F. Daught says:

      Thanks for your comment, Peter, and for your lead on the “oa.humanities” tag. I have really appreciated being able to follow open access news and developments on the Open Access Tracking Project. It is a wonderful service! I will be sure to add the “oa.humanities” tag on my future posts as well.

  2. […] my recent interaction with Peter Suber’s 2004 article “Promoting Open Access in the Humanities,” I […]

  3. […] it a self-citation.) My recent thread on traditions of scholarly communication in the Humanities (here and here) reminded me of a piece I originally posted to a now mothballed blog back in early 2009. […]

  4. […] further open access monograph publishing even as it will help individual scholars—especially scholars in the Humanities—gain greater exposure for their research in book form. Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to […]

  5. […] greater public pressure for open access to science. Updating Suber’s analysis eight years later, Gary Daught suggests that the time may be ripe for efforts to promote openness in the humanities. He notes that […]

  6. […] (see my “A simmering ‘journals crisis’ in the humanities?” section in this earlier post), especially when scholarly society journals get acquired by commercial publishers. Just yesterday […]

  7. […] greater public pressure for open access to science. Updating Suber’s analysis eight years later, Gary Daught suggests that the time may be ripe for efforts to promote openness in the humanities. He notes that […]

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