Happy Open Access Week

This year’s Open Access Week (Oct 22-28, 2012) offers much to celebrate, whether with Directory of Open Access Journals, surpassing 8,000 journals or ROARMAP now listing close to 250 open access mandates among universities, departments and institutes. The mega-journals, from Public Library of Science, with PLoS One, the Nature Publishing Group, with Scientific Reports, or the Royal Society, with Open Biology, link open access to the first new principle of digital scholarly communication, namely, that there is room in any given journal for all of its peer-reviewed-and-approved articles, and the world is richer by the appearance far sooner of a great many more articles in an open access format.

Holdouts remain, however, and the concerns they raise are no less worth addressing than the gains made. For example, the American History Association, with 15,000 members, issued a statement on Scholarly Journal Publishing September 24, 2012 on that addresses the “debates over ‘open access’ to research” that speaks on behalf of the humanities generally. The AHA agrees that the current system “contains elements of unfairness” but that these new moves toward open access, led by the sciences, “generate new, and more difficult, dilemmas.” This may sound like opting for the-devil-you-know. Yet AHA is right. Change is more difficult than standing pat. But standing pat, in this case, means seeing the humanities miss out on an opening of their work that speaks to the public support and value of their work.

The AHA complains that its members’ would not have the same ability as grant-rich biomedical scientists have to pay the article processing fees that are driving innovations in open access publishing in the sciences, such as the mega journals. The discrepancy speaks to nothing less than current levels of public support and recognition for the humanities. Such support will not be helped by humanities scholars keeping their work – potentially as interesting to the public as the sciences – from being widely available to schools, Wikipedia, and interested readers, especially in the face of increasing access to the sciences.

The sticking point in all of this appears to be maintaining the prestigious and rigorous AHA flagship journal the American Historical Review published five times a year, which costs AHA $460,000 annually, and which rejects 91 percent of the articles it receives.

So as an Open Access Week exercise, let’s work with AHA, as an example of a humanities scholarly society feeling a little caught out in this new digital age of open scholarship. I believe that developments in open access over the last decade speak to a number of possible steps that a humanities scholarly association should at least consider in thinking about the best interests of its members and the circulation of their scholarship as a public good:

  1. At a minimum, a gracious gesture for authors and readers: Ensure that the association has an archiving policy that is at least as progressive as the big corporate entities, such as Elsevier and Springer. This means permitting its authors the right to post their final peer-reviewed draft of their article in an institutional site or on their own website. Studies show that this tends to increase readership and citations for authors and society journals. (The AHA currently allows authors to post work that has not been reviewed up the point it has been accepted, which would seem to exceed the journal’s ownership rights, discourage posting, and provide the public with un-reviewed work.)
  2. Champion academic freedom: Be willing to sponsor a number of specialized open access journals that are run by committed scholars, who can use the association’s prestige to open new areas of scholarship (and thus the value of the association) with perhaps only copyediting costs for these online only journals, using open sources software, for the editors’ institutions or associations to pick up. The majority of open access journals, including, in all likelihood, the 226 in history, according to the Directory of Open Access Journals, do not charge article processing fees.
  3. Involve more of the membership: Consider the degree of good work that is lost to a 91 percent rejection rate for the flagship journal, lost to other journals perhaps but still lost in terms of your editors’ and reviewers’ time and ideas. Instead, explore the prospects of the mega-journal model, with an entirely discipline-suitable article processing fees, that involves more of the membership in editing, reviewing, and publishing, while taking advantage of the peer-review originally conducted for the flagship journal.
  4. Dare to think again of the cooperative spirit of scholarship: Challenge the library community, through one of its associations such as ALA, which are greater supporters of open access, to sponsor the flagship journal outright (rather than subscribe to it), forming an open access cooperative venture that will protect the financial standing of the association while creating publishing efficiencies. For example, in explaining its costs, the AHA refers to having to maintain “extensive (and expensive) database to find historians” to review. The History Cooperative was, of course, once the home of the American Historical Review, and what goes around comes around serves as one of history’s tidier lessons? Happy Open Access Week.


  1. Robert B. Townsend

    Thanks for your very thoughtful and constructive engagement with the AHA Council’s statement. One small correction. We do provide a toll free link to the published articles that the author may post up on their websites or in an institutional repository. I know this not an acceptable alternative in the open access community, but I think it is important to have the article in a single place to assure that we are not splitting up the links to the article, and thereby lowering its Google rankings (and discovery) in either location.

    And please note that we did try to walk the talk for a time. From 2005 to 2008 we provided immediate open access to AHR articles. We did not make a big deal about it at the time, as we hoped to increase discovery without hurting subscriptions. Unfortunately, libraries cited the ungated access as a reason for cancelling subscriptions. After seeing the effect of our efforts, the governing board decided to retreat to a policy of delayed open access to the articles (currently with a three-year moving wall), hoping to strike a balance between the cost-recovery needs of the journal and the long-term goal of reaching the widest possible audience for history scholarship.