Treading Water on Open Access

A statement from the governing council of the American Historical Association, September 2012:

The American Historical Association voices concerns about recent developments in the debates over “open access” to research published in scholarly journals. The conversation has been framed by the particular characteristics and economics of science publishing, a landscape considerably different from the terrain of scholarship in the humanities. The governing Council of the AHA has unanimously approved the following statement. We welcome further discussion…

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 concerns motivating these recommendations are valid, but the proposed solution raises serious questions for scholarly publishing, especially in the humanities and social sciences.

A statement from Roy Rosenzweig, the Vice President of Research of the American Historical Association, in May 2005:

Historical research also benefits directly (albeit considerably less generously [than science]) through grants from federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities; even more of us are on the payroll of state universities, where research support makes it possible for us to write our books and articles. If we extend the notion of “public funding” to private universities and foundations (who are, of course, major beneficiaries of the federal tax codes), it can be argued that public support underwrites almost all historical scholarship.

Do the fruits of this publicly supported scholarship belong to the public? Should the public have free access to it? These questions pose a particular challenge for the AHA, which has conflicting roles as a publisher of history scholarship, a professional association for the authors of history scholarship, and an organization with a congressional mandate to support the dissemination of history. The AHA’s Research Division is currently considering the question of open—or at least enhanced—access to historical scholarship and we seek the views of members.

Two requests for comment from the AHA on open access, seven years apart. In 2005, the precipitating event for the AHA’s statement was the NIH report on “Enhancing Public Access to Publications Resulting from NIH-Funded Research”; yesterday it was the Finch report on ”Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications” [pdf]. History has repeated itself.

We historians have been treading water on open access for the better part of a decade. This is not a particular failure of our professional organization, the AHA; it’s a collective failure by historians who believe—contrary to the lessons of our own research—that today will be like yesterday, and tomorrow like today. Article-centric academic journals, a relatively recent development in the history of publishing, apparently have existed, and will exist, forever, in largely the same form and with largely the same business model.

We can wring our hands about open access every seven years when something notable happens in science publishing, but there’s much to be said for actually doing something rather than sitting on the sidelines. The fact is that the scientists have been thinking and discussing but also doing for a long, long time. They’ve had a free preprint service for articles since the beginning of the web in 1991. In 2012, our field has almost no experience with how alternate online models might function.

If we’re solely concerned with the business model of the American Historical Review (more on that focus in a moment), the AHA had on the table possible economic solutions that married open access with sustainability over seven years ago, when Roy wrote his piece. Since then other creative solutions have been proposed. I happen to prefer the library consortium model, in which large research libraries who are already paying millions of dollars for science journals are browbeaten into ponying up a tiny fraction of the science journal budget to continue to pay for open humanities journals. As a strong believer in the power of narcissism and shame, I could imagine a system in which libraries that pay would get exalted patron status on the home page for the journal, while free riders would face the ignominy of a red bar across the top of the browser when viewed on a campus that dropped support once the AHR went open access. (“You are welcome to read this open scholarship, but you should know that your university is skirting its obligation to the field.” The Shame Bar could be left off in places that cannot afford to pay.)

Regardless of the method and the model, the point is simply that we haven’t tried very hard. Too many of my colleagues, in the preferred professorial mode of focusing on the negative, have highlighted perceived problems with open access without actually engaging it. Yet somehow over 8,000 open access journals have flourished in the last decade. If the AHA’s response is that those journals aren’t flagship journals, well, I’m not sure that’s the one-percenter rhetoric they want to be associated with as representatives of the entire profession.

Furthermore, if our primary concern is indeed the economics of the AHR, wouldn’t it be fair game to look at the full economics of it—not just the direct costs on AHA’s side (“$460,000 to support the editorial processes”), but the other side, where much of the work gets done: the time professional historians take to write and vet articles? I would wager those in-kind costs are far larger than $460,000 a year. That’s partly what Roy was getting at in his appeal to the underlying funding of most historical scholarship. Any such larger economic accounting would trigger more difficult questions, such as Hugh Gusterson’s pointed query about why he’s being asked to give his peer-review labor for free but publishers are gating the final product in return—thanks for your gift labor, now pay up. That the AHA is a small non-profit publisher rather than a commercial giant doesn’t make this question go away.

There is no doubt that professional societies outside of the sciences are in a horrible bind between the drive toward open access and the need for sustainability. But history tells us that no institution has the privilege of remaining static. The American Historical Association can tinker with payments for the AHR as much as it likes under the assumption that the future will be like the past, just with a different spreadsheet. I’d like to see the AHA be bolder—supportive not only of its flagship but of the entire fleet, which now includes fledgling open access journals, blogs, and other nascent online genres.

Mostly, I’d like to see a statement that doesn’t read like this one does: anxious and reactive. I’d like to see a statement that says: “We stand ready to nurture and support historical scholarship whenever and wherever it might arise.”

13 thoughts on “Treading Water on Open Access

  1. Caleb McDaniel

    I like your closing line, particularly because it articulates reasons for opening access to historical scholarship that aren’t strictly tied to funding sources. I teach at a private university (and many of the universities that have OA repositories, notably Harvard, are also private), and have not yet been funded by a public granting institution, but there are still compelling reasons even for someone in my situation to make research more accessible.

  2. Zachary Schrag

    I hope the AHA will explore OA models that generate revenue for editors and staff. Sociological Research Online uses a beefed-up version of the Shame Bar, offering access to commercial IP addresses but blocking it entirely to universities that don’t subscribe. Maybe sociologists have figured out that shame isn’t as powerful a tool as we might hope.

  3. Sandy Thatcher

    I think it is quite an exaggeration to describe the 8,000+ journals listed in the DOAJ as “flourishing.” I suspect that very few of these have been able to work out a model for long-term self-sustaining support. Ones that depend on university-provided support are subject to all the vagaries of budgeting in higher education, and those that got startup support from foundations cannot depend on that source for long-term funding.

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