Humanities left behind in the dash for open access

Peter Webster
Research Fortnight
25-07-2012

About this time last year, open access had apparently come of age. According to a study published in the journal PloS One, freely accessible publishing had passed from an early experimental phase into a period of consolidation, with the number of papers showing steady growth. The model had been shown to work.

As an academic based in a specialist research institution in the arts and humanities, the suggestion that open access had come of age did not ring true to me then, and still does not a year later. Hard figures are difficult to come by, but few of the top journals in the humanities are open access, and those hybrid journals that offer an author-pays option have seen limited take-up. There is no Public Library of History to match the phenomenally successful Public Library of Science.

As for the green route to open access, the institutional repositories, one of which I manage, have seen similarly slow progress. Again, statistics are difficult to find, but my own recent survey of a sample of repositories at the UK’s pre-1992 universities found that, on average, each contains fewer than 10 papers for English language and literature, and not many more for history.

It is tempting to look for cultural roots to this problem, and for evidence of ingrained resistance to change, but I don’t think that gets us very far. Better to look at the distinctive ways in which humanities research is communicated.

One difference with the sciences is in the speed with which research passes out of date. It is rare to find competing research groups racing to find the historical equivalent of a cure for cancer or the Higgs boson. Humanities research often retains its currency for a good deal longer than work in the natural sciences, and so there is not the same need for speed; a lag of a year or two between submission and publication is not felt so keenly. The most downloaded of my own papers in 2012 is also the oldest, published in 2006 and largely written in 2004.

Another issue is the centrality of the monograph. The single-author, research-heavy tome is still the gold standard of humanities publishing, without which it is difficult to secure the crucial first academic job after graduate study. And yet the decade-old debate about open access has concentrated almost entirely on journals and repositories. So far, there is little sign of a business model for book publishing. The OAPEN-UK project into open-access ebooks, funded by Jisc and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, promises much in this direction, but it is not set to conclude until 2015.

There are also basic issues of funding. In the sciences, funding agencies are expected to cover the cost of author publication charges, but only a small proportion of humanities research is directly funded by grants. Between 2007 and 2010, the AHRC directly funded an average of just over 2,000 research outputs a year across all its disciplines. But over the same period nearly the same number of items were submitted to the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for each year it covered for English and modern languages alone.

To get a sense of the total scale of humanities publishing, we also need to count all the outputs for the other arts and humanities disciplines, plus all the work not entered for the RAE, and the publications of the army of contract researchers and others not eligible for assessment. The total figure is almost impossible to determine, but there is clearly a gulf between the amount of research being published and the amount that is directly funded. If this is to be bridged, universities will need to find funds to cover the upfront charges for gold open access for their staff, some of which is likely to come from the research councils, after a recent announcement from Research Councils UK.

Even if the universities were to fund universal gold open access, there would still be major harm to another part of humanities scholarship: independent scholars. By and large, humanities scholars do not need large capital equipment and facilities, beyond a good library. As such, scholars outside universities—in museums, libraries, archives, across the professions and not least among the retired—regularly publish world-leading research. Universal gold open access funded by the author would wipe much of this work out.

All the disciplines stand to gain from a successful move to open access. However, much of the discussion about open access has been driven by the needs of the sciences. Let’s not allow the humanities to be collateral damage along the way.

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Peter Webster is manager of SAS-Space, the institutional repository for the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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