Is There a Future for Journals in the Humanities? Findings from a New Report

Robert B. Townsend, November 2009

Discussions about the future of journal publishing in history tend to be driven by speculation, not information. In an effort to place some facts on the table, eight of the largest disciplinary societies in the humanities and social sciences (HSS) pooled financial data for their flagship journals, trying to assess the financial viability of different business models for online publishing of their publications. The study reports that the costs for preparing content in HSS journals are significantly higher than their counterparts in scientific, technical, and medical (STM) fields. The report attributes the difference to a number of factors, such as greater selectivity and longer articles in HSS journals, as well as the inclusion of a range of other material (such as the book reviews in the AHR) that point to larger differences in the ecology of scholarly communication in the HSS disciplines.

The new report, “The Future of Scholarly Journals Publishing among Social Science and Humanities Associations” by Mary Waltham, was based on an analysis undertaken by staff at the American Anthropological Association, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The AHA participated, along with the American Academy of Religion, American Economic Association, American Political Science Association, American Sociological Association, American Statistical Association, and Modern Language Association. As the list of participants suggests, this study does not offer a complete picture of HSS journal publishing. The editors of the hundreds of smaller history journals would be quick to point out that the AHR is hardly representative of the economics of their journals. Nevertheless, as the first substantial study of the economics of journal publishing in the humanities, it provides a useful starting point for discussions about the future of scholarly communication in our disciplines—discussions that too often are driven by the economics and characteristics of the science journals (if they are based on any information at all).

The study offers a number of important findings for anyone seeking a better understanding of how the HSS and STM journals compare. The author of the report found that it costs significantly more to prepare an article for press in the HSS journals. Waltham estimates an average of almost $526 per page published in these journals, as compared to an average of just $266 in STM journals.

Her report attributes this to a wide variety of factors, such as a higher level of selectivity. She found that HSS journals only accept about 11 percent of the articles submitted to them, as compared to an acceptance rate of 42 percent in a study of comparable STM journals (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Waltham also notes that articles published in HSS journals are typically about one-third longer than articles in STM journals (averaging about 19 pages as compared to just 10). Both factors lead to much higher editorial costs since even rejected articles receive fairly rigorous review and comments from editors and reviewers, and the longer articles that are accepted take more time to develop and copyedit.

The report also observes that HSS journals contain a very different mix of content relative to the STMs. An average of almost 95 percent of the STM journals are comprised of peer-reviewed articles—reflecting the content of the articles in those disciplines (Figure 1). In comparison, almost 40 percent of the material in HSS journals is given over to non-article content. Journals such as the AHR devote a substantial amount of their pages (and their editorial efforts) to generating material such as book reviews. In history, for instance, book reviews provide vital post-publication peer review and publicity for monographs, which currently earn more prestige than articles.

The report also highlights an important challenge for sustaining journals such as the AHR, particularly as they are called upon to use their resources to do more interesting and creative things in the digital medium. The report indicates that while almost a third of the production costs of HSS journals could be saved by eliminating print, they would lose that much (and in some cases more) revenue from lost print subscriptions and advertising. The losses would be quite high for the Review.

Currently, more than half of our institutional subscribers have opted for print-only subscriptions (even though e-only subscriptions cost slightly less). And our individual members have shown a strong preference for print as well. A survey of Perspectives on History readers conducted in 2008 found that 63 percent read only the print copies of our serial publications (a number that is, if anything, skewed lower than the reality since the survey was conducted online). So for the moment, the AHR has far more to lose than gain in dispensing with print.

That said, these findings do not end the conversation about where the HSS journals should go from here. This report (alongside similar data about AHA’s other publications programs, described in “Mission, Media, and Risk: The American Historical Association Online,” in the December 2008 Perspectives on History and online at only provides some useful information about where we are today. We need to be thinking about tomorrow if journals are to continue to serve an effective role in improving and promoting the highest quality scholarship while also taking full advantage of the new technologies of the internet.

The evidence from this report demonstrates that there are no easy answers, and making simplistic comparisons to the STM journals could place this vital part of the system of scholarly communication in the humanities and social sciences at risk. Clearly we need to think outside the box as we move forward, but it does little good to pretend the box does not exist. This study provides a clearer perspective on the size and shape of the problem.

—Robert Townsend is the AHA’s assistant director for research and publications. This essay is derived from a post published on the AHA’s blog, AHA Today, on September 1, 2009. In composing the blog post the author benefited from discussions with Mary Waltham and the staff and members of the other participating organizations,but the opinions expressed are solely his own.