Statement on Scholarly Journal Publishing (2012)

Drafted by the AHA Research Division and approved by AHA Council, August 13, 2012.

Many members of the international scholarly and scientific community are justifiably concerned by a growing inequality of access to the fruits of their labors. The subscription prices for many journals, especially scientific journals, have escalated to the point where almost no individuals and fewer and fewer institutions can afford to subscribe. Prosperous universities and institutes maintain their subscriptions and their members thereby enjoy free access to the content of thousands of journals. Other, less fortunate, scholars have free access to declining numbers of journals, thereby impoverishing the research and pedagogical capabilities of their communities.

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 AHA, like other scholarly societies, has been wrestling with this complex discourse for some time. The issues have provided a focus of conversations in our governing Council; and staff have participated in relevant conference panels. Recently, however, decisions made at individual institutions regarding faculty publication, debates over federal legislation, and the influential “Finch report” in the United Kingdom have drawn broader attention the issue of open access to scholarly journals.

The Finch Report is particularly significant because it is likely to influence public policy. Relying implicitly on evidence and practices largely drawn from the sciences, the Report builds a case for open-access journals, free to everyone with internet access. It recognizes, however, that information is not free (indeed never has been); financial resources are required to produce high quality academic journals—even of the digital variety. Accordingly, the Report recommends a transition in the financing of journals away from subscription revenues to a system in which authors pay journals when their work is published and all content is offered free to readers. In the Finch Report, this is called an author payment charge, or APC.

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

  1. Would the unfairness of unequal access be replaced by a different unfairness, one of opportunity to publish based on the availability of funds? Rich universities (and rich authors) can with equanimity pay a charge to have work published. So can those funded by research grants with provisions for publication subventions built in. But others, especially junior scholars and those with only tenuous institutional arrangements, cannot pay. This different unfairness would be at least as pernicious as the current one. It would particularly diminish publication opportunities in fields where grants tend to be small and not central to the way research is done. For a foundation considering a million dollar physics grant, the inclusion of an additional $6,000 to publish the three articles that the proposers hope will result is completely trivial; for a historian who already funds his/her own summer trips to archives, that same $6,000 could represent a substantial share of the year’s salary.
  2. While libraries (and individuals) would be able to maintain journal subscriptions, would universities and research institutes find themselves robbing Peter to pay Paul? Would the money saved from library budgets instead be used to subsidize publication for scholars?
  3. Would the finances of the most comprehensive “flagship” journals be imperiled? While they accept roughly the same number of articles as others, they must evaluate many more submissions across a much wider swath of their disciplines, and have larger sections devoted to book reviews and other content that produces no revenue? Last year the American Historical Association spent over $460,000 to support the editorial processes of the American Historical Review, such as arranging double-blind peer review for articles, administering the selection of books and reviewers, and copyediting the content. How could AHR and others like it maintain the highest editorial standards without lowering its standards and accepting many more articles? Alternatively, flagship journals would have to charge much higher publication fees to cover the costs of reviewing the submissions they do not accept; this, too, would create perverse effects, encouraging more junior scholars or those at less wealthy institutions to shy away from the journals where their findings would get the most attention.
  4. Would an APC system create perverse incentives for both journals and authors? Would it tempt journals to publish as many articles as possible, and inspire authors to post papers on websites and bypass journals and peer review altogether? The American Historical Review, for instance, currently publishes only about nine percent of the articles received. The Editor and Associate Editor read all articles submitted, and if the articles are accepted for further review, the staff refer to an extensive (and expensive) database to find historians working in an array of institutional settings. Peer review is a costly procedure but justified where quality of scholarly publication is a high priority.

The current system of access to journal content certainly contains elements of unfairness, in addition to adding burdens to budgets of institutions already coping with diminishing resources. But solutions that ignore the wide differences between the respective landscapes of science and humanities journals generate new, and more difficult, dilemmas. Requiring authors to pay the costs of their own publications is not the answer. The AHA suggests that historians begin thoughtful conversations at their own institutions and participate in the discussions that we will initiate at our annual meeting, our web site and other appropriate venues.