Publication Date

September 1, 2013

Post Type

American Historical Review

"Author-Pays" Model of Open Access at Odds with Journal's Mission

The movement to make academic research findings more accessible to the public has been gaining steam for the last five years. In response, several solutions have been proposed both in the United States and United Kingdom that require government-­sponsored research as well as research funded by certain private foundations, such as the Wellcome Trust, to be made available to the public free of charge through one of several mechanisms. The AHA Council supports the goals of open access and seeks ways to achieve them without introducing inequalities among scholars and new levels of institutional review into the peer review process.

There are currently two main routes for ensuring open access, called gold and green. The gold route requires that an article be published on a website, free for all to read, at the same time it is published in print; the author pays the journal an author processing charge (APC) to cover the costs of this open-­access model. The logic for this approach is that author payments would substitute for subscription revenue, hence allowing a journal to maintain appropriate standards of peer review and editing, both of which involve considerable costs to be done well.

The green route requires depositing a near-­final copy of the article on a website, often an institutional repository, rather than the fully edited and formatted version of the article as it appears in the print and online journal. This online depositing of a near-­final copy article need not be simultaneous with the publication of the final print or online version.

Many publishers and editors in the humanities and social sciences have called for an embargo period of one to three years between publication and when the article is made open access. In this model, the necessary revenue continues to come from subscriptions rather than from the author, with the embargo period needing to be long enough to maintain an incentive for libraries to maintain their subscriptions.

Several universities in the US have developed plans to ensure open access to their faculty's research.

Scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health are required to post their articles to the PubMed publishing hub. In February 2013 the US President's Office of Science and Technology issued a memorandum requesting that all federal funding agencies submit a plan for open-­access publishing of peer-­reviewed publications and digital data.

The Council of the American Historical Association has discussed the question of open access and the various options that have been proposed with the aim of developing a policy for the Association's journal, the American Historical Review (AHR). It concluded that the AHR should continue its policy of allowing authors to publish toll-­free links to the full text of the published article from personal or institutional websites. All articles published in the AHR since 2005 are freely available on the AHR and Oxford University Press websites after three years.

At the same time, the Council rejected the idea that authors could provide the AHR with an author processing charge in order to have their published article immediately available on the AHR website (the gold route) and thereby comply with emerging UK requirements. The AHA’s governing body felt that the payment of fees for publication was an unacceptable policy, in principle as well as in practice, because it would introduce inequities into the process of scholarly publishing and potentially complicate, or even compromise, the peer review process.

APCs introduce a model of publishing in which scholars' ability to have their work freely available is dependent on their ability to pay. Scholars working at major research universities might have access to institutional funds, but these might not be available to all historians. Scholars at smaller colleges and universities and independent scholars may not have access to such funds at all. Individuals without access to institutional funds might or might not be able to pay the APC. The Council feels strongly that an open-­access model based on the payment of processing charges is inherently inequitable.

Second, the Council feels that the APC model has the potential to complicate the peer review process by introducing new levels of institutional review. Many universities are setting up faculty committees to administer institutional funding to cover APCs. These committees will determine which scholars are eligible for funds to meet the APCs. The committees will be composed of faculty who, in theory, represent a wide range of disciplines. Yet the mixed nature of the committees will mean that a scholar's access to funding will be based on his or her ability to produce an article that appeals to this multidisciplinary body. Thus an African historian's article on the history of iron making in 16th-­century Dahomey, for example, would need to appeal to a panel that might be made up of a sociologist, physicist, anthropologist, biologist, and maybe a historian. Assuming the scholar succeeded in receiving funding to cover the APC, she would likely have to revise the article to meet the standards applied to it by experts in her own field when she submitted the article to the AHR or some other historical journal. This double review process increases the work of the scholar as well as the time it takes to get an article reviewed and accepted for publication.

APCs might make financial sense for science journals but they do not come close to covering the true costs of publishing open-­access articles in the humanities. The cost structures of science journals are very different from humanities journals. To begin with, the number of articles published per issue in science journals is often much greater than in humanities journals. The AHR publishes, on average, four to six articles per issue. Many science journals, like theLancet, publish dozens of shorter articles. This means that science journals could receive much higher levels of subsidies per printed page from APCs than humanities journals could. Secondly, humanities journals normally publish additional editorial materials such as book reviews, which would not be subsidized by APCs. The loss of subscription revenue resulting from open-­access publishing combined with the lack of alternative revenues from APCs or other sources to cover the cost of publishing these additional materials is likely to threaten the ability of humanities journals to continue publishing them.

In taking this position, the AHA hopes to contribute to a continuing conversation among humanists regarding the changing landscape of journal publishing. Much of the conversation on this important issue has thus far focused on the sciences, drawing its data and research assumptions from those disciplines. Historians inhabit a world that is very different, not only in terms of the structure of funding and the nature of research and publication, but also in our sense of scholarly time. An embargo of one year, for example, means one thing in the sciences, and something very different in the humanities, where articles have a long shelf life. As historians we believe that no outcome is inevitable, that change is contingent on a variety of factors that in this case remain largely unknown in the realm of humanities journals.

— Randall M. Packard is the William H. Welch Professor of the History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University.

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