Humanities publishing and the Finch report

[The text below appeared in the Annual Review of my former employer, the School of Advanced Study, just before Christmas. Since I finished writing it, the debate about Gold open access in the humanities had continued, with no little sound and fury concerning the statement from the editors of some twenty prominent historical journals, most interestingly from Cameron Neylon. Re-reading my piece now, it strikes a more conservative note than I intended, since I spent some three years preaching the benefits of OA, green and gold, in a HSS institution, and have been delighted to see what was a rather marginal issue move to centre stage. There are issues to be addressed, but HSS scholars and journal editors do need to join the debate, robustly but openly and constructively, since if heads become buried in sand we shall have a model suited to the natural sciences imposed on us whether we like it or not. The goal of maximal open access is (I think) clear; let’s make it happen.]

It is now ten years since the seminal Budapest declaration on Open Access, and eight years since parliamentarians first endorsed the general principle that publicly funded research ought to be available free at the point of use. And whilst the natural sciences have embraced Open Access very fully, the situation in the arts and humanities is very different. As I argued in Research Fortnight this summer (25th July), for all the talk of Open Access coming of age, the humanities are in danger of being left behind.

However, since the publication of the Finch report in the summer, the issue has moved to centre stage. The UK government has strongly supported the report, and so after a decade of debate, the general thrust of its proposals seem set actually to be implemented. Yet grave reservations have been expressed, not least in the two recent statements from the American Historical Association and, in the UK, from the Royal Historical Society.

One main source of concern (which matches my own) is its support for the ‘Gold’ route to open access, based on the ‘author pays’ principle. Instead of the publisher’s costs being covered by payment from the reader (or their library), the publisher charges a fee to the author, but access to the work is free at the point of use. The model has an appealing simplicity, and in theory should make a work available to anyone who might be interested in it, rather than simply to those with access to a research library. It is already well established in areas of the natural sciences, and in small pockets of the humanities, notably in the history of medicine. However, there are significant issues in its implementation, the most significant of which is the impact on those who cannot pay.

The Gold model works best when research is funded by direct grant, with a small additional sum to cover publication fees. But a vanishingly small proportion of humanities research is funded on this basis, and so those fees must be met by some other means. The government has pledged extra funds to cover this, but only to a number of research-intensive universities, which sends a clear and unwelcome signal about the prospects for research produced in other HEIs; to say nothing of early career researchers in (and out of) short-term positions and the army of independent scholars producing first class work outside the universities. Looking back at my own publications, I cannot imagine how any of them could have been funded in this way; and so they would not now exist.

There is still room, however, for dissenting voices to be heard; and there is an opportunity for the School and its Institutes to take the lead in creating the spaces in which those conversations may take place. Through SAS-Space, the establishment of SAS Open Journals, and associated events, the School has taken part in these debates over the last few years; may it continue to do so.

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