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Overpriced Scholarship: An Exchange

In response to:

A World Digital Library Is Coming True! from the May 22, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

There is no more persuasive or eloquent advocate for digital scholarship than Robert Darnton, as he once again demonstrates in his recent essay [“A World Digital Library Is Coming True!,” NYR, May 22]. The Digital Public Library of America, on whose board of directors he serves, is indeed worthy of all the enthusiasm conveyed in his piece. But when it comes to open access—where journals provide their content free of charge—his advocacy fails to admit a crucial distinction, one that, I fear, only provides some open access boosters a helping hand as they blithely tar both STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) journals and those in the humanities with the same very broad brush.

I know that Robert Darnton, one of the best historians of our time, would have no truck with those who gleefully seize upon open access, not only for its potential to relieve overburdened library budgets and make scholarship available to the public—laudable goals both—but also to dismiss traditional scholarly journals as avaricious, hopelessly antiquated entities that academia in a digital age would do well without. However, his neglect to point out the huge price differential between STEM and humanities journals unfortunately provides grist for their mill. The cost of many of the former is indeed grotesque—some on the order of $40,000 a year; and the bloated profits of their publishers certainly warrant the conclusion that something is terribly wrong in the world of academic journal publishing.

But wait—that world is not the only one! Journals in the humanities, and many of the social sciences, operate upon very different principles. Take pricing, for example: The American Historical Review charges institutions on average $500 for five issues, with well over 1,500 pages of content, including about one thousand book reviews. The urgency of making knowledge available is another difference: while the findings in a science or medical journal might be needed pronto in the genetics lab or the surgical theater, the reception of humanistic scholarship proceeds at a very different pace. And yet another difference is the importance of peer review and editing: while STEM disciplines might embrace alternative modes of quality control and the like, it is hard to imagine journals in the humanities dispensing with the time-consuming, often cumbersome tasks of commissioning, editing, and rigorously reviewing articles.

And this leads to the question of financially supporting journals in an open access world where content is supplied at no cost. Robert Darnton seems to embrace what is called an “article processing charge” (APC)—that is, the author pays to cover all or at least some of the publication cost. All well and good for scientists who can build these fees into their research budgets. For the rest, he points to a program at Harvard that, along with other Research One institutions, aims to subsidize these payments. But what about scholars who are not so lucky to have access to these sorts of programs—those affiliated with less affluent institutions or independent scholars? And do we really want deans, chairs, and other university and college authorities doling out subsidies to faculty, turning article publishing into yet another competition for scarce resources?

In Britain last year, a funny thing happened on the high road to open access. After much discussion of its necessity and virtues, a policy recommendation from the Research Councils United Kingdom suggesting a fee of £2,000 ($3,200) for publishing an article prompted an abrupt turn in the conversation: now there’s the realization that, for the humanities, at least, we can’t seriously proceed with mandating open access for academic journals without more serious thought about how we fairly and realistically plan to support them.

So two modest proposals: When we discuss academic journals in the context of open access, let’s observe the distinction between STEM journals and others. And let’s proceed with some concern for the worth and fragility of the rich and varied scholarly landscape of the humanities, of which journals are an integral part.

Robert A. Schneider
Editor, The American Historical Review

Robert Darnton replies:

Robert Schneider makes a valid point in distinguishing between STEM journals and journals in the humanities. I emphasized a distinction that is similar but, in my view, more fundamental: on the one hand, journals that run on the principle of maximizing profits for shareholders; on the other, non-commercial journals whose sole purpose is to disseminate knowledge.

The American Historical Review, which is ably edited by Professor Schneider, belongs in the latter category, and there are many others, including some fine journals in the social sciences and the natural sciences. They certainly deserve support. I would not want my remarks to be misconstrued as an argument against journals that charge reasonable prices and often are sponsored by professional associations. Many of them have contributed greatly to the world of learning since the nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, the nineteenth-century model does not hold up well in a twenty-first-century environment, where commercial publishers exploit new modes of communication to create new kinds of monopolies. In my essay, I tried to argue that we can reverse the trend toward commercialization by combining digital technology with innovative business plans. Open access provides a way to cover costs at the production rather than the consumption end of the communication process and, in doing so, to reduce the burden on library budgets while making knowledge freely available to everyone.

The success of open-access journals has proved that the new model is feasible. Seventy percent of them do not levy article processing charges (APCs), because they are supported by professional associations or foundations; and many of the others subsidize APCs for authors who cannot afford them. Subsidies also come in the form of grants to researchers, especially in the natural sciences, and through programs like Harvard’s HOPE (Harvard Open-Access Publishing Equity). As more journals switch to open access, more subsidies will be necessary, but at the same time, libraries will reduce their expenditure on periodicals, freeing funds to cover more APCs. A research group called Societies and Open Access has identified 868 learned societies that publish fully open-access journals. Far from relying on starry-eyed idealism, open access offers an effective way for academics to take back control of the diffusion as well as the production of knowledge.

But open access is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. If professional bodies like the American Historical Association can successfully support academic journals, so much the better. They should beware, however, of the blandishments from commercial publishers: “Let us take over your journal. We will relieve you of a great deal of bother. We will provide a superior, more professional product—lots of color illustrations, more extensive peer-reviewing, free travel to attractive locations for editorial board meetings. We will even set up a revenue stream that will make it possible for you to reduce your members’ dues.” Sign on the dotted line, and the institutional subscription price will double in a year or two, while access to your research will drop accordingly.

The subscription cost of journals in the humanities certainly is lower than that of STEM journals, but the difference in prices should not serve as an argument to dismiss the growing danger of commercialization, which threatens all fields of study. Professor Schneider also raises another point that calls for clarification. In July 2012, the British government accepted the recommendations of a working group chaired by Dame Janet Finch, which would promote “gold” open access (the publication of scholarly articles in open-access journals) rather than “green” open access (the depositing of articles in open-access repositories). When translated into subsidies disbursed in the form of APCs by research councils, this policy threatens to touch off a scramble for a limited amount of funding. Scholars in the humanities rightly fear that they would be shortchanged. But the greater threat, according to many partisans of open access, is to the repositories: an enormous shift of resources from green to gold would deprive them of adequate funds.

Open-access repositories should be treated as a complement, not an alternative to open-access journals. In fact, they can be more effective than journals at communicating information. Every month, professors at Harvard receive reports on the use of the articles they have deposited in DASH (Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard), the university’s open-access repository. My own reports show that my articles are downloaded every month by about two thousand readers located in more than seventy countries—far more than would have been possible through publication in any scholarly journal. The University of Liège considers its repository so important to its mission that it has taken a more effective measure than anything recommended in the Finch report. It leaves its professors free to publish anywhere they like; but if they have not deposited a copy of the final version of a refereed article in its repository, the article will not be considered in deliberations on promotions and the disbursement of research funds.

American universities may not be ready to adopt such a measure, but they should do everything possible to promote a varied e-environment, one that favors non-commercial subscription journals as well as open-access journals and green as well as gold versions of open access.

I should add a word about an error in my essay that was brought to my attention by Knowledge Unlatched, a publishing venture that promotes open access for scholarly books. I wrote that books published in a pilot program sponsored by Knowledge Unlatched could be consulted free of charge by anyone but that only libraries that participated in the program could download and print them out for free. I am informed by Knowledge Unlatched that most of their electronic books are also available to everyone for free downloading and printing by means of Creative Commons licenses.