Should Historical Scholarship Be Free?April 2005
From the Vice Presidents column in AHA Perspectives (April 2005), reprinted here with permission.
On February 3, 2005, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a new policy on “Enhancing Public Access to . . . NIH-Funded Research.” It urges NIH-funded researchers to make all their peer-reviewed journal articles available for free to everyone through a central repository called “PubMed Central,” within 12 months of publication in a journal. Although the original force of the initiative was diluted through industry lobbying, the NIH measure represents government recognition of the principle that research, especially government-supported research, belongs to the public, which should not have to pay the prohibitively high subscription charges levied by many
The new policy affects few historians, but its implications ought to give us serious pause. After all, historical research also benefits directly (albeit considerably less generously) through grants from federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities; even more of us are on the payroll of state universities, where research support makes it possible for us to write our books and articles. If we extend the notion of “public funding” to private universities and foundations (who are, of course, major beneficiaries of the federal tax codes), it can be argued that public support underwrites almost all historical scholarship.
Do the fruits of this publicly supported scholarship belong to the public? Should the public have free access to it? These questions pose a particular challenge for the AHA, which has conflicting roles as a publisher of history scholarship, a professional association for the authors of history scholarship, and an organization with a congressional mandate to support the dissemination of history. The AHA’s Research Division is currently considering the question of open–or at least enhanced–access to historical scholarship and we seek the views of members.
It is the Internet, of course, that has pushed such questions to forefront because it has both broadened access to some historical resources while it has sharply restricted access to others. For the student and amateur, the Web seemingly is a free library and archive, but as most teachers and scholars know, this library has relatively little serious scholarship–especially scholarship in the humanities. If Google’s digitization plans succeed, that free archive will get dramatically larger, but the latest historical scholarship will still be absent. The high school student preparing a History Day essay or the history enthusiast researching ancient Rome is blocked at the gates erected by Project Muse, the History Cooperative, Blackwell, ProQuest, and other commercial and noncommercial entities that own or control almost all historical scholarship published in journals. Professional historians routinely complain that their students and neighbors pick up “junk” on the Internet but they don’t adequately consider that the best online scholarship is often only available to paying subscribers. And while their students may have access to this scholarship through the university library, this access is confined to their time in school, as if that proscribed the limits of public’s need to learn from historical scholarship.
Ironically, once scholarly publications have placed their contents online, it actually costs more to maintain the gates that lock out potential readers than it would to open these works to the world. This paradox (along with skyrocketing prices of many scientific periodicals) has fostered the burgeoning movement for “open access” to scholarly work that led to the new NIH policy. In the words of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, one of the founding documents of the open access movement:
An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds.2
Should historians embrace “this unprecedented public good”? Should they join growing numbers of scientists in making their scholarship open and free to the public? The advantages of open access are fairly obvious and have been summarized well by key partisans such as Steven Harnad, Peter Suber, and John Willinsky.3 They note that journals benefit because their research is, in Suber’s words, “more visible, discoverable, retrievable, and useful.” Even more important, authors gain greater visibility, a bigger audience, and more impact. A study in computer science finds that online articles are cited more than four times as often as offline articles.4 Within the History Cooperative, which provides the electronic edition of the American Historical Review (AHR), the journals that provide open access such as the History Teacher and Law and History Review receive more traffic than comparable, gated publications. If, as much evidence suggests, open access increases the readership, reputation, and recognition of authors, scholarly associations devoted to furthering the professional interests of their members need to consider how they can facilitate that enhanced access.
The most important beneficiaries of open access, however, are nonscholarly readers and citizens, who would gain entry to a world that is currently closed to them. Willinsky describes the lack of public access to electronic scholarship as “a secondary digital divide” that “affects health organizations in Indonesia, university students in Kenya, . . . anti-poverty organizations in Vancouver . . . science fair participants in Wichita and high school history teachers in Charleston.” “Just as a vast, rich world of information is within a click or two of most phone jacks,” he writes, “the toll gates are going up around online scholarly research.”
But what does open access mean for scholarly societies like the AHA? That is an important question for all historians, since scholarly societies are much more important publishers of academic journals in the humanities than in the sciences. Whereas two giant companies (Reed Elsevier and Springer) publish 40 percent of the journals in science, technology, and medicine (referred to in the publishing and library worlds by the acronym STM), very few major history journals come from commercial publishers.5
Open access to scholarship fits perfectly with the founding principles of scholarly societies. After all, Congress chartered the AHA in 1889 “for the promotion of historical studies.”6 Thus, making the serious scholarly work found in publications like the AHR free to every high school student and history enthusiast serves the Association’s highest goals. But the AHA is a publisher as well as a scholarly society and, as such, giving away the scholarship found in the AHR threatens the economic basis of both the Association and the journal. If the AHR is free, then who is going to bother to pay? And if no one pays subscription fees, then how is it going to keep publishing and how is the AHA going to pay its bills? Indeed, in the sciences, scholarly societies have viewed calls for open access with more suspicion than commercial publishers. The editor of the American Chemical Society’s Chemical and Engineering News, for example, denounced NIH’s open access plan as “socialized science.”7
Contrary to first impressions, the threat that open access poses to the revenue base of scholarly societies (or other publishers for that matter) has little to do with cancellations by individual subscribers or members. Most members of the AHA and similar societies already have free, online access to the electronic versions of scholarly journals through their libraries. In the long run this free availability may undercut the financial base of scholarly societies and may require fundamental rethinking of their economics, but it is not directly relevant to current open access proposals. The issue is about the libraries themselves. Why would they pay institutional subscription fees–which can be three to ten times the subscription price for an individual–for journals that are free online?
Is there any way to square this circle, to increase access to the scholarship in journals like the AHR without putting the sponsoring societies out of business? A great deal of energy in the open access movement has gone into thinking about ways to make that possible. None offers the perfect solution that would both guarantee the financial well being of scholarly societies and ensure total free and open access to scholarship. But they are worth considering as ways of furthering the larger goal of disseminating scholarly work. Here, very briefly, are six widely discussed approaches:8
Self-archiving: Scholars themselves can make their work available for free through personal web sites, institutional repositories, in disciplinary archives (such as PubMed Central in the life sciences and arXiv.org in physics). Most journals insist on keeping the copyright to scholarly articles and, hence, authors must seek permission to post the work online (although not “preprints” of their work). Yet, although authors do not always realize it, many journals, including the AHR, grant such permission automatically. Even the scientific journal behemoth, Reed Elsevier now allows self-archiving by authors that publish in its journals. One obvious problem with self-archiving is that it puts the burden of open access on authors. Another is that it relies on traditional journals, whose finances it might undercut, to do the important work of peer review. Still, the AHA could encourage its authors to self-archive with the institutional repositories (or e-print archives) that are being set up in many research libraries or even create its own history archive. The evidence so far is that long-established e-print archives, such as arXiv.org, with over 200,000 papers, have not affected the circulation of the related journals.9
Author charges: Self-archiving means that the original journal itself is still gated. How can journals cover their costs without getting subscription revenue? One much-discussed strategy is charging authors rather than readers. The commercially run BioMed Central (BMC) publishes more than 100 web-based journals on this basis.10 Some object that this imposes an unfair burden on less affluent authors–or at least those without institutional or grant support. But BMC waives fees on a case-by-case basis. Others argue for a differential system in which those who pay a set fee would have their scholarship openly available, a policy recently adopted by Springer (although it has set the price at a hefty $3000).11 Would such a system succeed in the humanities where scholars generally lack research grants that support publication charges?
Delayed access: The new NIH policy allows authors to delay the release of their work on PubMed Central for up to 12 months, although it strongly encourages early release. But the delay (which ranges from 2 to 24 months among journals) is offered as a protection to journals on the assumption that libraries would pay for immediate access to important research results. In history, would libraries see delayed access as a sufficient disincentive to canceling subscriptions especially since our work–unlike much work in the sciences–continues to be read and cited long past the original publication date?
Partial access: The NIH policy applies only to peer-reviewed scholarship; not all of the contents of journals–editorials, letters, and reviews, for example–are included. Applied to a journal like the AHR, that would mean only the articles themselves and not the reviews, which take up more than half of a typical issue. If the AHR offered free access to its articles but not its reviews, it seems unlikely that libraries would cancel their subscriptions. Of course, gating the reviews means fewer readers and less influence, especially in comparison to the freely available H-Net reviews, which are now linked from the Library of Congress catalog.
Electronic only journals: One key strategy for opening up scholarship is to reduce the costs of disseminating it. Although some early enthusiasts touted digital publication as “free,” almost everyone now recognizes that electronic only journals have many of the same administrative and editorial costs as print journals. Still, abandoning print does bring significant savings on paper, print, and postage. And some like John Willinsky have been developing innovative open source (freely available) software to automate the management and production of electronic journals, and, thereby, reduce costs. The degree of savings remains a matter of dispute, but a good guess is that it is around one-third. The difference in startup costs is even greater, however, since new journals don’t have any initial revenue and need funds to get themselves established. World History Connected, an open access journal on world history teaching, was able to launch much more quickly and much less expensively on the web than in print. Most of the journals in history with fully open access are, in fact, electronic only journals. And while such journals still have administrative and editorial costs, sponsoring universities often largely cover those expenses. Of course, many historians shudder at the thought of abandoning print, and certainly the print edition can continue with the delayed open access model, for example, but my guess is that number has begun to diminish significantly as many have begun to pulp their back issues of the AHR in the knowledge that they can always get the articles through JSTOR.
Cooperation with libraries: Libraries faced with mounting serials budgets favor open access as a way of reducing these crippling costs. They also object that high-priced serials force universities to “buy back” scholarship that it has already paid for in the form of salaries. John Willinsky proposes that scholarly societies create cooperative ventures in which major research libraries would pledge long-term support for society journals in return for a promise of reduced and controlled subscription fees (achieved perhaps by a switch to electronic only publishing). “Imagine,” he writes, “that 400-500 research libraries worldwide . . . form an alliance to support the publishing programs of scholarly associations at a rate based on perhaps 80 percent of the current subscription fees paid by those libraries to the associations. In return, the scholarly associations would publish their journals on an open access basis. The top research libraries would achieve immediate and long-term savings, while thousands of other institutions would have access to these journals for the first time.” Willinsky concedes that such a cooperative “would not be easily achieved,” but it is worth exploring.12
These proposals range from the incremental to the revolutionary. Some (library cooperatives, for example) would require scholarly societies like the AHA to dramatically alter their ways of doing business; others (such as partial access) would, in my view, have little effect on the Association’s revenues. Regardless of one’s view of the merits of open access (and my own position is obviously in favor of much freer access), these approaches require careful consideration by historians–if only because external pressures (from government, from the rising tide of the open access movement) are likely to force us to re-evaluate our policies sooner or later. But the more important reason to consider how we can achieve open access is that the benefits of broad and democratic access to scholarship–benefits that are within our grasp in a digital era–are much too great to simply continue business as usual.
–Roy Rosenzweig, vice president of the AHA’s Research Division, is director of the Center for History and New Media and the Mark and Barbara Fried Professor of History and New Media at George Mason University. He thanks Robert Townsend, Dan Cohen, Michael Grossberg, and John Willinsky for helpful comments, although none of them is responsible for the arguments made here. The AHA’s Research Division will be considering issues of open access to scholarship in the coming months and welcomes your comments, which may be sent to email@example.com.
1 National Institutes of Health, “Policy on Enhancing Public Access to Archived Publications Resulting from NIH-Funded Research,” Feb. 3, 2005, http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-05-022.html. For detailed commentary, see SPARC Open Access Newsletter 82 (February 2, 2005), http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/newsletter/02-02-05.htm
3 See, for example, Stevan Harnad, “Scholarly Skywriting and the Prepublication Continuum of Scientific Inquiry,” Psychological Science 1 (1990), http://www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Papers/Harnad/harnad90.skywriting.html; Suber’s SPARC Open Access Newsletter and other links at http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/; and various publications by Willinsky collected at http://pkp.ubc.ca/publications/index. html.
7 Rudy Baum, “Socialized Science,” Chemical and Engineering News 82:38 (September 20, 2004), http://pubs.acs.org/cen/editor/8238edit.html. On general issue of scholarly societies, see John Willinsky, “Scholarly Associations and the Economic Viability of Open Access Publishing,” Journal of Digital Information 4:2 (April 9, 2003), http://jodi.ecs.soton.ac.uk/Articles/v04/i02/Willinsky/; Jim Pitman, “A Strategy for Open Access to Society Publications,” January 28, 2004, http://stat-www.berkeley.edu/users/pitman/strategy.html; David C. Prosser, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Big Squeeze for Small Publishers,” Learned Publishing 17:1 (2004), http://eprints.rclis.org/archive/00000945 01/Big_Squeeze.htm.
8 For a more systematic review, see John Willinsky, “The Nine Flavours of Open Access Scholarly Publishing,” Journal of Postgraduate Medicine 49:3 (2003), http://www.jpgmonline.com/article.asp?issn=0022-3859;year=2003;volume=49;
9 Alma Swan, “Self-archiving: It’s an Author Thing,” (paper presented at Workshop on Open Access Institutional Repositories, University of Southampton, January 25, 2005), PowerPoint presentation available at www.eprints.org/jan2005/ppts/swan.ppt
11 Poynder, “No Gain Without Pain.”
12 John Willinsky, “Scholarly Associations.”Back to essays