Open Access in the Humanities: What is Open Access?

by Peter Suber

This is the first post in our new series on Open Access in the Humanities. It’s a slightly revised reprint of Peter Suber’s 2004 article, Promoting open access in the humanities. For more recent evidence and discussion on all these topics and more, see his 2012 book, Open Access (MIT Press) and his growing page of updates and supplements. 

The short definition of “open access” is free online access. But there are several important nuances to elucidate. First, while the access is free of charge to those who already have an internet connection, it is compatible with priced access to enhanced or print editions of the same texts. Second, making the works accessible without charge removes price barriers to access, the most important barrier for most people. But open access also requires removing the permission barriers to access and use, for example, copyright and licensing restrictions that require permission before one may copy, download, store, redistribute, crawl, or link to the texts. Third, one way to remove permission barriers is to put the work into the public domain. But another way that’s just as effective, and somewhat more attractive to authors, is for the copyright holder waive some rights and retain others, consenting to open access while reserving the right to block the distribution of mangled or misattributed copies.

Compared to print, the internet lets us achieve wider distribution and lower costs at the same time. That’s a good reason to take advantage of it. But the internet doesn’t remove the price and permission barriers by itself. These are removed by the will of the author or copyright holder. We scholars are likely to consent to open access for journal articles because we are not paid for them. We write them in order to make a contribution to our fields, and thereby to make a contribution to our careers. We are paid by our employers to make this kind of contribution, which compensates us even when only a handful of people around the world care to read what we’ve written. When we consent to open access, we increase the size of our audience and the impact of our work. But we don’t lose any revenue. So we have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

By contrast, musicians earn money from their work. If they gave away their work online, either they’d lose revenue or fear that they would. Their consent to open access is much harder to obtain.

This should make us pause to appreciate how special, or how peculiar, the scholarly journal article is. It is just about the only creative work whose creator willingly gives it away. That makes it anomalous, exceptional. This is the same property that makes it the low-hanging fruit for open access.

There are two primary vehicles for delivering open access: repositories and journals.  An open-access repository does not perform peer-review. It merely provides open access to its contents. It may be sponsored by an institution (like a university or funding agency) or by a discipline. It will typically contain both preprints and postprints. There are about a dozen open-source software packages to create and maintain these archives. The difficulty is to encourage scholars to deposit their papers in them.

When repositories comply with the protocol of the Open Archives Initiative (OAI), then they are “interoperable”. This just means that programmers can create search engines and other data services that deal with all the separate, compliant archives as if they formed one grand virtual archive. Beyond that, and more relevant for most users today, most open-access repositories are crawled by Google and other search engines. Hence, users needn’t know that you deposited your paper in a certain repository; they needn’t visit that repository and run a separate search on it, and they needn’t even know that the repository exists.

Open access journals do perform peer review. Even if all the editors and referees are donating their labor, like the authors, peer review costs money. But this is just the cost of facilitating the process in which the labor is donated—sending a copy of the file to a referee, monitoring how long the referee is holding it, nagging referees who dawdle, keeping authors informed, keeping track of which version is the most recent, keeping track of the journal’s acceptance rate, and so on. As you can imagine, software to manage this process is getting better all the time. The best known and most commonly adopted is the open-source Open Journals Systems.

But while open-access journals have lower expenses than print journals, they still have expenses. The model that is catching on in the natural sciences is to charge the author an upfront processing fee to cover the journal’s expenses in vetting the article, preparing the manuscript, and disseminating it online. In practice the fee is typically paid by the author’s research grant or employer, not from the author’s pocket. Many of the world’s largest private foundations that fund scientific research have declared their willingness to pay these fees. The fee at the open-access journals published by BioMed Central is $500. At the Public Library of Science the fee is $1500. These open-access publishers only charge for accepted papers, in order to protect the peer review process from contamination and suspicion, and they are willing to waive the fees entirely in cases of economic hardship. However, while the fee-based model is the best-known and most-discussed, it’s not the most commonly used. Only about 30% of peer-reviewed open-access journals charge article processing charges. The majority charge no author-side fees at all.


The next post by Peter Suber will consider why open access is moving more slowly in the humanities than in the sciences, and the third post will give recommendations for how to advance open access in the humanities.

Peter Suber is the Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, Director of the Harvard Open Access Project, and a Senior Researcher at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy, and a J.D., and taught philosophy for 21 years at Earlham College. He was a tenured full professor of philosophy when he stepped down in 2003 to work full-time on open access. 


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