Why Is Open Access Moving So Slowly In The Humanities?

by Peter Suber

This is the second post in our new series on Open Access in the Humanities, a slightly revised reprint of Peter Suber’s 2004 article, Promoting open access in the humanities. The first post “What is Open Access?” can be found here. 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.


Open-access repositories took off fastest in physics and open-access journals took off fastest in biomedicine. There are fascinating cultural and economic reasons why these disciplines opened first. But let’s focus on the other end of the pack where open access is moving the slowest. Why is it moving so slowly in the humanities?

Here are nine differences between the humanities and the sciences that help explain their different rates of progress.

(1) Journal prices are much higher in science, technology, and medicine (the STM fields) than in the humanities. The pricing crisis is not the only reason to consider open access, and not the primary reason for researchers themselves, but it’s a major reason for libraries and universities. In the humanities, relatively affordable journal prices defuse the urgency of reducing prices or turning to open access as part of the solution. Researchers have the same motivation to consider open access in the humanities and the sciences—to enlarge their audience and increase their impact. But the sciences see a convergence of motives, and hence a partnership of stakeholders, missing from the humanities.  According to the 2002 Library Journal pricing survey, the average subscription prices for journals in STM fields were 10-20 times higher than the average prices in the humanities. For example, compare biology ($1,097.01), chemistry ($2,143.22), and physics ($2,218.82) with history ($126.35), literature ($110.51), and philosophy ($146.60).

(2) Much more STM research is funded than humanities research. Hence, in the STM fields there is much more money to pay the processing fees charged by fee-based open-access journals. In the humanities, there are fewer open-access journals, and nearly all of them operate without processing fees.

(3) At least in the U.S., the government funds far more STM research than humanities research. Hence the taxpayer argument for open access (that taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay a second fee for access to the results of taxpayer-funded research) is stronger in the STM fields than the humanities. The taxpayer argument isn’t the only argument for open access, but it’s one of the strongest and certainly one of the first to appeal to policy-makers and the public. It may only apply to a fraction of STM research, but that fraction dwarfs the comparable fraction of humanities research.

Total U.S. federal funding for university research in fiscal 2001, in all fields, was about $19 billion, which constituted about 60% of all funding for university research. Of this, eight federal agencies, all in STM fields, provided 97% of this funding, and two of the agencies alone, NIH and NSF, provided $14.2 billion or 75%. By contrast, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) budget for 2002 was $124 million, less than 1% of the STM funding from the 8 leading federal agencies alone. (See the GAO report of November 14, 2003 and NEH budget request for 2004.)

If we don’t limit ourselves to university-based research, then the total research budget of the U.S. is much greater, $110 billion in 2003. All the funding beyond the subset for university-based research was for the STM fields, including defense, none for the humanities. (Source: Rand Corporation, Federal Investment in R&D, 2002, Chapter One.)

(4) On average, humanities journals have higher rejection rates (70-90%) than STM journals (20-40%). This means that the cost of peer review per accepted article is higher in the humanities, lower in the STM fields. Hence, for open access journals that cover their expenses through processing fees on accepted articles, the fees would have to be higher at the average humanities journal than at the average STM journal. This combines badly with the fact that the humanities receive much less government and foundation funding than the sciences.

A. Zuckerman and R. K. Merton first showed this disparity in rejection rates in the 1970’s, and ALPSP confirmed it in the 1990’s. See the discussion thread on this question from January 2001 in the American Scientist Open Access Forum. See H.A. Zuckerman and R.K Merton, “Patterns of evaluation in science: Institutionalization, structure and functions of the referee system,” Minerva, 9 (1971) 66-100. Also see a brief online summary of the 2001 data collected by ALPSP.

(5) There is more public demand for open access to research on (say) genomics than Greek grammar, which is one reason why genomics has more federal funding than Greek grammar. Of course research can be worth funding and worth opening up even in the absence of public demand, but public demand tends to create funding, policy, incentives, and lobbyists. Note that public demand ranks some scientific research topics above others (medicine above field biology, for example), just as it does in the humanities (American history above Roman history, for example).

I can acknowledge this even though my own field (philosophy) is in the humanities. But a more contentious way to make a similar point is to say that STM research is more socially useful than humanities research, at least in the way that attracts funding. This is what makes foundations and governments want to pay for it, and what makes them receptive to the argument that the subsidy for open-access dissemination is worth paying too since it makes a useful research project even more useful.

Before fellow humanists write me angry letters, I’m not saying that humanities research isn’t socially useful, or is less useful than the sciences, merely that this is the perception of most funding agencies. There are two kinds of usefulness, which is why the sciences and humanities coexist wherever civilization takes root. But each kind of usefulness tends to be dismissed or misunderstood by champions of the other. The most succinct wisdom on the usefulness and fundability of humanities research was uttered by Aristippus, a Greek philosopher who sought patronage from one rich Athenian after another. Dionysius once asked him,

Why do I always see you philosophers knocking on the doors of the rich, but I never see the rich knocking on the doors of philosophers?

Aristippus replied,

Because philosophers know what they need and the rich don’t.

(6) Preprint exchanges meet more needs in the STM fields than in the humanities. STM researchers need to know quickly what is happening in their microspecialization, partly to build on it in their own work and partly to avoid being scooped. Moreover, they need to deposit their own preprints quickly, partly in order to influence fast-moving research and partly to establish priority over others who might be working on the same problem. Preprint archives are very common in the natural sciences, very rare in the humanities.

Of course humanists build on one another’s work too and worry about scooping and being scooped. But there’s no doubt that the urgency of timely notification of other work is greater in the STM fields than in the humanities. The explanation may lie deep, for example, in their different ways of being socially useful and their different ways of recognizing and rewarding the solution of problems.

(7) Demand for journal articles in the humanities drops off more slowly after publication than demand for articles in the STM fields. This means that humanities journals will worry more than STM journals that offering open access to articles after some embargo period, such as six months after publication, will jeopardize their revenue and survival.

There are three differences here: objective rate of decline in demand after publication, objective risk of lost revenue from delayed open access, and subjective fear of lost revenue from delayed open access. But none of these means that delayed open access will really jeopardize revenue and survival, either in the sciences and humanities. The revenue from selling access to old issues is miniscule, and losing that revenue will not harm a healthy journal, especially when offset by enhanced access, visibility, and impact that can be translated into increased submissions, advertising, and (if they still exist) subscriptions.

(8) Humanities journals often want to reprint poems or illustrations that require permission from a copyright holder. It’s much harder to get reprint permission for open-access distribution than for a limited-circulation, priced and printed journal. And when permission is granted, for either kind of distribution, it usually costs money. This is why open access will come last to art history.

(9) Journal articles are the primary literature in the STM fields. But in the humanities, journal articles tend to report on the history and interpretation of the primary literature, which is in books. STM faculty typically need to publish journal articles to earn tenure, while humanities faculty need to publish books. But the logic of open access applies better to articles, which authors give away, than to books, which have the potential to earn royalties.

Summary: Open access isn’t undesirable or unattainable in the humanities. But it is less urgent and harder to subsidize than in the sciences. Progress is taking place, and as more humanists come to understand the issues, and the strategies that work, we should expect to see progress continue and accelerate. For example, humanists may have fewer reasons for preprint archiving than STM researchers, but most of the advantages of preprint archiving still apply in the humanities and they are starting to have an effect. Humanists may feel less urgency to launch peer-reviewed, open-access journals, and find it harder to do so without funding for processing fees. But there are still reasons to launch such journals and other funding models to sustain them. Humanists may be more skittish about offering open access to their books than to their journal articles, but there are reasons why informed authors will choose to try the experiment. In the next section I sketch some of the strategies to facilitate these advances.

The next post by Peter Suber will provide 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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