Recommendations: How Can We Advance Open Access In The Humanities?

by Peter Suber

This is the third and final post in the Open Access in the Humanities series, 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 and the second “Why Is Open Access Moving So Slowly In The Humanities?” 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. 


Most of these are recommendations for keeping costs down without sacrificing quality. One goes beyond journals to repositories, and one of them goes beyond open access for royalty-free literature to open access for royalty-producing literature.

(1) Use journal management software to reduce the costs of peer review. Use open-source journal management software to reduce the costs about as far as possible. Currently, Open Journal Systems (OJS) from the University of British Columbia Public Knowledge Project (PKP) is the only open-source journal management software. (I have no financial ties to OJS or PKP.)

(2) Do without copy editors. At most journals with both copy editors (who improve language) and disciplinary editors (who supervise peer review), the copy editors are paid salaries and the disciplinary editors donate their labor. Hence, dispensing with copy editors will reduce costs without interfering with peer review.

Someone might object that much writing in the social sciences and humanities is atrocious and needs scrupulous copy editing. I couldn’t agree more. (Don’t get me started.) But copy editing wouldn’t help much with this problem because journals that publish atrocious writing seem to think that it’s professional or sophisticated and wouldn’t employ copy editors who favored mere clarity. I feel free to say this because the average writing in my field—philosophy—is much more atrocious than the average writing in classics.

Many STM journals dispense with copy editors in order to save money. But when they do use copy editors, it’s often because they receive many submissions from non-native speakers. This problem is much less common in the humanities.

Just so that I am not misunderstood: I regard copy editing as a valuable service. I don’t want to discard it unless there is no other way to lower costs enough to provide open access. Dropping copy editing is not a way to improve a journal, just a way to cut costs without reducing a journal’s essential service of providing peer-reviewed research to a scholarly community.

The best solution—as long as we can’t teach scholars to write clearly—is to find enough revenue to pay for copy editing alongside essential services like peer review. This is happening at the Public Library of Science journals, for example. However, we must admit that the shortage of funds makes this unlikely in the humanities. If we have to choose, then I would definitely prefer open access without copy editing to copy editing without open access.

(3) Get universities to pay processing fees. Major public and private funding agencies in the sciences have declared their willingness to pay the processing fees charged by open-access journals. But I don’t know of any foundations supporting humanities research that have followed suit. One reason, clearly, is that there are virtually no such journals today and no constituency seeking foundation support for them. This might change slowly, if open-access journals in the humanities can overcome the chicken-and-egg problem and survive long enough to ask for continued support. But the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), for example, is unlikely to help here. It conceives its grants more to subvene a scholar’s salary than to pay for a specific piece of research. Nor could it give a grant to a journal to redistribute to scholars to cover the processing fees on accepted papers, since the NEH does not “regrant” or give grants for others to distribute.

Is it hopeless to expect universities to pay the fees for their humanist faculty? Perhaps today it is. Most universities are not only strapped, but perpetually strapped —or at least that’s how it seems from the hallways of the humanities. But as open access spreads, university library budgets will realize large savings from the conversion, cancellation, or demise of subscription-based journals. The first priority for this savings should be to pay the processing fees to support the superior publishing model that made the savings possible.

No doubt, however, this kind of solution is more long-term than short-term. But while I admit that, I also want to suggest that visionary leadership in universities will understand that investing in the open-access alternative today, before subscription savings make it easy, will not only share knowledge and accelerate research, but also save the university serious money in the long run.

(4) Even if universities can often pay the upfront processing fees, open-access journals in the humanities will have to explore other ways to cover their expenses. For example, Philosopher’s Imprint is an open-access philosophy journal from the University of Michigan. It’s motto is, “Edited by philosophers, published by librarians.” Because the philosophers and librarians are already on the university payroll, the journal charges no processing fees. The result is that authors don’t pay for dissemination and readers don’t pay for access. The same model works for STM journals in fields with low funding. The Journal of Insect Science is published by the library of the University of Arizona at Tucson. For more on libraries as journal publishers, see recent reflections by Harry Hagedorn and Eulalia Roel.Another model that works where funding is minimal is the overlay journal, which is essentially just an open-access archive plus an editorial board. The board takes submissions through the archive, makes its judgments, and deposits approved (perhaps revised) articles back in the archive. By using open-access archives as the publishing infrastructure, overlay journals reduce expenses about as far as possible without skimping on peer review. The University of California recently launched a series of overlay journals in all disciplines, based on the UC eScholarship Repository.

(5) Experiment with retroactive peer review. In retroactive or “post-publication” peer review, a journal starts with unrefereed submissions on an open-access web site, subjects them to its own favored method of vetting or review, and then either copies the approved articles to a different site or marks them somehow as approved. The reason for experimenting with retroactive peer review is not that open access depends on peer-review reform or vice versa; they are independent. The reason is simply that retroactive peer review costs less than traditional, prospective peer review, and this fact matters in fields that are not well-funded. (There are also other advantages less relevant here, such as the way retroactive peer review allows public distribution sooner than conventional pre-publication peer review.) There are many kinds of retroactive peer review, some more rigorous and adequate than others. This universe has barely been noticed, let alone explored. The importance of experimentation is to find the more rigorous and adequate forms of it, not just ways to save money. If we can find these rigorous and adequate forms of retroactive peer review, then there is no academic loss, and much financial gain. There might even be academic gain, especially if you think that peer review as currently practiced leaves considerable room for improvement.

(6) Work for price reductions and open access (two different things) for STM journals. High STM journal prices harm the humanities as well as the sciences, and the savings from lowering these prices can be the salvation of the humanities. One expensive STM journal can cost more than $20,000/year, more than 100 middle-tier humanities journals. Moreover, we know that the rising prices of STM journals cause libraries to cut into their book budgets, which hurts the humanities much more than the sciences. When libraries buy fewer books, university presses accept fewer manuscripts. Open access in the STM fields would produce savings that could be spent on both (1) monographs and (2) processing fees for open-access journals. Quoting Kenneth Frazier in Library Journal Academic Newswire for November 20, 2003: “A lot of library directors won’t admit this, but often the STM increases [in journal subscription prices] come out of the hide of the humanities.” [Not online.]

(7) Notice that all the recommendations so far have concerned open-access journals. If their costs can be kept sufficiently low, or if savings elsewhere in university budgets can subsidize them, then they can thrive. But journals are only one of two major avenues to open access. The other is distribution through open-access repositories. Every university in the world can have an institutional repository built from open-source software, and should. If there were no open-access journals in the humanities at all, scholars could still deposit their preprints in their institutional repositories, and in most cases their postprints as well. This would not only provide open access to those articles, but also give the authors freedom to publish in any journal of their choice, open access or not.

This model works just as well with disciplinary repositories (dedicated to the research output of a field) rather than institutional repositories (dedicated to the research output of an institution). Here are some examples of disciplinary open-access repositories in the social sciences and humanities:

(8) Finally, all the recommendations so far have been “Phase 1” recommendations—ways to provide open access to the texts that scholars already agree to give away without payment or royalty. But we should consider the obvious “Phase 2” recommendation: scholars of the humanities could consent to open access for their monographs, not just their journal articles. There are two reasons for an author to consider this possibility.

  1. A. Free online full-text might increase net sales. This is the experience of the National Academies Press (for research monographs) and the Baen Free Library (for science fiction novels). For some of the explanation why, see reflections by Michael Jensen, director of the National Academies Press, and Eric Flint, co-founder of the Baen Free Library.
  2. Even if open access doesn’t increase net sales, the benefits of open access are significant (greatly enlarged audience and increased impact) and the royalties on an average humanities monograph between zero and meager.

Book authors who are still nervous could consent to open access after they think the majority of purchases has already occurred. During the time that the monograph is toll-access only, the author could still provide open-access excerpts and metadata online to help scholars find the book and learn whether it is relevant to their own research projects.

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.


If you are interested in writing a post for this series, pitch us here!

Leave a Comment