Earlier this year saw the publication of the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) final report into expanding access to published research findings in the UK, chaired by Dame Janet Finch. This was rapidly followed by the RCUK’s policy update on Access to Research Outputs, the HEFCE’s statement on implementing open access and the European Commission’s press release on Scientific data: open access to research results will boost Europe’s innovation capacity. It is clear that there is a growing movement towards open access publishing. What the implications of this report mean for all stakeholders in the scholarly communication process has, and continues to be, widely debated.
What is clear from our conversations with authors, scholarly society partners, librarians and even the publishing community is that OA publishing can never take a ‘one size fits all’ approach. As we publish on behalf of many leading scholarly societies across a wide spectrum of disciplines, we recognise and see the differences in scholarly publishing in the social sciences and humanities (HSS) compared with scientific, technical and medical (STM).
We have been actively seeking responses and reviewing the Finch report in detail with our society publishing partners and journal editors to assess how the proposals will impact on their work and how we can best support them in an open access future.
Overall, the responses we have received thus far have shown a clear sentiment that increased OA publishing is inevitable and will be in line with public good. Yet many express concern about the implementation of this OA. What will the impact be on subscriptions? How will OA be paid for? After what time should content be free? And there are further concerns regarding academic freedom and the integrity of peer review.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring these concerns in more detail. Today we would like to share a letter from Simon Ball, Head of the School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow, and board member of the journal War in History, detailing his response about open access journals:
War in History: Open Access Journals
As requested at the editorial board of War in History, I’ve written a short briefing for SAGE representatives for their discussions about open access journals.
The collaboration between UK Higher Education Arts & Humanities scholars and peer-reviewed journals, whether published commercially or by learned societies, has been one of the triumphs of the past two decades. The UK government recognises that British arts and humanities have carved out achievements quite disproportionate to its size, in terms of the volume and quality of research output. Government-sponsored research assessment exercises have revealed a high degree of correlation between publication in top tier international journals and research excellence.
The status quo has been challenged. Some argue that the system should be evolved to make top international journals free for any user. In order to make the best journal scholarship free at the point of use a new model would be introduced on the assumption that the producer will pay for the privilege of having research published in a top tier journal.
We believe that this proposal, if implemented, could severely damage arts and humanities academic journals, UKHE, and the global scholarly community. The damage might take four forms.
Loss of reputation: There is already a commercial publishing industry based around the producer pays model: it is called ‘vanity publishing’. It is financially successful but intellectually disreputable.
Loss of quality: Academic journals are open to submissions from any scholar willing to put themselves through the peer-review process. This ensures the widest potential pool of contributors. If journals are open to submissions only from those who can pay for publication the contributor pool will be significantly smaller. In addition work that is of an acceptable standard, and paid for, will be privileged over work that is of a higher standard but has no financial backing. Despite the demonstrable benefits of publishing in journals, arts and humanities academics publish only a proportion of their work in such journals. They may wish to publish in conference proceedings or other outlets. These outlets would not necessarily be less prestigious than new-look producer pays journals, merely less costly. The danger is of an overall lowering of standards.
Loss of trust: Currently, neither contributors nor reviewers stand to lose or gain any direct monetary advantage. A system based around contributor payment loses this element of trust. Can any reviewer believe that their quality judgment will override the will of a high-paying contributor? Can the user believe that reviewers were not influenced by the journal’s financial drivers? Scholarly knowledge is a powerful commodity. There are states and institutions willing to finance research in the arts and humanities for their own purposes. The producer pays principle might privilege such research funders.
Loss of pluralism: Access to the scholarly marketplace would be constrained by the producer pays principle. Producers working for rich institutions, or receiving funding from government or charitable bodies, might be able to pay to have their work published. Doctoral students, early career researchers without permanent posts, established scholars employed by institutions who use their resources in different ways, would all be denied access to publication in journals. Why should international scholars, with different funding regimes, wish to publish in UK-based journals at high cost? A key feature of top tier journals is their international scope. In the words of the European Science Foundation’s ERIH International 1 category they are, ‘international publications with high visibility and influence among researchers in the various research domains in different countries, regularly cited all over the world.’ An important corollary of leading international status is that contributors, as well as users, should be drawn from the global scholarly community. It will be particularly hard for scholars working in less developed countries to achieve the entry fee threshold.