In mid-December, on the other side of the Atlantic, something quite unexpected happened — the editors of 21 leading British history journals announced that they would not accept some of the terms of the recent Research Councils UK (RCUK) mandate.
In an open letter published on the Institute of Historical Research’s website, the editors make it clear that they will comply with the RCUK’s requirement to publish articles by their funded authors on an open access (OA) basis. However, Gold road authors – those wishing to make their articles available immediately through payment of an APC (article publication charge) – will be required to use a CC-BY-NC-ND license (i.e., one that does not permit others to profit or generate derivative works from the article, rather than the CC-BY license required by RCUK). And for authors who prefer the Green road – depositing the post-print manuscript on an institutional or other repository – the embargo period will be 36 months rather than the 12-24 months for arts, humanities, and social science journals required by the RCUK.
Historians are not generally known for their cutting edge views on publishing, but in fighting back against certain aspects of the RCUK mandate, this group of editors has highlighted some of the very real challenges facing the transition from a subscription-based to an OA model and, in particular, the dangers of failing to consult widely with key stakeholders across all disciplines about these challenges.
Although the Finch Group included some representation from the social sciences – and its Chair, Dame Janet Finch, is herself a social scientist – the move to OA and most discussions about it have been led by scientists, who do not always reflect the views, priorities, or needs of the entire scholarly community. And while most of us agree that OA can benefit authors and readers, it is simplistic to assume that these benefits apply equally across all disciplines. For example, a typical cell biologist receives grants (including APC costs) from multiple government and for-profit organizations, and will likely publish numerous multi-authored articles – often with a half-life of as little as six months – in a range of scientific journals with publication times of eight weeks or less. At the other end of the spectrum a typical historian receives minimal if any direct funding; s/he publishes research carried out over a number of years, in books and articles (which can easily continue to be cited for a decade or more), often in a single niche quarterly journal with an acceptance-to-publication time of 12 months or more.
It’s not hard, therefore, to see why an embargo period of 12 months would work perfectly well for microbiologists; it’s a low risk, high-reward strategy. Conversely, it’s easy to see why historians are concerned – for them a short embargo period presents a high risk and little if any reward, which is why they are insisting on a 36-month embargo.
What is really needed, though, is a thorough analysis of optimum embargo periods by discipline and/or a plan for monitoring the effectiveness of different embargo periods in different disciplines. We know from the 2012 ALPSP survey of libraries that a six-month embargo period is likely to result in wholesale cancellations of arts, humanities, and social science journals. But how do we know if a 36-month embargo is enough to protect them? How are we going to monitor the success or failure of a 24-month embargo period for social science articles versus a 12-month one for, say, clinical medicine? This isn’t just a concern for the publishers of subscription journals, but for funders and OA advocates, too. For, as several people, including Finch, have pointed out, a mixed economy is vital to the future success of (Green) OA. If embargo periods are too short, subscriptions will be canceled and journals – and in many cases, the societies which are reliant on the income from them – will cease to be viable. And then where will all those Green OA articles be published?
The 21 historians also draw attention to an issue which affects scientists every bit as much as, if not more than, their colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences – the requirement for RCUK-funded authors to publish under a CC-BY license. It is astonishing to me that there has not been more protest about this. Are UK authors, their institutions, and the UK government really happy to give up all claims to any monetary gain made from the results of their published work? To allow commercial companies to text-mine their articles, extract anything of commercial value, and increase their own profits? Or, indeed, to publish – and benefit from – a derivative work based on the original article? Because that’s what the basic CC-BY license allows. From the historians’ perspective, the opportunities for financial gain from signing a CC-BY license are minimal (though the notion of others – particularly those with contrary views to their own – creating derivative works without any input or oversight by the author is understandably worrying). However, as they say in their open letter:
We believe that this is a serious infringement of intellectual property rights and we do not want our authors to have to sign away their rights in order to publish with us.
I certainly feel the same way about the articles I’ve written. Many scientists and their institutions potentially stand to lose significant revenue from the mandatory implementation of the CC-BY license; are they not concerned about this?
Whether or not you agree with the objections this group of history editors raise about aspects of the RCUK mandate, there is no doubt that they have done the humanities and social science community a real service by publicly engaging with OA. I hope their actions will prompt continuing debate between scholars in these disciplines and the agencies that fund their work, as well as their institutions, societies, and publishers.