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The Historians Are Revolting — Leading History Journal Editors Take on the Research Councils UK

Mel Gibson as William Wallace wearing woad.

Mel Gibson as William Wallace wearing woad. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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About Alice Meadows

I am Director of Community Engagement & Support for ORCID (, a community-led nonprofit organization that aims to solve the name ambiguity problem in research and scholarly communications. I previously held a range of marketing roles for Wiley and, before that, Blackwell (US and UK) including, most recently, as Director of Communication. I was also a founding partner in a small UK business offering marketing services to scholarly and STM publishers. Note: The opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.


26 thoughts on “The Historians Are Revolting — Leading History Journal Editors Take on the Research Councils UK

  1. Interesting blog Alice. Definitely agree that we need to monitor the impact of widespread OA implementation in terms of appropriate embargo periods, and I hope that this will happen over the next few years. I should think that everyone, whatever their OA ‘colours’, can agree that it’s important to understand what has changed in practice as a result of the UK’s policy shift.

    It’s worth noting that many of the history journals which signed up to this letter previously offered Green OA options with embargo periods of 12-24 months ( Furthermore, some of them currently require the authors to sign over their rights to published articles, as opposed to simply licensing them: ‘protecting author rights’ as an argument against CC-BY is, in this instance, a canard ( So there might be a bit more going on here than meets the eye…

    Posted by Ellen Collins | Jan 9, 2013, 6:23 am
    • In the case of group protest letters it is not unusual for individual signers to disagree with specific statements, or in this case to have existing practices that seem to disagree. The longer the letter the more likely this is to happen. Consensus is messy that way.

      Posted by David Wojick | Jan 9, 2013, 8:04 am
    • What do you mean by “sign over rights”? Typically, in the print world, all authors of journal articles sign contracts with journal publishers transferring rights to them, but these contracts also usually include provisions for authors to share in any income from commercial uses 50/50 and to have a say in such matters as translations, etc. Authors are by no means giving up all of their rights by such transfers as the CC-BY license commits them to do.

      Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Jan 9, 2013, 1:40 pm
      • Furthermore, many journals now leave copyright with the authors and instead require a license to publish. They still supply the same types of legal support for authors though, rather than the complete abandonment that CC-BY would entail.

        Posted by David Crotty | Jan 9, 2013, 2:24 pm
  2. Good article, Alice. At the moment the mathematicians are at the stage of looking over the fence to see what other subjects are doing and many of the arguments you raise could apply to us at the London Mathematical Society. However, from the LMS publishing view, we are here to get the best papers into the journals and our priority is to support the authors rather than use the journals to declare independence from the policy. Our approach has been to assure authors that we will do our best to supply whatever they want in terms of complying with RCUK and any other country mandates that turn up; noting that only 17% of our authors are UK-based. Putting out reassuring statements that we are compliant gives the impression that the Society in general agrees with the policy but that is definitely not the case and, if the Society had ever been consulted, the members would probably raise the same concerns about access to APC funds and loss of intellectual property as the Institute of Historical Research. So, although we have taken a different approach to IHR and I can’t speak for our membership, I support IHR’s aims and concerns and I’m glad that someone has taken this stand.

    Posted by Susan Hezlet | Jan 9, 2013, 7:09 am
    • Thanks Susan, your point about consultation is the critical one from my perspective. Like you, I hope that the action by these editors will result in more and wider consultation in future, especially with those outside of the mainstream STM disciplines who are already closely involved in the debate.

      Posted by Alice Meadows | Jan 9, 2013, 9:44 am
  3. Alice, you hint at an analytical framework for estimating the optimal embargo periods for different fields. In fact you mention several key variables. That is a fascinating challenge. Is anyone working on this? I want in.

    On the other hand having field based embargo periods could be a regulatory nightmare in cases where the funding is not clearly by field as it is in the UK. US agencies tend to fund many fields.

    Posted by David Wojick | Jan 9, 2013, 8:20 am
    • I don’t know of anyone working on this David but I do think it is much needed. I agree that field based embargo periods could be a nightmare but I also think that it’s dangerous to make policy decisions about embargo periods without this information. Not least because, as I mention above, so many societies (especially in social sciences and humanities) rely heavily on their journal revenues. It would be a tragedy to see any of them go under as a result of inappropriate embargo periods.

      Posted by Alice Meadows | Jan 9, 2013, 10:20 am
  4. Rather than imposing universal mandates across all publishers in all fields, I wonder if setting a service-payment system–similar to how insurance companies in the United States reimburse doctors–would provide a more acceptable system and nudge publishers in the direction policy makers want them to move. For example, consider the following payment schedule in which publishers receive rebates from the UK government:

    500 British Pounds for a full CC-BY license
    250 BP for each 6-month reduction in embargo access (capped at a max of 1000 BP)
    250 BP for deposit in a national repository
    Total reimbursement capped at 2000 BP

    In this model, publishers can create their own business models according to the needs/desires of their constituencies. And built into the service-payment model is a financial incentive to transition out of the subscription model toward a full OA model.

    I realize that some readers will demand strict ultimatums served to publishers. This solution is a market-based solution that provides choice in the marketplace, but clearly tilts the playing field in a particular direction.

    Posted by Phil Davis | Jan 9, 2013, 9:39 am
    • Keep in mind that US health insurance is one of the most complex admin systems in the world. In many clinics admin people outnumber doctors and nurses combined. Suppose every country and funder has a different payment schedule?

      Posted by David Wojick | Jan 9, 2013, 9:58 am
  5. mmm, I remember there was already some misunderstanding about NC clause of the CC licenses, I cannot find the blog on which people complained about SpringerOpen using NC clause (after those complaints SpringerOpen just uses CC BY), but comments starting from the 4th on this blogpost might clarify the misunderstanding:

    Posted by Aliaksandr Birukou | Jan 9, 2013, 10:49 am
  6. Don’t sell the Finch Report short! It did specifically warn against short embargo periods and against the requirement of a CC-BY license:

    we endorse the conclusion of the Open Road report186 that policy-makers should be cautious about pushing for reductions in embargo periods and in other restrictions on access to the point where the sustainability of the underlying publishing model is put at risk. If dedicated funding is not provided to meet the costs of APCs, and researchers cannot therefore publish in open access or hybrid journals, we believe that it would be unreasonable to require embargo periods shorter than twelve months.


    But for subscription-based publishers, re-use rights may pose problems. Any requirement for them to use a Creative Commons ‘CC-BY’ licence177, for example, would allow users to modify, build upon and distribute the licensed work, for commercial as well as non-commercial purposes, so long as the original authors were credited. Publishers – and some researchers – are especially concerned about allowing commercial re-use. Medical journal publishers, who derive a considerable part of their revenues from the sale of reprints to pharmaceutical companies, could face significant loss of income. But more generally, commercial re-use would allow third parties to harvest published content from repositories and present them on new platforms that would compete with the original publisher

    RCUK chose to set a policy that did not heed these particular warnings.

    I’m glad to see someone else speaking out about the blunt instrument that is the CC-BY license. I think there are specific aims that are trying to be achieved here, but that CC-BY is the wrong tool for doing so. Heather Morrison has also written at length about why CC-BY is neither necessary nor sufficient for achieving the goals of the OA movement here:
    And written here about how it is inappropriate and potentially dangerous for use in any study involving informed consent and human subjects:

    Posted by David Crotty | Jan 9, 2013, 10:55 am
    • And I have written about it too, David, here among other places:

      Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Jan 9, 2013, 1:45 pm
    • You’re quite right David that it is the RCUK’s implementation of the Finch report rather than the Finch Group themselves who are at fault – I should have been clearer about that. The Finch Group had good representation from publishers, societies, and other stakeholders and provided a well-balanced report as a result.

      Posted by Alice Meadows | Jan 9, 2013, 2:37 pm
  7. Will there have to be international agreements to assure the various embargo, copyright rights, etc. are upheld?

    What is the old saw: The devil is in the details.

    Posted by harvey kane | Jan 9, 2013, 11:08 am
    • The devil will certainly be in the details Harvey! I think one of the biggest challenges in implementing OA is that there can be no one size fits all approach, partly because of different disciplines have different needs, as noted above; party as you say because different countries (and funders) are mandating different requirements.

      Posted by Alice Meadows | Jan 9, 2013, 2:40 pm
  8. Interesting timing of this related to this post. This new project just crossed my desk: PLOHSS “Welcome to the initial ideas hub for a project exploring a PLOS-style model for the humanities and social sciences.” I don’t know anything about it, but it’s interesting there are different perspective on this question.

    Posted by Todd A Carpenter | Jan 9, 2013, 3:15 pm
  9. Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    History journal editors come out against RCUK policies on open access.

    Posted by stuartelden | Jan 10, 2013, 4:35 pm
  10. Very good post – there are a lot of nuances to this. I wanted to pick up on one statement, Alice:

    “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?”

    Scientists and institutions don’t get revenue from journal articles. Revenue from subscriptions, translations, reprints and text mining agreements goes to the publishers and depending on the situation, societies. Are there situations where journal article publishing agreements, even when the author retains copyright, give authors a cut of any this revenue? Scientists publish for reputation and credit, not financial return.

    Posted by Ed Pentz (@epentz) | Jan 11, 2013, 6:05 am
    • Thanks Ed. I was really thinking about the revenues that commercial companies such as pharmas will be able to make as a result of the lack of restrictions in the CC-BY license. Of course that could include publishers too!

      You’re right that authors publish for reputation and credit rather than money, but for society journals (self-published or not) at least some of those revenues are flowing back into their community.

      Posted by Alice Meadows | Jan 11, 2013, 11:38 am
    • I think you’re right in terms of direct revenue from most journals (though I’ll point out the journal I used to run, which pays authors a royalty but that’s a rarity). There are, however, indirect financial benefits that come to researchers through the funds generated via rights licensing.

      First, many publishers are owned by the research community, including things like university presses. The surpluses generated by university presses goes directly to research institutions and funds facilities, scholarship, research, etc. Second, as you note, a large number of journals are owned by research societies. Revenue generated goes back to the research community through the work the society does on that community’s behalf, whether subsidizing meetings, scholarship, funding research, prizes, etc. And lastly, if a journal determines its subscription price or article processing charge based on the revenue it needs to stay afloat, then any revenue that comes from sources outside the research community means lower prices for the research community. If a journal makes a significant amount of income from secondary rights, reprints, aggregators, translations, etc. that means a lower price paid by the researcher to read or to publish. So in that case, the revenue is potentially lost through cost increases, rather than losing royalty payments.

      Posted by David Crotty | Jan 11, 2013, 12:38 pm
      • True, but the contracts that university presses typically use for their journals provide for 50/50 sharing of revenues from commercial uses like licensing for coursepacks and published anthologies, and I can cite you instances in which some authors have earned many thousands of dollars from such subsidiary rights sales.

        Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Jan 11, 2013, 1:45 pm


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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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