A shift to an author-pays open access publishing model is not a sustainable option — this is the main message of a much-awaited study of the costs of journal publishing in the humanities and social sciences.

The report, “The Future of Scholarly Journals Publishing Among Social Science and Humanities Associations,” discussed in detail earlier this summer, was released on September 1st by the National Humanities Alliance.  The study was conducted by the independent publishing consultant, Mary Waltham, and underwritten by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The study was based on a detailed analysis of the publishing costs and revenue streams of eight humanities and social science and journals (HSS),[1] representing the flagship journals of their associations and based on three-years of data (2005-2007).

While few of these journals print in color, or include tables, figures, images, and supporting datasets (as are common in scientific publishing), it’s surprising to discover just how expensive it is to publish an article in the humanities and social sciences. The cost per page published in 2007 averaged $526, nearly double the costs reported on a similar study on scientific journals.  Given that HSS articles are much longer on average than their scientific counterparts, this amounts to nearly $10,000 per published article.

Considering the funding sources in the humanities and social sciences, Waltham concludes that a business model based on author/producer pays open access publishing “is not currently a sustainable option for any of this group of journals.”

For academic libraries, these subscription-access journals represent excellent value for the money.  In 2007, six of the eight journals included in the study charged institutions less than $270 for a combined print plus online bundle.  Delivering a whopping 9,610 published pages at a total price of $1,301, Waltham calculates that this represents an average cost of only 14 cents per page — factors lower than what these publishers would need to charge authors in an open access model.

In spite of their low price, most of the journals in the study returned large net surpluses to their associations, 20% on average, with two journals returning 64% and one operating at a loss.  While profits for commercial publishers have been a lightning rod as a cause of the serials crisis, many associations view their journals as integral to supporting member activities such as conferences, research grants and educational outreach.  Waltham writes:

Plainly, if publishing activities do not generate a surplus, additional society and association activities need to be at least curtailed and in some cases the association would cease to be able to exist without the injection of financial support from its publishing surpluses. Therefore funding for essential professional and scholarly activities would be jeopardized by a mandated shift to free-to-user open access.

Generalizable and comparable results?

Whereas this study represents a careful and detailed approach to estimating production costs for association journals, one should be careful of generalizing these results to humanities and social sciences journal publishing as a whole.  The titles in this study represent the most prestigious journals in their respective fields, are highly-selective of the articles they publish, and benefit from high circulation counts from institutional and personal subscribers.  Moreover, many of the journals in this study publish a considerable amount of non-article content, such as book reviews, meeting reports and other editorial materials.

In her report, Waltham makes several comparisons to an earlier (2002-2004) study of 13 STM titles published by 9 learned society publishers (8 of them British); the list of those titles is kept confidential.  A suitable comparison group to the HSS study would include titles such as Science, Nature, NEJM, JAMA or Cell.


1. Participating journals (and their associations):

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist. https://phil-davis.com/


3 Thoughts on "Unsustainable: OA Publishing in the Humanities and Social Sciences"


In Humanities and Social Sciences (and probably other fields as well) Gold OA publication fees may well be unsustainable today, prior to Green OA. But after universal Green OA self-archiving mandates by institutions and funders make the final refereed drafts of all journal articles freely accessible online, all bets are off, for then institutions’ subscriptions can be canceled, inessentials (print edition, PDF edition, archiving, preservation, access-provision) and their corresponding costs can be cut (offloading all archiving and access-provision onto the worldwide network of Green OA institutional repositories), journals can downsize to just providing peer review alone, its small remaining cost easily covered by institutions, per individual outgoing article, sustainably, out of just a small portion of their annual windfall savings from their subscription cancelations.

The Directory of Open Access Journals http://www.doaj.org lists hundreds of fully OA journals in the humanities and social sciences.

As Waltham herself points out, the study in question is an interesting exploratory study which points to the need for more resesarch – a small sample of 8 journals, each self-selected by the participating publishers (who apparently all selected their flagship journals, quite possible the most expensive ones).

Quoting the average cost per article overlooks the wide difference in cost per page reported – for the online first copy, this ranges from $90 to $1,326 per page.

My analysis of the potential for humanities and social sciences to move forward towards OA, based on this study, can be found at http://poeticeconomics.blogspot.com/2009/09/humanities-and-social-sciences-thoughts.html. My comment on the wide differences in reported costs is at http://poeticeconomics.blogspot.com/2009/09/cost-per-page-for-hss-journals-varies.html

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