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In a move to position itself in the open access publishing market, last week Sage announced it would create a new multi-disciplinary open access journal in the social sciences and humanities called Sage Open.

Joining the ranks of traditional publishers adding full open access journals to their portfolio (like BMJ Open and mBio) Sage Open will be offering many of the same services that authors of PLoS ONE articles are accustomed: usage metrics, reader ratings, commenting features, and recommendation services.

And like PLoS ONE, Sage Open is basing its inclusion criteria on sound methodology rather than interest or impact:

Sage Open will accept articles solely on the basis of the quality of the research, evaluating the scientific and research methods of each article for validity.

Sage Open will charge authors US$695 and is advertising an introductory rate of $195 per article, a rate far lower than the $3,000 it charges for its Sage Choice program, which allows authors to make their article freely available from participating subscription-access journals.

A study conducted in 2009 by Mary Waltham for the National Humanities Alliance determined that open access publishing in the humanities and social sciences was unsustainable, at least for the prestigious journals, estimating costs that well-exceed the fees set by Sage Open. Keeping expenses low for Sage Open may be a challenge, for several reasons:

Social sciences and humanities papers are much longer than STM papers — about twice as long on average — which will translate  into much higher copyediting and typesetting costs per accepted paper.

Sage does not use cascading peer review.  Manuscripts rejected from other Sage journals will require resubmission to Sage Open like any other journal and will be subjected to a new round of editorial and peer-review, according to Jayne Marks, VP Library Information Group at Sage. As a result, Sage Open will not be able to take advantage of the redundant work of editors and reviewers before them.

Sage Open will require professional editors. In order to cast their subject net as widely as possible, they will require a large editorial board and scores of subject experts.  Considering the breadth of the social sciences and humanities, this will be a very large board, and require the involvement of professional editors (as opposed to academic volunteers) to help organize and manage the process, adding to the overhead of the journal.  Other publishers who have ventured into open access publishing in the social sciences, like Hindawi, have taken a very focused discipline approach.

Lastly, there is no culture of paying for publication in the social sciences and humanities.  Unlike the biological sciences, where page charges are still common (at least among American society publishers), there are few journals in the humanities and social sciences that levy author charges.  Some journals in economics do rely on small submission fees, but these are the exceptions, not the rule.  And considering that publication fees are not common expenditures on grants in the humanities and social sciences, when such grants exist, Sage will need to focus on other potential sources of revenue.

Sage may see a business opportunity pitched, as their website states, at “authors who want or need their articles to be open access because of university or government mandates,” and aiming specifically at capturing institutional funds earmarked to support open access publishing  (e.g. COPE).  Considering that the majority of these funds are restricted for authors without sources of external funding and limit their use to full open access journals, Sage may see an opportunity in these  largely untapped funds. Best of all, these funds come with a strong advocacy group willing to promote their use.

By emulating what PLoS ONE has done in the biomedical sciences, Sage may find itself in the center of a new publishing model in the social sciences and humanities.

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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/


21 Thoughts on "Sage Open: Open Access Publishing Comes to the Social Sciences, Humanities"

This model may work because, as Kent pointed out some time ago, rejection is expensive. If you cut your rejection rate way down, by publishing everything that is simply valid, then your cost per published article goes down too.

Yes, in theory. I have a hard time talking about studies as being “valid.” While the biomedical sciences have a much more concrete notion of what makes a sound methodology (and thus constitutes a “valid” study), validity is a much more fluid concept in the social sciences and humanities.

For example, a study that employs a survey as a way of gathering information may suffer from a whole list of biases that compromise its validity (sampling bias, question bias, non-response bias, acquiescence bias, etc, etc.) and still contribute useful information. Some fields consider grounded theory and ethnographic techniques to be sound methodology, while others would consider them invalid approaches.

I don’t see how your concerns with the peer review process are relevant to the viability of the business model. If you don’t like the term “valid” how about a check box that says “Looks okay to me”? All that matters is that they are not rejecting articles on the basis of low importance, which is presumably why most articles are rejected by the regular journals. Importance and acceptable quality are two different things and these open journals can keep the same quality standards as the regular journals and still publish a lot more stuff.

Phil, do you know of any studies showing whether/how much the science faculty of institutions are supporting the journal subscriptions of the humanities departments? As you note, there’s a lot more grant money available in the science research world than there is for, say, comparative literature. Given that a portion of those grants goes to overhead, and a portion of that goes to libraries for their journal subscriptions, are scientists in effect paying for non-scientists to access the journals in their fields? Or do libraries carefully allocate overhead funds to particular departments and subjects?

If all of science moves to an author-pays model, then what happens to the journals in areas where grant money isn’t as readily available?

Good question!
University budgets are complex beasts and I don’t know of a study that does this kind of accounting. Remember that while humanities professors may not bring in grants, they bring in students and their tuition. There are far fewer journals in the humanities and they are far less expensive than STM journals.

Having published a dozen journals in the humanities and social sciences at Penn State Press for 20 years, I was very suspicious of Mary Waltham’s findings of unsustainability because I knew what the real costs of publishing some very prestigious journals like The Chaucer Review, Philosophy & Rhetoric, and Comparative Literature Studies were. Science copyediting is more expensive than copyediting in the humanities and social sciences because of the specialized skills involved; typesetting is cheap, especially if done overseas in places like India (just $3 a page). When proposing OA to our journal editors around 2005, I was thinking of a fee of $250. What Sage is proposing seems doable, financially.

What is most puzzling to me about Sage’s proposal, though, is the catch-all nature of this journal. Ordinarily, one needs to focus on a niche and become the best in that niche to succeed as a journal (or as a publisher of books, for that matter). It is difficult to understand how publishing in such a non-focused journal as Sage is proposing will win much academic credit for the contributors. Is Sage, perhaps, banking on the future of journal publishing as article- rather than journal-based, with article-level metrics taking over for journal-level metrics?

You make a very good point about journal branding and its value to authors.

With regard to your cost calculation, Chaucer Review published 21 articles this year in 4 quarterly issues. At $250 per article, this amounts to just $5,250 for running this journal. As most humanities journals produce similar volumes of articles, I don’t see how $250/article would come close to covering costs unless you are only considering production costs. I’m not a publisher so perhaps others may comment on viability of these calculations.

You are right that $195 would not cover the costs and SAGE is expecting to underwrite the costs of our new journal for some time to give it a chance to succeed. At the moment, it is not clear how the author pays model will work in the social sciences but we are keen to give the community this option.

$195/article is the introductory price. Would the full price ($695/article) cover all expenses?

One thing to remember in such modeling is that costs do not end once the article is published. As Kent has pointed out, keeping something online means ongoing costs, as you must continue to host and serve the articles, not to mention edit and convert them when/if you move to new platforms. It’s a real issue in the “author pays” system as once the article goes online, there’s no further revenue to be generated (other than perhaps a pittance from ad sales).

On the costs for running a journal like Chaucer Review, a fee of $250 would indeed just about cover them. The Press had one junior staff editor to handle production for 12 journals (her salary pro-rated across the dozen journals), circulation and marketing were outsourced to JHU Press at a cost of roughly $1,250 per journal, and there were no costs associated with having the journals included in Project Muse, which took a portion of the revenue generated by each journal in the system to cover its costs (so no expense to the Press for maintaining any IT platform). The Press did not pay its journal editors anything, nor contribute to the costs of running an editorial office for each journal, nor pay any reviewer fees.

I’ve just signed up to Sage Open with a view to submitting a paper. I was rather disconcerted to see that it was a requirement to nominate three reviewers. Allowing authors to nominate their own reviewers seems to me to undercut the integrity of the reviewing system, so I am having second thoughts about submitting my paper. Does anyone have any views on this?

I wouldn’t let it put you off, as it’s a fairly common practice (though most journals in my experience make such suggestions optional rather than required). The editor is not obligated to use the suggested reviewers, though they can help speed the peer review selection process. A good editor is going to do due diligence on the selection no matter the source, to be ensured of expertise and to eliminate any potential conflict of interest.

I agree with David. In handling the review of monographs, I often ask for such suggestions, and I am most interested in negative suggestions, about people to avoid, for reasons I may not know about (past disputes, ideological differences, etc.). I will use the author’s suggestions in combination with my own knowledge of experts in the field to make the final choice. Remember that tenure committees also routinely ask the junior faculty member to recommend reviewers to constitute some percentage of the external review process.

The exclusions are always mysteriously intriguing.

The other common phenomenon is that the toughest reviewer is inevitably one of the author’s suggestions (and often someone they consider a close colleague). This is usually accompanied by an irate response letter from the author declaring that the anonymous tough reviewer must be their hated rival and that instead the editor should have relied on their suggestions.

If authors are paying to publish their works, how is this not a vanity press? I don’t think any serious academic departments will take such journals seriously, at least not in the US.

How costs are covered has nothing to do with peer review. University presses require subsidies for some of the books they publish; no one thinks of these as “vanity” publications. As for journals, there are plenty of OA journals with high reputations.

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