Desiderius Erasmus (1466/69–1536) in a 1523 po...
Desiderius Erasmus (1466/69–1536) in a 1523 portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dan Strempel of Simba Information has kindly made available to me Simba’s recent report on the market for social sciences and humanities (SSH) publications, Global Social Science & Humanities Publishing 2013-2014. There are not many encouraging signs in this study for publishers, but it’s worthwhile to review the numbers and the structure of the market, some of which may be surprising to many readers.

Simba estimates the global market for SSH materials in all languages at $5.2 billion, a figure that is a fraction (perhaps one-quarter) of the STM market worldwide.  This is despite the fact that, right-wing politicians aside, almost everybody believes that everyone should have a grounding in the humanities (What is a democracy? What is the history of our nation?), but that education in the sciences beyond a certain level of literacy (Why is the earth hotter at some times of year, cooler at others?) is the business of specialists.  The publishing trend away from the SSH fields is likely to continue, in large part because the funding–institutional, governmental, and philanthropic–is either being reduced or increasingly directed to STM areas.

What is most striking about this report are the generalizations that can be made:

  • While STM publishing is almost entirely focused in journals, books play a very large role in SSH.
  • While English is the critical language for STM, much HSS publishing is conducted in “local” languages. The word “local” means things like French, German, and Portuguese. That term seems condescending to me, but I don’t have a better one.
  • While STM publishing is dominated by a few very large companies, the market for SSH is fragmented, with no single company having a dominant position.
  • While not-for-profit organizations are a major participant in all areas of research publishing, the university press world is heavily tilted toward SSH.
  • Library budgets increasingly are being skewed toward STM on one hand, journals on the other. The deep affiliation between STM and journals publishing is a part of this.
  • SSH publications are drifting toward English-language publishing and the journal format, in part because of the growth of quantitative areas in SSH research, in part because the history of user metrics for journals biases library purchasing decisions.
  • SSH derives almost all of its revenue from the library sector, whereas STM has a secondary market (in some cases a primary one) in the corporate market.
  • The underlying research dollars for SSH (as distinct from publishing revenue) is much, much smaller than for STM.
  • Print plays a far larger role in SSH than in STM. In part this is a function of the greater role of books in SSH.

I came away from reading this report with the conviction that SSH publishing needs a new idea. Some people believe that open access (OA) is that idea, but I doubt it. OA has problems operating in the SSH area for a number of reasons, not least the absence of funding to pay for Gold OA. But in any event, when you study library circulation records, the problem for many humanities publications is weak demand, not barriers to access. If scholarly monographs are languishing on the shelves at major research universities, why would making them accessible to people outside the academy meaningfully drive up usage?

One would think that the highly fragmented nature of the marketplace (many publishers with none approaching a 10% market share) would be an opportunity for a strategy of mergers and acquisitions, but there are factors militating against that. For one, so many major SSH publishers are not-for-profit and thus more or less resistant to the overtures of investment bankers even though such mergers might make good economic sense and allow the not-for-profit sector to compete more effectively. A second reason is the “local” languages. It’s hard to operate a company outside one’s own borders, triply hard to manage one that works in multiple languages. And a third reason is simply that the growth in SSH fields is anemic: it’s easier to invest in a growing market.

My personal hunch is that growth in these fields may require the ramping up of initiatives to reach out in two directions:  into the classroom, with new publications and formats designed to aid in undergraduate education (because we do care about our history and how the world came to be as it is), and beyond the walls of the academy. That latter effort, popularization, is not high status (today), but it is linked to the public’s support of SSH education and research.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


23 Thoughts on "The Market for Social Sciences and Humanities Publications"

I don’t think it’s a correct description of reality when you claim: “OA has problems operating in the SSH area for a number of reasons, not least the absence of funding to pay for Gold OA.”

I claim that SSH journals are growing fast in the OA-sphere and are shrinking in the commersial.

My lists on Scribd, contains more than 22.000 SSH titles


Conflating Gold OA with a financially viable model for OA, however, is a description of reality.

Indeed Joe, and the same is true for the policy debates. Converting the subscription journals to free subsidized journals is not on any government table I know of. Free gold is a diversion at best.

a) most OA journals still working (esp. in SSH) without APCs incl. some top journals:

b) Scielo is an example you are looking for:

c) Funding programmes for OA SSH journals were, for example, launched in CDN, NL, AUT. Most of the funded journals work without APCs
– CDN:
– AUT:

d) research institutions or funders pay anyway, for subscriptions, for OA APCs or for other OA models.

Jan, your lists are very impressive but Joe is talking about subscription SSH journals, profit and non-profit, especially how they might grow their market. The journals on your lists are primarily put out (and presumably paid for) by universities, or even departments thereof, plus some government agencies. So their existence is not really relevant to this discussion, not that I can see. Perhaps I am missing something.

Indeed David, I think you miss something: subscriptions, APCs for OA journals and sponsored OA journals are usually paid by research institutions. Thus, all of them are relevant for a market analysis.

You may be right Falk. For example SCOAP3 is a case where libraries are flipping leading journals from subscription to institutional funding. I have an article coming on this. But the issue is growth opportunities not business models. Do you see the publishers selling a new wave of sponsored SSH journals to the universities? That would be interesting indeed, and not beyond possibility. Perhaps it is the new idea Joe is calling for.

In the US K-12 area at least, the new common core English Language Arts standards are shifting the reading content focus from literature to science, eroding the humanities. At the undergrad level it all depends on your major so I see little room for SSH growth, unless I am missing something.

But market stability is not a bad thing.

“SSH derives almost all its revenue from the library sector”? This does not reflect the experience of university presses like the one i directed at Penn State for 20 years, where typically 40% of our revenues came from classroom adoption of our books in paperback form. Did Simba attempt to survey that market?

While it is true that many monographs do not show up in library records as enjoying much circulation, we do not have data on how much these same monographs are used in the library and not checked out.

As for appeal to people outside academe, there is a wide range across different areas of SSH. It has long been known that books about the American Civil War sell very well outside the academic marketplace, and so too do books on specialized subjects like the history of railroads, food, etc.

I believe Joe underestimates the potential for OA monograph publishing. It has made great strides already outside the U.S. in Australia, Canada, and Europe (see the OAPEN consortium). and it is just beginning to get under way within the U.S. with the establishment of the OA only press starting now at Amherst College. Moreover, the 50+ member Library Publishing Coalition shows how much OA publishing is ramping up in academe through libraries getting into publishing including textbook publishing (as at SUNY Geneseo).

Finally, though mergers may not occur in the same way they do in the for-profit sector, expect to see more non-profit publishers including university presses come together to share all back-office functions in coming years, with only the editorial offices remaining on individual campuses.

I value Joseph Esposito’s thoughtful writings wherever I find them. I learn from them when I agree with him fully and when I do not. I ended my reading of this essay especially appreciative of its summation of, and reflection on, a relevant-to-me report that I probably would not otherwise have known about. I did not expect to be named in the comments.

I agree that the simple terms “gold” and “green” are not adequate for nuanced discussion of open access policy. Taken alone they do foster confusion. Until better terms are established for characterizing the multiple varieties of gold open access publishing, I would hope that the phrase “author-pays gold open access” (preferably in association with phrases like “which is one kind of up and running varieties of open access publishing”) could serve us until better terminology is established.

As I was talking in my post about I and others feeling insulted (not something I remember doing in writing before), it is very likely that someone somewhere may (as evidenced here) feel insulted in turn. Whatever else I might think, contributors to this site are known to know the differences at issue (even if small scale, non-profit, gold open access publishing projects generally hold little interest) and were not the kind of actors I was discussing.

Joseph Esposito’s essay is especially valuable because it addresses the unique characteristics of the SSH publishing system. It is among SSH scholars that much confusion on these issues can be found. It is also among such scholars that the kind of high opinion/low awareness speech making on open access can often be found. But, very positively in my view, it is also among this group that many efforts to build (in partnership with university presses, libraries, and others) a diverse open access scholarly communication system not reliant on APCs is being pursued. One can think such efforts foolhardy and a poor investment of people’s time, money, and attention, but my concern was with those who talk as if they simply do not exist as things in the world.

I really don’t know what to make of this comment. Media (of any kind, not just of research material) are paid for in one or more of three different ways: by the end-user or a proxy, by the producer or a proxy, or by aggregating audiences and selling them as a marketing service. The great diversity of open access boils down to just these three options. In any event, OA plays a tiny part of my original post. Why all discourse concerning scholarly communications must be hijacked by advocates for OA is something we should all think about, especially as other economic models flourish. BTW, I had never heard of Jason Baird Jackson before his name appeared in the comments to this post. I have no beef with him.

Joe, your three options may be true in principle but in practice there are many options because the proxies are not the same as the proxied and there are multiple proxies. Thus the industry is in a state of flux and progressive confusion. OA is at the heart of this deep confusion, which is far more than semantic. You have recently written that strategic planning should look five years ahead but that is where the horizon of confusion is greatest. Who we will be selling to is largely unknown at this point so conventional market analysis is probably not possible.

Mr. Jackson,

I certainly agree with you that the color options we currently have for open access types is lacking. I would not argue for more colors, since platinum OA or silver OA or whatever color would just add to the confusion. While it may be true that “contributors to this site are known to know the differences at issue,” I wanted to link to your reasoned opinion concerning free-to-author gold OA since some readers of this blog may assume that gold OA is the same as author-pays OA.

Best, Joe

Thank you @oajoe. I share the view that more colors would hardly be helpful to effective discussion. More scholars understanding the basic workings of the publishing systems in which they work would be very useful. I appreciate your engagement with my observations made elsewhere.

“But in any event, when you study library circulation records, the problem for many humanities publications is weak demand, not barriers to access.”

I am not so sure. Please could you share the results of your research? When you use altmetrics you can easily find that the reader demand for top tier open access papers is not big even for STM.

When we are talking about Open Access, demand created by readers does not count as much as authors’ demand for publishing services. That being said, it is true that the majority of authors publish not because they feel that plenty of people would like to read their work, but because they treat publishing as part of their work (requiring points and so on). So the main factors that shape authors’ publishing habits are funding policies and career opportunities, and here I see biggest differences between humanities and STM.

When Joe talks about “humanities publications,” bear in mind that he is largely talking about scholarly monographs. I’ve documented the steep decline in book circulation rates among major research libraries here. This study doesn’t tell the whole story of scholarly research trends, of course, but it provides pretty strong support for Joe’s contention that “the problem for many humanities publications is weak demand, not barriers to access.”

Thank you for this article, however as you know, it says nothing about demand on humanistic scholarly publications, especially in comparison to STM ones.

Actually, it does, because a very large number of the circulating items (i.e., the things that can be checked out of the library) in large academic libraries are humanistic scholarly publications. The steep decline in circulation for these items provides evidence of declining demand for them on the part of readers; the declining demand for them within the library, combined with aggressive annual price hikes for STM journal subscriptions, is leading to widespread reallocation of collection funds within research libraries from scholarly books to the protection of subscriptions.

Reblogged this on urbanculturalstudies and commented:
Continuing to think through the challenges facing scholarly publishing, some insights and a dose of healthy skepticism here regarding open access:

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