Editor’s note: This is a guest posting by Karin Wulf, Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and Professor of History at the College of William & Mary.

As a regular reader of The Scholarly Kitchen, I was delighted to meet Rick Anderson at the annual conference of the American Historical Association earlier this year. I was startled, however, by Rick’s description of the hostility towards open access (OA) that he perceived in the conversations he witnessed there — conversations that, as he put it, ‘(used) the kind of language to describe OA advocates that I’m used to hearing OA advocates use to describe commercial publishers’. Rick’s comment was just a brief response to Joe Esposito’s post “Making a Case for Open Access,” but I want to be clear: historians definitely aren’t hostile to access, or even necessarily to open access. In my experience, however, and certainly this is the case for the Institute I direct and the journal we publish, the William and Mary Quarterly, many historians are beginning to look more critically at the problems that open access proposes to solve, the monolithic solutions that are offered, and the potential consequences for scholars and their scholarship. What we find is troubling, even while there is tremendous enthusiasm among historians, as there has been for decades, for seeking ways to disseminate historical scholarship more widely.

The Scholarly Kitchen is an incredible resource about scholarly publishing; at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, it’s even a home page for some of us. But open access discussions on the The Scholarly Kitchen, like almost all discussions, analyses, and policies concerning OA, focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). It’s not as if we don’t have ample evidence now that OA has been primarily driven by the very real problem with for-profit publishers of primarily STEM publications. But we also now have ample evidence of the great divide between the circumstances in STEM publishing that have resulted in the emergence of OA policies and mandates from funders, governments, and universities and the realities of humanities and social sciences (HSS) scholarly publishing. (A coherent and compelling statement about the very different impact and implications of open access in the humanities is the British Academy’s submission of evidence to the review of RCUK, summarizing and extending their report on Open Access Journals in Humanities and Social Sciences. David Crotty interviewed the report’s primary author, Chris Wickham, for the Kitchen.)

Yet it has been disconcerting to hear how slowly groups promoting and producing OA, including librarians, are incorporating that information. Sometimes it is clear that groups and individuals simply have different visions for scholarly communication generally, and OA is part of that. That’s fine, and we can debate the virtues and advantages—or not—of such visions. But what we can’t do is operate without a fundamental understanding of the virtues and advantages—or not—of scholarly communication as they have developed within STEM and HSS and within their particular disciplinary or field ecosystems.

There needs to be more and regular attention to the importance of heterogeneous models of access, dissemination, and production. Scholarship is developed in very different ways, within very distinctive research and publication ecosystems. No one would suggest that biologists and film scholars organize, finance, and undertake their research along similar lines. And we know very well that the resulting scholarship is not consumed in the same way. Why, then, should we assume that the results of that research–published scholarship—can be produced and disseminated in the same way? Especially when analyses now suggest that this is an unlikely—perhaps even undesirable—outcome.

It worries me deeply that most conversations flatten out these differences, and that few mention, let alone prioritize, the importance of the scholarship itself. Financing circulation is obviously important, but creating scholarship is a more complex and collaborative process than OA advocates and policies recognize or accommodate, involving many layers of skill and labor. I’m going to confine my remarks in this post to the way that humanities scholarship, and more specifically scholarship within my own discipline of history, is developed and produced within scholarly journals.

In the course of exploring OA issues, the Omohundro Institute staff and I have used the William and Mary Quarterly as a case study in a variety of ways, including as the basis for a paper on OA. We’ve now taken this a step further to document the editorial and production labor required to produce an article in our journal. Ours is the leading journal in early American history, an expansive, often multidisciplinary field that stretches across four-plus centuries, from the fifteenth through the early nineteenth, across the North American continent and around the Atlantic basin.

We used the occasion of an author’s recent exemption-from-copyright-restrictions request to research the production of the essay in question. We don’t have time to vigorously police the web for PDFs of WMQ articles, but we know plenty of them are out there, and when we notice them we do ask either the individual or the site to take them down and replace them with a stable link to JSTOR. The author who received a takedown notice from us via asked if we could please make an exception and allow him to keep his article posted there. (Among the interesting aspects of this was the subject line uses to inform authors of takedown notices, which includes a faux-cozy frowny face.)

In response to the author’s request, our staff perused the full 182-page file, including manuscripts, correspondence with readers and editors, and fact-checking, from original submission to final publication. Leaving aside the considerable time spent by four expert referees, a mapmaker, and our typesetter and printer, in-house time exceeded 130 hours. The results didn’t surprise me, or the staff, and they likely didn’t surprise the author either, given the amount of feedback and contact they’d had. But it does document exactly how the production of high-quality humanities scholarship is intensely collaborative—among scholars, and then among authors and editors.

Humanities scholarship is not a reporting of research results, but evidence-based argument developed through narrative and analysis. Published scholarship, either in a journal article or in a monograph (and often the former appears in revised form as part of the latter), usually begins as a conference or seminar paper, shared and read and commented on in informal exchange before entering the formal publication review process. That process includes evaluation by external peer reviewers (at our journal, 4-6 readers for each essay) and a substantive response from the Editor. The time that the Editor spent in soliciting and corresponding with reviewers as well as in crafting a ten-page response to our author’s original submission was time spent on an eventual publication. In fact, though, much of the Editor’s work is devoted to improving scholarship that will never be published in our journal. At the WMQ only about 8-10% of the essays that the Editor reviews and responds to move on to another round of revision and then to publication. Scholarship that is not published with us often goes on, improved by the process, to other journals. This intensive and collaborative process brings hundreds of scholars into conversation and critical exchange with every issue of the journal that is published. It is a vital piece of the scholarly ecosystem in our discipline.

The articles that do move into production and publication in the WMQ are copyedited by the Managing Editor, who has a graduate degree in early American history and more than ten years’ experience in the field. The copyediting, as well as the fact-checking of every citation (of primary or secondary references) by a team of William & Mary graduate students trained in editorial work, offers another set of exchanges with authors, refining their arguments—and often catching key errors, from major to minor, in the transcription or analysis of their source materials. Even the most careful scholars make mistakes; this is why scholarship is fundamentally collaborative, even for single-author publications (as is the case for most humanities work).

We hear a lot of talk about quality content. But the processes that produce it require time, money, and expertise. Charles Seife’s chilling recent account of failures in FDA research regulation and in subsequent peer-reviewed literature is a STEM example of the impact of sloppy work. And while bad history, unlike bad food or drugs, usually won’t kill you, is it really so unimportant to get things right—or to make them as strong and as accurate and as well-argued as they might be? Does it matter whether black soldiers fought for the Confederacy and that, until one of my colleagues vigorously pursued the issue, Virginia’s primary school textbooks stated that they did? Does it matter if an author misstates a figure, mistranscribes or mistranslates a passage, mischaracterizes secondary literature, or simply tangles their important historical argument so that it’s not likely to be as well understood as it should be? We think it does. And we think for our discipline it takes the kind of process described here, including editorial work, to produce high quality scholarship.

The current business model of charging subscription fees and holding copyright might make historical journals seem old-fashioned to some, but a long-standing practice of very modest subscription rates has both supported this system of scholarly development and been a key way to get historical journals disseminated as widely as possible. Historical journals have long been keen to enhance electronic circulation. The late lamented History Cooperative was a nonprofit, collective effort to make historical scholarship more accessible. Many journals on JSTOR now participate, as we do, in Register and Read, which offers free access to up to 78 articles a year. And we accept reductions in our subscription price for all sorts of programs in developing countries and elsewhere.

Let’s look at what kind of modest pricing we’re talking about. Our journal is online both through JSTOR’s current scholarship program and on Project Muse. Libraries can subscribe to the electronic journal for $93 a year ($99 if they want a print copy too). Of course, subscription prices are actually less important now for library budgets; Cost Per Use (CPU) is the key metric for assessing the value of a journal. I should note that we are lucky to be housed within the College of William & Mary’s own Swem Library, and we spend a lot of time talking with our library colleagues about the issues posed here. For Swem, serials have to meet the $50 CPU mark or they are likely to be cancelled–unless a department can make a persuasive case for retaining a journal despite a higher cost. Our journal, by sharp contrast, has a CPU of about ten cents. Among the libraries I’ve spoken with, large public and smaller private universities, I could not find an example of our CPU rising above twelve cents.

While historical journals in the United States are dominated by nonprofit publishers, and by an unspoken low-subscription-price pact, other humanities disciplines—and the journals within them—have other business models. The Modern Language Association is prominent in its advocacy of OA, for example, and its principal journal, Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, is indeed open access. To submit to the journal, however, one must be a (paying) member of the organization. And the MLA Bibliography is available by subscription only; our library could subscribe to it for about $8,000. As I pointed out to our erstwhile author, (the domain name was acquired from a subsidiary that registered it before the advent of restrictions allotting that designation to postsecondary institutions) has its own business model for sustainability, aiming to gain revenue from selling analytics.

A common refrain is that “society publishers” use subscription revenue to cover other organizational activities. I hesitate to invoke the old canard about historians, that our research often leads us to conclude that “things are complicated,” but it is true that this too is complicated. Society publishers are as variable across disciplines as are research and publication practices. The revenue from our very modest subscriptions, for example, supports about 30% of the direct cost of the journal, while the Omohundro Institute covers the rest. Even for journals that use freelance rather than in-house copyediting or that publish through a university press rather than manage their own publication, subscription revenues are vital to basic operations.

There are any number of serious topics worth continuing to explore when we think about open access and the humanities—or, for that matter, OA and any disciplinary, interdisciplinary, or multidisciplinary scholarship. “Prestige” as a measure of a journal’s value, the feasibility or desirability of mega-journals or production cooperatives, the distinction between for-profit and non-profit publishers in the ecologies of scholarship—these are just a few of the many OA-related issues worth mulling over. As we consider these topics, though, we must do so in the context of not simply the circulation of scholarship but also in its production.

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf is Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture and Professor of History at the College of William & Mary. She is a scholar of early American and Atlantic history working on gender, family and sexuality.

View All Posts by Karin Wulf


72 Thoughts on "Guest Post: Karin Wulf on Open Access and Historical Scholarship"

Having discipline specific (non-monolithic) embargo periods in mandates is conceptually attractive but administratively challenging. Even at the article level there may be combinations of disciplines, nor are disciplines well defined for that matter. Two of the proposed US Public Access plans — by NASA and NSF — contemplate granting nonstandard embargo periods by journal. NSF in particular funds a lot of HSS so this will be something to watch. It is still administratively burdensome but if it were done for bunches of journals at once it might work.

Agreed– I hear that very interdisciplinary agencies–Energy, perhaps?–are looking at heterogeneous embargoes.

NSF is by far the most multidisciplinary agency and their plan says they are going to establish a system for journals to apply for embargo periods other than the 12 month baseline. NSF is using the DOE PAGES system so a similar DOE process is quite possible. The two agencies often work together, because they fund most of the basic physical science research that the government does. However, journal level review would be difficult and expensive, and neither agency has much money for their Public Access programs. If the publishers were to bundle a lot of discipline specific journals it might make the process workable.

I’ve heard very little from the US government that any embargoes other than 12 months are being considered (with the exception of one smaller agency which was tossing around the idea of a longer period). Basically the NSF, like all the other US agencies has in its plan a procedure where one can petition them for a longer or shorter embargo period, but these plans don’t ever really specify what it would take for such a petition to be accepted.

They do not specify what it would take because they do not know. This will be new law, with all that entails. Here is what NSF says in their plan (administrative interval is agency jargon for the embargo period):

“With regard to petitions for changing the embargo, such petitions should be evidence-based, that is, factually and statistically based evidence that a change in NSF’s administrative interval will more effectively promote the quality and sustainability of scholarly publications while meeting the objectives of public access. In considering such evidence, NSF will work with other federal science agencies to promote consistent implementation of embargoes for specific scientific fields.” (, Section 7.5.1)

There are plenty of law firms in DC that know what Federal agency petitions should look like (and how to litigate if they are denied). Legislation is also a possibility. The industry simply needs to gear up for this, if they want it to happen.

I do acknowledge that it will not be easy. The agencies do not want to do it because it is administratively burdensome and potentially controversial. Plus there are precedents to overcome, such as PubMed Central’s 12 month embargo period and the fact that some publishers release everything after 12 months (OUP?).

Still one can try and the usage half-life data makes a good case. As you may recall I once outlined a possible method to translate half-life data into an estimate of adverse economic impact. See Something like this will probably be necessary for a good petition. It is standard practice.

To clarify, most of OUP’s science and medical journals make all articles free after 12 months and many of our HSS journals do so after 24 months, but this is not universal and is decided on a journal by journal basis, often by the journal’s owning society.

But I do agree that my impression in general is that the funding agencies want to put as little work as possible into these policies (they are much more interested in the data policies), and want as little controversy as possible.

Not to be a one-note, but half-life data only gets you to an average– and those might range very widely. The British Academy study concluded that 24 months would be pretty much okay for HSS journals–on average. But when we studied half life for the WMQ it’s a vastly different picture. Scholars in our field digest work at a deliberate pace. Many of our most cited (though I’d have more to say about those citation metrics, too) essays are 20+ years old. And access data, for our journal, supports that. A 24 month embargo would make no sense.

And another point that’s relevant, since David raised the issue of how much time agencies might want to expend in creating tiered or variable models, for humanists a “funding agency” rarely supplies a tiny minority of the resources necessary for a study. Long ago Don Waters of Mellon raised this issue of a “threshold” for OA and other requirements from funders and institutions and that, to my mind, makes great sense.

Indeed, Karin, to me the threshold of funding participation is one of the great unaddressed issues. The US agencies all just say “funded in whole or in part” invokes public access OA, but surely the part can be de minimus. After all, the government is claiming a Federal use license to the work, which is a strong claim. There must be some level of funding participation or form beneath which the government does not get that license.

Other threshold issues are the time from funding to writing and the role of the funded research in the writing. If I mention a funded result in an article written ten years after the event, does the government still get a license to my writing? Surely this right to a license is not perpetual and pervasive. (I personally doubt it exists at all but that is a different issue from its limits.)

Your argument is well presented. It is one the STEM publishers should use. The 130 hours spent on a HSS article are about the same as those for a STEM publisher who uses a subscription model. OA, in order to meet their model, cut many steps regarding the reviewing process.

But, then again OA advocates believe there is a free lunch and are shocked when they learn the price of the meal that was picked up by some greedy publisher!

One big problem for the Humanities, which this article makes abundantly clear, is that most institutional and funder policies allow for public posting of the author’s accepted manuscript (AM) in lieu of the final published version of record (VOR). In the case of a history journal, the AM is going to be drastically different than the VOR. So you may have subsequent scholars quoting and referencing things that are not in the actual published version of the article. This citation confusion then creates major problems for future scholars looking to track down those citations to text or arguments that do not exist.

Karin Wulf is right that the discussion of OA was long focused almost exclusively on STEM journal publishing, but that has been changing a lot in recent years. I drafted the AAUP Statement on Open Access when I was president of that organization in 2007/8, and its main purpose was to steer the discussion in the direction of including monograph publishing in HSS fields. Even earlier there was a history of efforts to apply OA to HSS monograph publishing, which i cover in part in the lead essay in the April issue of the Journal Of Scholarly Publishing. More recently, the Open Library of the Humanities has launched a PLoS One-like journal for the humanities, and Amherst College has started a press dedicated to OA monograph publishing while the University of California Press has launched its OA monograph project called Luminos. At Penn State, when i was director we had an OA monograph series in Romance studies that started in 2005. Many university presses in Australia, Canada, and Europe have pioneered in HSS OA monograph publishing also, and there is a consortium of such presses that has been operating in Europe for about a dozen years. Even commercial publishers like Bloomsbury Academic, Palgrave Macmillan, and Sage have OA monograph publishing under way in HSS fields.

I take it the S in STEM does not include the SS in HSS. Is this universally recognized? It seems a bit of a confusion.

There is even more confusion. The S in STEM stands for Science (not Scholarship); the SS in HSS stands for Social Sciences. But there is also the STM/STEM confusion. “STM” typically applies to research and scholarship (Science, Technology [which includes Engineering], and Medicine), whereas “STEM” more often refers to curriculum and education. Hope this is helpful.

I am familiar with STEM education, having done research on grade level stratification (, and that STEM includes the social sciences. I personally think that history is a social science, but some historians disagree. It is also worth noting that some of the engineering societies have said they too need longer embargo periods, as have some in math. So I am not sure that this STEM (or STM) versus HSS divide exists. The origins of OA do not seem to be discipline specific (this is iself an historical question).

I published my first book with Penn State when you were Director of the press, Sandy!

I did note the work on OA in the humanities, esp. the British Academy report, but my point is that what we clearly know about the key impact differences is not having much traction (at least to my estimation).

Also, I think you’re conflating here– journals and monographs have very different positions within the world of humanities scholarship, and are financed very differently. So when we talk about the significance of OA for monographs versus journals, it’s again very different for HSS and STEM. What’s similar though is the very deep investment in quality content production that’s necessary. I’ve heard and read a lot about the OLH and other mega-journal servicing models, but what those can’t accommodate, or at least not in the particulars I’ve read, is expert work within disciplines and fields. Our expert WMQ copyediting, for example, done by someone with a decade of experience and graduate training in that field, isn’t possible when you’re in a collective.

So, Sandy, how are the costs of publication covered for all those HSS OA initiatives? If they are Gold OA, where does the money come from (I mean of course where does _the author_ get the funding, if the author is paying)? Since the research in HSS articles is typically not funded the same way STM research is typically funded, I genuinely want to understand where the funding comes from. I am delighted about all those developments you cite for HSS OA; I just can’t figure out how they work, unless they can only publish articles from authors who have enough money from somewhere to cover the APCs.

Each publisher has its own approach. At Penn State, following the model of the National Academies Press, we sold POD versions of the OA monographs. Amherst Press has a basic endowment that pays many of its costs, primarily staffing. Palgrave Macmillan charges a fee of around $18,000. Many elite universities give their junior faculty lump sums to use for publication charges, travel, etc.; when I was at Penn State the amount was $10,000. UC’s Luminos, following Knowedge Unlatched, will reply on library support. So there are many different approaches to making OA possible.

The very issues that Karin Wulf raises are those that we are attempting to address with our proposal for a “A Scalable and Sustainable Approach to Open Access Publishing and Archiving for Humanities and Social Sciences,” detailed more fully in our white paper ( and reported on here by Rick Anderson ( The situation is complicated, and we believe calls for a bold rethinking of the economics of OA that includes a plan to convert traditional subscription publication formats, including society-published journals and books or monographs, to OA; but also begins to build the infrastructure to support new and evolving forms of research output.

Lisa, I’ve seen your proposal presented. But what I didn’t see was how the rearrangement there would support the kind of intensive work I’m describing. That “beginning infrastructure,” unless I’m very much misreading, calls on the same modest library resources that support our well-criculated work now.

Karin, I encourage you to take another look. Our proposal actually looks to institutions, not libraries, to fund the infrastructure needed to support the level of work we know high quality scholarly communication requires. We see libraries as active collaborators in the development of the infrastructure, partnering with scholarly societies and university presses to facilitate access and ensure longterm preservation, but we do not expect them to foot the bill. The amounts we propose would be daunting for most library budgets, but are modest on an institutional level.

You haven’t explained in your proposal why you need the library at all. Is this just so that they don’t feel left out? You have too many cooks in the kitchen. The simple cold fact is that libraries have no role to play in an open access environment.

Just to clarify, while we do acknowledge that not all libraries will support the open access environment in the same way, we do see research libraries playing a vital role in collecting, providing access to, and preserving the scholarly record, in whatever form it takes. Many libraries are already leading university presses and working with societies to convert their publications to OA so no, we don’t include libraries so they “don’t feel left out.” They are already there and playing a key role in membership organizations like CLOCKSS and HathiTrust.

Not to mention all the libraries that are members of the Library Publishing Coalition.

Sorry, Lisa, I was being shorthand for a perhaps unfair assumption that institutions will shift those budgets from library funds. When I think about public institutions like my own, that would make sense. I understand that you imagine a different scenario, and while I don’t find it either likely or an improvement, I respect your efforts.

It is a logical assumption, but it is incorrect. OA does not offer short-term savings for libraries. Libraries won’t stop purchasing the commercially published materials their students, faculty, and researchers need and the vast majority of that content will be commercial, copyrighted, and behind a paywall. Eventually, yes, OA has the potential to save libraries money, but that won’t happen for some time. In the meantime, those libraries that are funding APCs and other OA initiatives are doing it at the cost of other purchases. That’s why we are arguing that institutions themselves need to step up and support the entire scholarly output. We would welcome the opportunity to visit further about the issues.

Lisa, I’d love to talk with you further– I always learn a lot from the librarians’ perspective (as I think I suggested a little above) and am grateful to be in regular conversations with librarians. It’s been interesting to me, too, that librarians have had ideas about scholarly publishers (in my field anyway) that were so at odds with the reality of our work and our business model.

There are certainly challenges for HSS to make OA work, and it’s entirely appropriate to ask whether OA is right for disciplines that are already cheap to subscribe to and widely available. The APC model would be out of the question in many disciplines, but I wonder if something like the SCOAP3 approach would be possible As indicated in this post, some prominent journals are only relying on subscription fees for a small portion of publishing expenses. Interested foundations and other funders could team with libraries to make individual journals (or perhaps a set of key journals within a focused discipline) OA.

I encourage everyone to be very, very cautious about taking scholarly publishing out of a market context. Whatever the limitations of the market, its focus on actual demand imposes a discipline on the participants. Remove that discipline and costs rise and systems become increasingly inflexible. It’s better to think of scholarly communications from the bottom up rather than the top down.

The problem with demand in the current market is that for most monographs today it is reaching the vanishing point. What does the market tell us if a monograph sells just 250 copies? That it was not worth publishing? Then you’d have to say that about most monographs being published now. However, demand still exists for the regional books that many presses publish and for their mid-list trade books. So, if one to take those signals from the market to indicate that presses should only be publishing those types of books? What becomes of the academic monograph in that case? The time has long since passed when the market really provided much value in giving direction to what university presses, at least, should be publishing. (This is, of course, my personal opinion, and I do not speak for the AAUP or any individual press.)

Given the specialized nature of many monographs, 250 copies might be a large impact on the topic’s research community, so it might well be worthwhile subsidizing this diffusion. By the same token, at OSTI we published every Energy Department research report for free, at taxpayer expense, on the grounds that if the research was worth funding , the results were worth publishing.

But I think the case Joe is referring to is one where the entire scientific communication process is forced into a subsidized model. The potential downsides are very significant. Markets provide elements of freedom, choice and innovation that are generally missing from controlled production models. If the universities are going to pay for and control all publishing then they, not the community, are going to control what is published.

Not sure how what you say here applies to university presses, which are of course owned and run by universities, which thereby control what gets published, no?

Not to the extent that the press pays its own way, which puts the market in control. But we are talking about the case where nothing is sold, so the funder is in control.

I conjecture that the reason HSS seems to be being dragged along into OA by STEM/STM is because the big value arguments for OA lie in places like medicine and technology. When OA advocates talk about taxpayers getting what they paid for, or dealing with illness, or speeding up innovation and scientific progress, the examples are not drawn from HSS. And of course the big bucks are in STM, especially M(edicine). At the US Federal level fully half of the basic research budget, or $30 billion a year, goes to NIH. In other words, STM is the focus of the OA movement because that is where the purported benefits lie. (My apologies to the historians and economists who might disagree, but few people are clamoring for more of either.)

David, I think we were just discussing this on email! Forum switch. But yes, I agree that Open Access as a set of policies/ mandates from funders and institutions is largely about the money– where it is in research, publication, and potential application.

But if I were to hazard a typology of open access, I think there are at least two other types of open access in which a few folks in HSS are quite active– one of those has to do with seeking new forms of scholarly communication. I say let a thousand flowers bloom but please don’t acidify the soil for traditional (really don’t like that adjective, must think of another) scholarly forms.

I am all for access, in fact I do research on how to speed up the diffusion of knowledge. For example, all Federal agencies should publish the research reports they get under every grant (NSF and NIH do not). This should be a major OA cause but it is not because the movement is obsessed with journals. My concern is with potentially damaging mandates, plus over-regulation in general. Scholarly publishing does not need to be regulated. The funders are out of control.

Karin, thanks for a thoughtful contribution to what is sometimes a slogan-driven debate. I have two thoughts:

1. What I don’t see in your piece is how much revenue the WMQ receives from its partnership with JSTOR, and what percentage of the operating costs of your journal are covered by that revenue. I go in a discussion on one of my disciplinary mailing lists where some of us were easing our professional organization to pursue and open access journal. The leaders of the organization told us that we would have to disband without that JSTOR money. Yet when they finally posted an amount, it turned out to be $8k/year that we received from JSTOR, a tiny amount of the organization’s budget.

2. The other thing that gets lost in these discussions are the intellectual costs of remaining closed to the public. It is easy for a bunch of academics, with institutional subscriptions to JSTOR that do not come out of our paychecks, to look at the current system and conclude that everything is right and proper in the publishing universe. What percentage of humanity, however, has unfettered access to JSTOR? There is perennial conversation in academia bewailing the ways in which we have become disconnected with even those parts of the public who truly are interested in those things we study. The usual conclusion is that it is academic writing that is the problem–but this is wrong. It is the way that we publish, in overpriced small-run monographs and pay walled articles, that is the problem. I wrote (ranted?) about this here:

It is, I think, rather fatuous to believe that much of the material that appears in peer-reviewed journals has an audience among the general public. To write for the general public, you have to write differently. That is not what journals are for. They represent a highly efficient form of communication among a small group of specialists trained in a discipline. I am all for “popularization,” as it is sometimes called, but looking to journal content for that democratization will miss the target.

Joe’s point is an important one. As we think about access, we must also think about the purpose of the journal article. Is the journal meant to be broadly spread information about a discovery/argument or is it meant to be a high level communication between experts? If the latter, are there other ways that researchers (and their funders) could better make discovery broadly available in a more effective manner? Many funding agencies ask their funded researchers to write reports on the entire funded project (not just the specific experiments published in an individual paper) but very few seem to enforce this requirement or make those reports broadly available.

Indeed, in almost all cases a journal article is packed with technical concepts that only a few experts can understand. If the goal is broader dissemination of scientific information thn the journal is the wrong place to look. NSF recently instituted a brief (750 words or so) research summary report for every funded project, available but hard to find on Kudos’ plain language and impact summaries are a great step in the right direction, something funders should require if they want public diffusion, see I think the OA obsession with journal articles is simply a mistake.

This post focused on the William & Mary Quarterly. I would be very surprised if there is ANY article published there that you, as a lay person, could not read and understand. True, there mau be debates going on with which you are not familiar, so you would lack all the context that experts would bring to the reading. But I am sure the WMQ is vastly different from your standard STM journal in terms of general accessibility. And that would be true for most journals in the humanities and even many in the social sciences.

Last I looked the social sciences were just as technical as the physical sciences, more so in a way because of the lack of precise physical definitions. As for the humanities, history is an interesting case, one I have studied. I think it is a social science but some historians disagree. I see trying to explain why things happened as they did as an intensely technical enterprise. We even have a science of that science, historiography. In any case history is very technical. If you want to pick an article out of WMQ we can look at it in terms of what it takes to understand it. This should be fun.

But then, perhaps we just have different concepts of understanding (which is my field). I do not consider simply understanding the words to be understanding the document. In my view if you do not understand the point of the article, in the context of the discipline, then you do not understand the article. Most articles in history journals are not simply presenting historical facts. They are trying to explain what happened, which is social science. Many of the seemingly ordinary words are theory laden.

English lit is probably even more technical, as is philosophy.

The social sciences CAN be as technical as the physical sciences, and there is a wide spectrum of articles in the social science I know best (having read thousands of articles and books over my 45+-year career as a social science editor), political science, with American Politics being the most technical (heavily deploying mathematics), International Relations the second most, Comparative Politics at times technical, and Political Theory the least (almost never using mathematics). And there is a wide spectrum in the other social sciences, with economics the most technical of all and anthropology probably the least. Are you going to tell me that an article published by, say, Margaret Mead in a journal would not be of interest outside anthropology or that people would not be capable of understanding it unless they were experts? I can point you to any number of articles published originally in specialized journals that have received wide attention and readership outside. For an example of one political science journal that practically any reasonably educated reader could understand without special training, take a look at Sage’s Political Theory, the main journal in the field. Or, in history, take a look at Pennsylvania History, which we published at Penn State Press, and tell me how many articles you think would be beyond the grasp of any reasonably educated person living in that state.

Really. Sandy? “Most journals in the humanities”: I must say you are much smarter than I. Of the hundreds of journals of journals I have had to work on professionally, I don’t think I could understand anything outside of publications on publishing and library science. I would say your comment is correct for “a few journals in the humanities.” But even if it were true for ALL journals in the humanities, it does not support the notion that there is a huge audience for ALL journals in all fields. Open access has a marginal benefit. Nothing wrong with working on the margin, but let’s call it what it is.

Ok, Joe, then explain to me how you managed to read all those articles when you were an undergraduate that were assigned to you by your professors and that had been published in professional journals? The sheer volume of coursepack permissions granted by the CCC is proof that many articles are being assigned all the time to undergraduates from scholarly journals. Is that a mass audience? Well, maybe not if by “mass” you want to include everyone watching TV. But there are millions of undergraduates attending college every year, and they all are assigned articles from journals from time to time. Why should they all of a sudden become dumb after they graduate and not be able to continue reading articles? And explain to me why there has been such a push among the alumni of some universities to have their alma maters provide free access to them to the journals in JSTOR, Project Muse, etc.? Surely, there wouldn’t be such demand if these alums couyld not even understand the content of these journals. So I thin you are just way too pessimistic about the intellectual capabilities of the many hundreds of thousands of college alumni out there.

We use a variety of ways to evaluate what’s being assigned from the WMQ. For undergraduates it’s a fairly small range of articles, many of them classics that also appear in digest form in readers (The _Major Problems_ series, for example).

Sandy, undergraduates are experts, especially juniors and seniors, as are graduates. I got a BS in civil engineering and became a registered professional engineer, a state certified expert. You seem to have missed the point of the argument. Only experts can read most journal articles. It is a statistical claim.

Ok, then, if you accept undergraduate majors as “experts,” we are indeed talking about hundreds of thousands of potential readers, are we not? And is an audience that size really “tiny”? If so, in comparison to what?

Hundreds of thousands, most of whom already have access, are tiny compared to billions. I would love to see some actual estimates behind the calls for forcibly eliminating the subscription journal industry.

And, by the way, how many copies did Thomas Piketty’s book on inequality sell for Harvard U.P.? Do you think its content is any less technical than what routinely appears in scholarly journals? I can rattle off any number of titles like this that emerged out of hard-core scholarly research and yet ended up having a mass audience. Heck, even quantitative economics, in Engerman and Genovese’s Time on the Cross, reached a huge audience. I’m not saying that everyone understood everything in such books, but they sure made their publishers happy.

My last comment on this thread. Anyone who does not view Piketty as an anomaly is not paying attention. As for all those articles I was assigned as an undergrad, I read them under the tutelage of an instructor in the context of a curriculum. I am not aware of a single person on the planet who does not believe that there is a readership for scholarly materials outside the academy. The question is the size of that readership. It’s small. The notion that one would entirely change a way of doing business that works for almost all readers in order to serve a tiny readership is simply poor judgment.

Well, as I said, I could give you a long list to show that Piketty is not as much as an anomaly as you seem to think. University presses have more best sellers than maybe you are inclined to admit, and their sales indicate that they are hardly limited to academe. Think of the half million people who bought (and probably read) Harry Frankfurt’s little book “On Bullshit,” which was actually a slight revision of an essay published in a scholarly journal. Sure, I’m not talking about the same audience as for “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but the audience for such books is surely comparable to the audience for The Atlantic or the New York Review of Books, whose articles are mostly written by scholars. So I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about how “tiny” an audience this is, at least for the humanities and history. It is not “tiny” in comparison to the size of the “serious” reading public.

Per David C. above, a journal article if of course meant to be a communication among experts. Per Sandy, sure, many people could read a WMQ article and take something from it (though I doubt the significance would be apparent), but its purpose is not a public readership. We have created spaces for sharing pieces we think will have a wider readership, but again that’s not our purpose.

Agreed about the potential uses of research reports versus the journal article. In the humanities, as David noted above, the “accepted version” of an article is problematic for posting for two core reasons–it already includes a major labor and time investment on the part of the journal, and it is still far from the published version, meaning that citation is impossible. It can’t take the place of the publication, in other words. So what’s the point? For many universities in the UK and EU, it demonstrates to the management that a publication has happened. And it allows for dissemination of the research. But a better circulation of brief research reports could do both of those things, and fulfill a funder’s requirement to boot. Add to this that if it falls to the funders to maintain and make available those research reports and you’ve relieved libraries and university administrations.

Larry, thanks for reading and responding to my post. I think you raise far more than two points! But I’ll try to respond to the way you’ve framed them.

1. Journals are financed very individually. A chief difference is whether they’re published via a university press or another way to cost share. We’re not– we pay for everything directly. That also means we both pay JSTOR (for posting, and for some discovery and other services) and get revenue from JSTOR. With a staff of three full-time and two part-time as well as the grad students and all the costs from paper and ink to typesetting, that revenue accounts for, in a good year, about 30% of the costs of the journal. So it’s not an amount we could easily replace–if at all.

2. “Remaining closed to the public.” Your definition of access is one that relies on a computer and an internet connection. So we must admit to barriers of all sorts. My point was that the extraordinarily low cost of our subscriptions (which per institution, as I carefully note in the post, is so low that, as we like to say, we put the non in non-profit) makes us as accessible as we can be and still produce the journal at this level. And we participate in Register and Read, which offers up to 78 articles a year for free. And we participate in other ways to make the journal available to developing countries and for other circumstances.

If I may add a third point, however, you characterize academic publishing in general as out of reach. A journal that costs thousands a year is out of the reach of most anyone, and often many libraries, whereas students can buy ours for $35/ year. You have to recognize that journals that do what they do on an extreme non-profit basis are profoundly different than those that create profits for a corporation built on the notion that libraries must have what they are selling.

Just as significantly, putting “over-priced small-run monographs and pay walled articles” in the same category (and clause!) conflates the critical difference in economy between the two for the humanities. I’ll be writing about monographs at some point in the next months.

Reaching an audience beyond academe may not have been a goal of WMQ, Karin, but it was a goal of a journal i helped launch at Princeton University Press in 1971, Philosophy and Public Affairs, which got started because a group of philosophers had become concerned that philosophers were too isolated in their “ivory towers” and not contributing enough to the debate over such issues as the Vietnam War, social justice, abortion, etc. I kept close watch on the subscriber list early on and saw that it included a significant number of people with nonacademic affiliations, such as lawyers, including a Supreme Court justice in South Africa. Anthologies taken from the journal, such as ones on War and Moral Theory, Abortion, etc.,, were highly successful as classroom adoptions, selling tens of thousands of copies, so clearly undergraduates in many colleges were being asked to read these articles. It does not take much more intelligence to read and understand an article in PAPA than it does, say, reading an article in The Economist or The Atlantic of The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books. I think all of you commenters vastly underestimate the intellectual capabilities of college alumni in thinking that few of them would be able to read articles in scholarly journals. It’s just not so.

Whoa, Sandy, I certainly wasn’t questioning the intelligence of a general readership (and I didn’t hear Joe doing so either). I was pointing out in both of my comments on this subject (for the general reader and for undergraduates) that what’s required is a deeper level of knowledge to appreciate the significance of the scholarship. I’ve known any number of non-academics who have become immersed in my field of early American history and, after years of attending conferences and reading the latest scholarship, become quite conversant. But that’s very different from picking up a journal article and reading it the way you would a piece in the Atlantic or the Economist, which are targeted to a non-specialist readership.

I’m about to write a post about our experiments with Open WMQ, a way to move essays we think might have a wider readership, to that audience. I hope you’ll be interested in that discussion, too.

The main difference between writing in The Atlantic and writing in WMQ, or other scholarly journals, is likely not the level of intellectual sophistication involved but rather the use of jargon in the latter. I’ll grant that not every reader is going to be able to get the full significance of every article without knowing the context of the debate to which it contributes, but often even authors of scholarly articles are urged to summarize that context as a way of aiding even expert readers to understand how it fits into the line of scholarly debate to which it purports to contribute. And such a summary should help even a “nonexpert” reader be better able to appreciate the full significance. But let’s say the “nonexpert” reader only grasps 50% of the full significance. Isn’t that enough to justify an argument for making such scholarly literature OA? Joe seems to think that the potential audience is so vanishingly small as to make OA a peripheral matter. I disagree, at least for non-STEM fields. Heck, I’m not a lawyer, but from time to time I read articles in law reviews. Fortunately, now most of them are published OA, which expands their accessibility to me and many others who might be interested in particular areas of the law.

Jargon is actually the point; it exists because people are talking about something no one else is talking about. But as I have said, this is a numbers game. Let’s see some numbers. Or are you claiming that all journals should be OA so you can read them from time to time?

JSTOR offers access to alumni for a small extra fee; a number of universities, like Princeton and Yale, now provide this service to their alumni. Project Muse allows for access by alumni as a part of its standard license.

Thanks, Karin for your gracious reply.

I think that many commentators in this thread are gravely mistaken if they assume that no one outside of academia is interested in reading the (wonderfully!) dense prose of the WMQ and similar journals. I have participated in enough threads on places like Reddit and Metafilter (and genealogy boards) to know that there are many thousands willing to dig through even my prose if the topic is of interest. In 2012 JSTOR, for example, was turning away 150 million individual attempts to read its articles per year. Who are all these people?

I appreciate the very low subscription cost and unique funding model of the WMQ–but it rather misses the point. I do not think there are a lot of people who wish they had a subscription and do not. I think there are a whole lot of people who want to read one specific article about a topic and who cannot do so. They want to read a piece from 1992 that includes information about the hometown of their great-great grandmother, they just saw 12 Years a Slave and have some very specific question about the material culture of plantation, they came across and old wagon road on a weekend hike and are curious about early modes of transportation. They are not currently enrolled college students or faculty, are not graduates of one of the handful of universities that offer JSTOR for alumni, and have no practical access to any content in academic journals.

Of course, I don’t have a funding model for OA either! So we continue as we have been. The costs of the current system, though, are huge.

I concur entirely with Larry on this point. Many, many people will have an interest in one or another article published in WMQ and in most humanities journals except, perhaps, the very most technical (a journal in the philosophy of mathematics, say).

I think the idea is that most journal articles can only be understood by experts, not just academics. Academics are just a subset of the experts, which also include people not even in the profession. But the fraction of experts on any given topic to the general population is very small.

But isn’t that far too black-and-white a distinction? Yes, maybe only an “expert” can fully appreciate the significance of an article in its complete scholarly context, but surely there is a spectrum here whereby, especially for most humanities journals that are not written in mathematical language and can be “understood” to some degree by anyone who speaks English (or whatever language the article is written in). Otherwise, why would it make any sense for college professors to assign undergraduates to read articles from scholarly journals? They are not “experts” the way their professors are, but they can grasp what they need to understand in relation to the course material they are being asked to read, with the context supplied by their teachers.

Comments are closed.