Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Karin Wulf and Simon Newman, Sir Denis Brogan Professor of American History at the University of Glasgow; Vice President of the Royal Historical Society (RHS) for Publications; co-editor of the RHS’s New Historical Perspectives Open Access monograph series.
One of the most important lessons of the debates and policy shifts around Open Access (OA) has been the hard-won recognition that no one size fits all. In particular, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and HSS (Humanities and Social Sciences) not only have very different requirements and practices, but individual disciplines and fields within disciplines have distinctive research and publication needs. An obvious case was made by art historians who noted that rigid OA requirements would be disastrous for their publication of images that often require specific permissions and licensing. In the arts and humanities we do not own much of the data utilized in our articles, and we can’t license OA to our publications without the consent of multiple rights-owners. The point is valid for any number of scholarly fields in favor of different paths to openness and accessibility.
Yet it seems we are yet again headed down the road of a scheme to compel monolithic OA. One of the most challenging effects of OA is the burden on librarians to reconcile the multitude of Green OA policies among institutions, funders and publishers. This burden is real and can be measured in terms of increased demands for increasingly limited resources, including staff time. An ambitious answer to resolving that problem, the UK Scholarly Communications License (SCL), will simply shift burdens, and may not in the end ease those of librarians or increase OA publication. Most importantly, from our vantage, it will make scholarly publication more difficult, and in some cases will make it impossible for UK authors to publish in top journals while abiding by the terms of the SCL. Though it promises a single, simple solution, it will result in adding yet one more complex layer of bureaucracy and oversight. And it seems to be on a fast track through much of UK higher education.
The SCL offers a seemingly simple solution. It takes aim at copyright as a means to increase OA publication. The notion is that research organizations — funders, but very often universities — will assert a “non-exclusive license” to the work of their grantees or employees. Rather than the author’s, or more commonly the publisher’s, copyright holding supreme in the rights to use and distribution of their work, this non-exclusive license would allow the institution to control distribution and reuse. Green OA embargoes under different allowances would be harmonized under a single license style (CC-BY-NC). Deposit of various work versions in institutional repositories would therefore be eased, and derivative use unproblematic. The assertion is that publishers, if they are alerted ahead to the mere existence of the SCL, will have no standing to make claims to use or distribution because these will be superseded by the SCL.
There are any number of issues to be addressed in the premises of the UK Scholarly Communications License, among them the longstanding and keen interest of higher education in acquiring intellectual property rights to the work of their researchers. But we want to focus here on some of the implications for our discipline, history, as illustrative. History research is published in journals, but it is very much a book discipline. The publishing systems for each are themselves distinctive. History journals are mostly published by non-profit organizations, often university presses, and require intensive editorial work. Because the formulation of text in argument is the primary research output, derivative use is not as applicable or desirable as it might be for other fields. That is, we produce essays with interpretive arguments, not data or experimental findings. Additionally, institutional publication of scholarly articles raises all kinds of issues related to intellectual property and third-party rights. Scholars across the arts and humanities regularly cite or use in their articles third-party sources (including privately and institutionally owned manuscripts and printed works, poetry, literature music, art etc.). It is extremely unlikely that the rights holders of such materials will abandon their third-party rights and allow libraries to publish their materials. The result will be an administrative burden for libraries and academics, and create potential legal problems too. Historical organizations have devised a variety of ways to increase the reach of these outputs. And for these reasons and more, historians have strongly advocated for flexible approaches to Open Access. Many convenings have resulted in the development of Green OA to recognize the diversity of needs and practices of disciplines and fields, primarily but not only in HSS.
The SCL rests significant weight on a license model used at Harvard University, asserting its success at Harvard and its adoption by many American universities. The Harvard model is actually several entirely voluntary license forms with different application, which in turn have been embraced with varying degrees of enthusiasm across that institution. There is no evidence that the so-called Harvard model is widespread or that it may become so. A close look at the Harvard model at Harvard suggests just why it proves a problematic template for something as ambitiously uniform as the SCL.
At Harvard waivers are automatically granted upon request or direction of the author, and Harvard’s supporting documentation indicates that the university will respect delays/embargoes on the direction of authors. By contrast the SCL provides no guarantee that UK institutions will grant author requests for waivers, or that these institutions will respect journal embargo periods. The SCL authorizes simultaneous institutional publication of peer-reviewed papers, thus failing to acknowledge the value added by journals and their editorial processes in orchestrating peer review and quality assurance: embargoes recognize this value and allow journals to benefit from this work. In short, the SCL does not come close to emulating Harvard’s system. The UK Publishers Association has recently published their concerns about the SCL as it pertains to STEM and HSS, and have offered a chart comparing the Harvard model(s) and the SCL.
Many arts and humanities journals are published by small professional organizations and learned or professional societies, often by university presses. These are small operations, which provide high quality, peer reviewed publications at relatively low cost to institutional and individual subscribers. In field of early modern American and Atlantic World history institutions can receive The William and Mary Quarterly for $175, The Journal of the Early Republic for $120, and Early American Studies for $91. Subscriptions and revenue from JSTOR and MUSE are essential in the funding of their editorial work and peer review processes. The editors of all three of these early American/Atlantic World journals have indicated not only that only would they not publish any articles by UK authors that had been licensed to institutions under the SCL, but they would in fact refuse to consider (and send out for peer review) manuscripts by UK authors unless a waiver (and 12 to 24 month embargo) is furnished at the point of submission. Prof. Cathy Kelly (editor of The Journal of the Early Republic) “would be loath to publish work” under the terms of the SCL, while Roderick McDonald (editor of Early American Studies) confirmed “that my journal will not publish articles whose authors have pre-published their work with a Creative Commons License in their institutional repositories.” James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association (publisher of the American Historical Review) expressed concern about authors’ control over derivative publications, such as translations, and the implication that an unedited version of an article is acceptable for digital “prepublication.” “The AHA believes strongly in openness and broad access to scholarship, and works in a range of ways to promote these values,” he explained, “but I cannot imagine the AHR accepting the requirements apparently articulated in the SCL”
The SCL and similar systems are designed with the very best intentions, to make scholarship freely available to all. But any system that undermines the small arts and humanities journals that enhance the quality of research through their editorial, peer review and quality assurance processes, or which makes such journals inaccessible to academics operating under such institutional licensing systems is manifestly counter-productive.
The editors of UK-based historical journals such as the English Historical Review and Slavery and Abolition have expressed similar positions. Gad Heuman (editor of Slavery and Abolition) confirms that his journal would not “consider articles for publication which operated under the UK SCL scheme.” What all of these journal editors share is a strong sense that the SCL ignores what the editors of the English Historical Review term their role “as custodians of a journal which we think acts as a guarantor of scholarly quality.” Direct publication via institutional repositories, they continue, is “entirely neglectful of the major role that historians themselves play in ensuring the quality of the material published in major scholarly journals.” The SCL fails to recognize that journals add significant value to articles: in the arts and humanities (and beyond) articles are not ‘data dumps’, and often require extensive peer review and editorial support and critique in order to enable authors to publish high quality research, and any OA model for journals must accommodate and indeed sustain this. The SCL does not. It works on the assumption that publishers would ask authors to seek waivers only in a small number of cases but the reverse is the case, and the Publishers Association (in a letter to university Vice Chancellors) estimate that UK universities would need to process waivers for 100,000 articles each year, creating a massive administrative burden for authors, their institutions and libraries with no clear benefit.
The SCL and similar systems are designed with the very best intentions, to make scholarship freely available to all. But any system that undermines the small arts and humanities journals that enhance the quality of research through their editorial, peer review and quality assurance processes, or which makes such journals inaccessible to academics operating under such institutional licensing systems is manifestly counter-productive. If the SCL is introduced in many British universities, it will work only if waivers are granted without condition, and arts and humanities academics will find that in order to publish in the best journals they will almost always require such waivers. CC-BY-NC-ND licenses will be essential to protect academic research from inappropriate reuse, as is the case with the Harvard license and terms-of-usage. With these qualifications the SCL becomes all but unworkable.
Open Access remains the shared goal of academics, libraries, universities and government. In order to develop workable models it will be necessary to start from scratch, with an international consultative and creative process including all stake-holders. The SCL has been developed by librarians with little or no consultation with academics, journal editors, publishers or even the Universities UK Open Access Coordination Group (UUK OACG), with the result that it make sense to certain stake-holders while appearing inappropriate, unworkable and undesirable to others. Prof. Adam Tickell (Chair of UUK OACG, and Vice Chancellor of the University of Sussex) has written to British university vice chancellors outlining the pros and cons of the SCL and warning that “This initiative represents the most significant threat to the post-Finch settlement that we have witnessed”. Noting that several groups including UUK OACG are due to publish major reports on OA in late 2017 and 2018, Prof. Tickell advises that it may well be in the best interests of British universities “to defer any decisions until this evidence gathering and policy review is completed.”
We echo Prof. Tickell’s caution, and seek ways of bringing together librarians, research directors, academics, journal editors and publishers to discuss both the SCL and Open Access more broadly. With that objective we are planning a video-conferenced workshop this Fall, using history as a case-study, with stakeholders from both sides of the Atlantic. We will write more about the results of this convening, and in the meantime urge all parties to slow track the SCL, taking time to consider the variable impact and the potential for unintended complexities and burdens.