For years, humanists have been pointing to the multi-dimensional importance of openness and accessibility of scholarship, and the multi-dimensional costs of rigid open access (OA) policies. In late October, the Royal Historical Historical Society (RHS) released a “guidance paper” on “Plan S and the History Journal Landscape.” Authored by RHS president Margot Finn, a distinguished professor at University College London (UCL) and a prolific scholar, this follows the RHS’s April 2019 working paper on Plan S and researchers in history of medicine, and June 2019 paper, responding to Plan S, as well as the society’s long-standing engagement with OA policies, and guidance to researchers, particularly in regards to OA policies vis à vis the Research Excellence Framework (REF). It is relevant that the RHS has supported OA initiatives, including their monograph series, “New Historical Perspectives.”
The new report brings together important evidence about the state of journals that UK historians are publishing in terms of Plan S compliance, and a survey of journal editors. From public data on publications and publishing (including from the 2014 REF), as well as a survey of more than 100 journal editors from 26 UK and international presses, the report concludes that “unless major shifts occur…in the next few months, it is unlikely that either UKRI or Wellcome Trust-funded History researchers will be able to identify sufficient high-quality journal outlets that comply with full-scale implementation of Plan S.” The report offers perspectives in discreet chapters on “Plan S: What Do We Know?” and “Plan S: What Don’t We Know?” An overview of “Research and Journal Publication in History” is followed by an overview of “Open Access History Journals, DOAJ and Plan S” and then coverage of the RHS survey results, and potential routes to Plan S compliance.
In “Conclusions and Recommendations” the report “steps outside cOAlition S’s approach to OA, by asking who and what open access is for. And, vitally, the report offers specific guidance to Early Career Researchers (ECRs), all Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) researchers, learned society publishers, journal editors, research organizations, and funders.
In a world in which resources–of funding, personnel, material goods, and energy–were infinite, full and immediate open access to all research publications produced by all researchers globally might–if it were accompanied by fully comprehensible discovery services–represent an absolute good. As the climate emergency however forcefully reminds us, we live in a world of limited resources. On planet earth, it might be wise for stakeholders to understand OA publications as one desirable (and necessary) commodity within a much wider basket of desirable (and necessary) scholarly goods. –p. 65
I asked Margot Finn to share some of her thoughts about the preparation of this most recent report, including the survey on which it is based, the longer term work of the RHS in responding to OA policies, and the potential for OA in historical research and publication.
This report represents an enormous amount of work for a scholarly society with a small staff. Could you explain why and how the RHS undertakes this and other reports on matters of urgency to the historical profession?
The ‘Why?’ question is easier to answer than the ‘How?’ question. The RHS’s evolution from a learned society that focused on historical scholarship to an organization that combines scholarly with policy pursuits accelerated sharply under my immediate predecessor, Peter Mandler. Three of the main drivers for this expansion were political devolution within the UK, History’s changing place within the UK funding landscape and the increasing marketization of the university sector. Devolution has meant that English, Northern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh higher education (HE) policies have diverged in some (but not all) key respects; we thus needed to become more policy-conscious in order to continue to work for UK members as a whole. The establishment of the Research Assessment Exercise (now transmogrified into Research Excellence Framework, or REF) and the establishment of the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) put History/Humanities at the same funding table as other UK ‘sciences’, albeit arguably seated at the children’s end distant from the ‘adults’ of the STEM disciplines. In this environment too, we needed to become more policy-savvy. Marketization of the HE sector — encouraged by all the English political parties in particular for more than a decade — has highlighted the need for us to understand government policy better, so that historians can find effective ways to continue to collaborate rather than fall prey to an often dominant rhetoric of inter-institutional competition.
How do we undertake the work? We have 2.1 permanent staff members, one of whom (0.5 FTE) is a research & communications officer. This gives us vital additional capacity and expertise for policy work, compared to the smaller History societies, and has been fundamental to our ability to produce several major reports on equality issues and also open access. All the rest of our labor for policy-work is voluntary: officers of the Society and seconded working group volunteers — almost all of whom also have full-time university posts — self-exploit themselves on behalf of the wider good of the discipline. They are brilliant, we owe them and we know it.
The report concludes that very few history journals will, or even can, be Plan S compliant. What are the implications of that conclusion?
With respect to the UK, I don’t think that a full-on Plan S variety of OA can or will be implemented by UKRI, not least because the technical requirements are so stringent as to be unworkable. So the answer to this question will depend on which bits of Plan S go into the consultation pot in 2020, and which bits of research (all journal articles funded by either a UK research council or the Wellcome Trust, for example, or all this research plus all research entered in future REF exercises) come out of the consultation pot as falling under this mandate. The fact that most excellent History journals are international rather than national enterprises adds further complications: from our report, we know that many US journals, although sympathetic to UK historians’ needs, won’t be changing their policies to accommodate 10% of their article authors. And who can blame them?
But the bottom line, to my mind, is not about whether History journals can be made Plan S ‘compliant’ or Plan S ‘aligned’ (apparently UKRI’s preferred term at the moment). Instead the question is whether — if these journals become ‘compliant’ or ‘aligned’ — they will still be financially sustainable over the medium- to long-term? Will they be able to maintain or enhance current levels of scholarly excellence through peer review and editing? Will the societies that own them be financially viable or forced either to close or to shift their activities away from publishing? RHS is highly unusual in taking less than 20% of our income from journal subscriptions; for most of the History societies, that figure is instead in the range of 85-95%.
At most 20% of research in UK Humanities is funded by the types of external grants that cover article processing charges (APCs) and book processing charges (BPCs). That is a sharp contrast to many STEM subjects, where OA costs can be carried by an external funder, rather than in individual researcher. (Of course, that cost-carrying is not in itself unproblematic).
You also note that historians support the basic idea of making more scholarship openly accessible to read without a fee, and have been developing open access publication programs. Could you address the seeming disconnect between historians’ engagement with open access and the challenges that policies such as Plan S pose?
Most of us know from experience that having free access to the version of record (VoR) of publications makes conducting research easier and better for all of us, and learned societies — which tend to focus their spend on early career researchers (ECRs) — are also acutely conscious that ECRs live precarious, mobile lives and typically do not have continuous access to research libraries. We also know that access to scholarship is disproportionately concentrated in the Global North compared to the Global South and that this impoverishes not only research but teaching and staffing in the Humanities. OA is understandably immensely appealing in these contexts, and there is rightly both interest in and experimentation with OA publishing in History.
The three main impediments in the UK are cost, disciplinary structure and publishing infrastructure. At most 20% of research in UK Humanities is funded by the types of external grants that cover article processing charges (APCs) and book processing charges (BPCs). That is a sharp contrast to many STEM subjects, where OA costs can be carried by an external funder, rather than an individual researcher. (Of course, that cost-carrying is not in itself unproblematic). The fact that many historians who publish in journals are employed outside the university sector (for example, in archives, cultural organizations and museums) or are not employed at all, is not unique to our discipline, but such ‘citizen science’ does not fit very comfortably in current OA funding models. Nor is there a robust OA publishing infrastructure that can deliver the required volume of publication at an affordable cost.
For the last decade you, the RHS staff, and your predecessor, Peter Mandler, have devoted considerable time to addressing Open Access policies and their potential impact in the UK. What do you think the key benefits and detriments of these policies have been?
Where OA policies have paid for ‘Gold’ publication of the VoR, there is an obvious benefit in terms of wider dissemination to broader publics and greater access for students and researchers to the most recent research. I know that first hand from having published an OA volume of essays in February, 2018. It has now been downloaded over 42,000 times, and the repository data suggest that India and Pakistan are among the top 4 downloading nations — not at all what I would except for a traditional edited volume. Anecdotally, I know this volume of essays was in use in undergraduate and MA classrooms (not just in the UK but in Bangladesh) within a few months of publication. We want the RHS’s new OA book series, New Historical Perspectives to have that kind of international reach too.
I am substantially more skeptical about the utility of global dissemination of the author accepted manuscript (AAM) via university repositories: these version are more prone to error (not having been copy-edited, proofed and corrected), are a nightmare for authors with disabilities such as dyslexia and lack stable pagination (vital for scholarly referencing in History). We also need to learn much more about what use is made by which audiences of OA scholarly publications, rather than simply assuming that downloads are equivalent to either utility or impact. If we asked more intelligent questions about who and what OA is for — and, frankly, it would be difficult not to ask more intelligent questions about this than we do now — we might make much smarter decisions about where to invest our financial resources, our time and our technologies.
Historians can’t help but look for causes and patterns. Do you see Open Access policies intersecting from or arising from other phenomena either in the UK specifically or more broadly?
There are multiple drivers, not all compatible with each other. Politicians who align with the thinking of David Willets (Minister of State for Universities, 2010-14) argue that OA is an inherent good and is essential for UK innovation, and thus for commercial profit and GDP. (This line of analysis, inexplicably, ignores the fact that UK publishing is both a successful business and a source of innovation). There are also arguments that research funded by the public should be fully accessible to the public. This makes sense up to a point, but its logic would obviously lead one down the appalling path of geo-blocking, given that OA really means that we make (say) research funded by UK taxpayers available to the great bulk of the world’s population who pay no UK tax.
It also ignores the fact that a lot of Humanities research and publication is paid for by charities (not public funding) and/or researchers’ work outside contracted hours of labor. The claim that funders are being bilked by presses, by publishers’ ‘double-dipping’, and that journal subscription costs are extortionate deserves to be tested against the price of Humanities journals and OA content — what actually is the cost in Humanities subjects compared to STEM? Another untested assumption is that by putting all peer-reviewed research in the form of journal articles, monographs, etc. into the public domain for all readers who have broadband that we are inevitably improving the world. Are we? What if some research findings can be delivered more effectively, more rapidly, and/or more cheaply with less environmental degradation via other formats (apps, blogs, mobile phone messages, twitter, etc.)? The purpose and format of the scholarly journal article and the monograph have evolved with very different audiences and intentions in mind than the global broadband-enabled public. And of course the models of OA publishing that have been developed outside the Plan S framework — in Spain and in Latin America, for example–deserve to be explored as possible alternatives or supplements to the proposals on the table. I’d be keen to test the unspoken assumptions that undergird OA mandates before implementing policies framed by them. That would seem to be in the spirit of — not inimical to — how we all do good ‘science’.
Are you generally sanguine about the future of UK historical scholarship?
Yes and no. We have some amazing opportunities to collaborate, with both institutional and external funding, across the piece — with archivists, cultural organizations, curators, government bodies, policy units, local and family historians, and the general public, for example. Digitization of primary materials — manuscripts, print and material objects — is fundamentally transforming the questions we can ask and the answers we can construct from our evidence. Intellectually, it’s a wonderful time to be a historian. The fact that staff at 60 UK universities are due to strike within the next fortnight on pay, conditions and pensions, however, is a forceful reminder of structural concerns.
For ECRs, the prospect of stable postdoctoral employment is arguably as grim as I’ve ever seen it — notwithstanding the fact that in the UK, the number of university students studying History has risen 2% in the past decade. And though I think the potential for OA developments to enhance History is very substantial, I can’t say that the way the policy debate has been developed fills me with confidence. The implicit reliance on STEM models (which may not be fully fit-for-purpose for STEM subjects either) suggests that we will be consigned to a square peg in the round hole of government policy. That’s unlikely to be a productive fit.
The fundamental failure of either UKRI or the Wellcome Trust to ask the basic question–might there possibly be any EDI implications if we fundamentally disrupt existing scholarly communication systems through Plan S ‘compliant’ or ‘aligned’ policies?–is deeply concerning.
What question should I have asked, but haven’t?
The (white) elephant in the room is equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). The normative ‘scientist’ in UK OA policy debates appears to be an implicitly male, white STEM scientist in a secure university post with equal access to external research funding. UK History is — very lamentably — the 5th least diverse university subject in terms of race and ethnicity. But even we are far more diverse as a discipline than the assumed researcher of policy-makers’ imagination. The fundamental failure of either UKRI or the Wellcome Trust to ask the basic question — might there possibly be any EDI implications if we fundamentally disrupt existing scholarly communication systems through Plan S ‘compliant’ or ‘aligned’ policies? — is deeply concerning. It appears to run counter to their own professed commitment to EDI. If Plan S is, for example, race, sex, gender, and disability neutral in its impact — or, indeed, advantageous for groups such as these, which are protected under the UK’’s Equality Act 2010 — it would be good to know how. We know from dismal volumes of readily available data that academic disciplines, funders, and research organizations all need to raise our game significantly with respect to EDI. The OA policy debate is such a missed opportunity to model EDI, if not from the ground up, then at least from a relatively early stage of policy-making. Funders’ resounding silence on this issue needs to be identified as a serious impediment to achieving OA that is, in fact, actually ‘open’.