AHA Statement on Scholarly Journal Publishing

The American Historical Association voices concerns about recent developments in the debates over “open access” to research published in scholarly journals. The conversation has been framed by the particular characteristics and economics of science publishing, a landscape considerably different from the terrain of scholarship in the humanities. The governing Council of the AHA has unanimously approved the following statement. We welcome further discussion in the comment section below.

AHA Statement on Scholarly Journal Publishing
(4 September 2012)

Many members of the international scholarly and scientific community are justifiably concerned by a growing inequality of access to the fruits of their labors. The subscription prices for many journals, especially scientific journals, have escalated to the point where almost no individuals and fewer and fewer institutions can afford to subscribe. Prosperous universities and institutes maintain their subscriptions and their members thereby enjoy free access to the content of thousands of journals. Other, less fortunate, scholars have free access to declining numbers of journals, thereby impoverishing the research and pedagogical capabilities of their communities.

In today’s digital world, many people inside and outside of academia maintain that information, including scholarly research, wants to be, and should be, free. Where people subsidized by taxpayers have created that information, the logic of free information is difficult to resist.

The AHA, like other scholarly societies, has been wrestling with this complex discourse for some time. The issues have provided a focus of conversations in our governing Council; and staff have participated in relevant conference panels. Recently, however, decisions made at individual institutions regarding faculty publication, debates over federal legislation, and the influential “Finch report” in the United Kingdom have drawn broader attention the issue of open access to scholarly journals.

The Finch Report is particularly significant because it is likely to influence public policy. Relying implicitly on evidence and practices largely drawn from the sciences, the Report builds a case for open-access journals, free to everyone with internet access. It recognizes, however, that information is not free (indeed never has been); financial resources are required to produce high quality academic journals – even of the digital variety. Accordingly, the Report recommends a transition in the financing of journals away from subscription revenues to a system in which authors pay journals when their work is published and all content is offered free to readers. In the Finch Report, this is called an author payment charge, or APC.

The concerns motivating these recommendations are valid, but the proposed solution raises serious questions for scholarly publishing, especially in the humanities and social sciences.

(a) Would the unfairness of unequal access be replaced by a different unfairness, one of opportunity to publish based on the availability of funds? Rich universities (and rich authors) can with equanimity pay a charge to have work published. So can those funded by research grants with provisions for publication subventions built in. But others, especially junior scholars and those with only tenuous institutional arrangements, cannot pay. This different unfairness would be at least as pernicious as the current one. It would particularly diminish publication opportunities in fields where grants tend to be small and not central to the way research is done. For a foundation considering a million dollar physics grant, the inclusion of an additional $6,000 to publish the three articles that the proposers hope will result is completely trivial; for a historian who already funds his/her own summer trips to archives, that same $6,000 could represent a substantial share of the year’s salary.

(b) While libraries (and individuals) would be able to maintain journal subscriptions, would universities and research institutes find themselves robbing Peter to pay Paul? Would the money saved from library budgets instead be used to subsidize publication for scholars?

(c) Would the finances of the most comprehensive “flagship” journals be imperiled? While they accept roughly the same number of articles as others, they must evaluate many more submissions across a much wider swath of their disciplines, and have larger sections devoted to book reviews and other content that produces no revenue? Last year the American Historical Association spent over $460,000 to support the editorial processes of the American Historical Review, such as arranging double-blind peer review for articles, administering the selection of books and reviewers, and copyediting the content. How could AHR and others like it maintain the highest editorial standards without lowering its standards and accepting many more articles? Alternatively, flagship journals would have to charge much higher publication fees to cover the costs of reviewing the submissions they do not accept; this, too, would create perverse effects, encouraging more junior scholars or those at less wealthy institutions to shy away from the journals where their findings would get the most attention.

(d) Would an APC system create perverse incentives for both journals and authors? Would it tempt journals to publish as many articles as possible, and inspire authors to post papers on websites and bypass journals and peer review altogether? The American Historical Review, for instance, currently publishes only about nine percent of the articles received. The Editor and Associate Editor read all articles submitted, and if the articles are accepted for further review, the staff refer to an extensive (and expensive) database to find historians working in an array of institutional settings. Peer review is a costly procedure but justified where quality of scholarly publication is a high priority.

The current system of access to journal content certainly contains elements of unfairness, in addition to adding burdens to budgets of institutions already coping with diminishing resources. But solutions that ignore the wide differences between the respective landscapes of science and humanities journals generate new, and more difficult, dilemmas. Requiring authors to pay the costs of their own publications is not the answer. The AHA suggests that historians begin thoughtful conversations at their own institutions and participate in the discussions that we will initiate at our annual meeting, our web site and other appropriate venues.

Drafted by the AHA Research Division, approved by Council August 13, 2012

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  1. Stevan Harnad


    The AHA’s criticism of the UK’s Finch Report and its pre-emptive push toward subsidizing Open Access (OA) Publishing (Gold OA ) is spot-on, for all the right reasons.

    AHA should put its weight behind US (and EU and BOAI-10 ) efforts on behalf of policies by funders and institutions mandating Green OA instead: Authors continue to publish in their chosen subscription journals but self-archive the refereed final draft in their OA institutional repository immediately upon acceptance for publication.

    Harnad, S (2012) Why the UK Should Not Heed the Finch Report . LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog , Summer

    Harnad, S (2012) United Kingdom’s Open Access Policy Urgently Needs a Tweak . D-Lib Magazine Volume 18, Number 9/10 September/October 2012

    Harnad, S. (2012) Public Access to Federally Funded Research [US OSTP RFI] . Open Access Archivangelism January 1, 2012

  2. Stevan Harnad

    PS “Green OA” self-archiving does not “bypass journals and peer review”, it supplements them. What is self-archived is the peer-reviewed, revised, accepted final draft, immediately upon acceptance for publication, so that all would-be users can access it, not just those whose institutions can afford subscription access to the journal in which it is published.

  3. Larry Cebula

    The AHA could make an important first step (and generate tremendous goodwill) by putting the full run of its journal online for free.

  4. Trevor

    I am glad that the AHA is thinking about Open Access. With that said, I am rather disappointed with the nature of these questions. In 1991, ArXiv launched as a pre-print platform for the sciences. In 1994 the Social Science Research Network launched as a platform for social scientists to share pre-prints. These, among others, have become vibrant ways for scholars to share publications before they are ever printed in journals, open access or otherwise.

    The entire set of questions here, aside from seeming very defensive, pay no attention to this rather long standing discussion of Green OA. The American Psychological Association’s journals let authors keep copies of their papers on their own websites or in institutional repositories. This is something they even explicitly discuss in the APA style guide. Earlier this year MLA changed their copyright agreements to make the same sort of things possible for their members and their journals. (http://www.mla.org/news_from_mla/news_topic&topic=596 )
    What is really the most disappointing about this set of questions is to go back and look at Roy Rosenzweig’s 2005 perspectives piece, Should Historical Scholarship Be Free? ( http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2005/0504/0504vic1.cfm ) It’s been seven years, and if anything, this batch of questions doesn’t even recognize many of the excellent points Roy made then.

    To briefly respond to the questions. Yes, I think Gold author pays open access models don’t really work for the humanities. With that said, they are clearly not the only options. There are a whole series of great completely open access journals out there in the humanities already. They have found ways to not to charge authors anything. So, I would love to see the AHA explore how it could get to a point where it has completely open access journals that the authors don’t pay to publish in.

  5. Ken Oziah

    Making authors pay to be published will damage younger historians who are trying to get their foot in the door. They are the ones who most likely do not have the kind of funds necessary to pay for publication. They will have to make choices, such as feeding the family and pay the rent or pay to get something published? If the costs charged to an author are really as high as $6,000, where will the young author get that type of funding? Many young authors may be men and women who are struggling to make ends meet working as adjuncts. What of the historian who works in a secondary school system?

    I think this would further push academia into being viewed as elitist, as only those with money will be able to participate.

  6. William Kerrigan

    Perhaps the AHR could help us understand why editorial costs to produce the AHR have reached $460k a year. Isn’t much of the labor going in to produce it donated—that of the authors, review writers, peer reviewers? I recognize that some professional staff must manage this process, and support fair wages for them. But it surprises me to learn that $460k a year is going into just the editorial processes of production.

  7. Robert B. Townsend

    A reasonable question. The work of the AHR is highly labor intensive, so almost all of those costs (about $430,000) are tied up in paying salaries and benefits to the 12 staff (three full-time, nine part-time) necessary to make the processes work, and the technologies that facilitate those efforts. We currently pay full salaries and benefits for the two assistant editors who oversee the flow of copy and books for review, copyedit the text to a level suitable for the AHR, and check facts and footnotes. We also pay full salary and benefits to an operations manager, who is responsible for encoding the text for print and online publication, and also maintains the AHR’s web site. Alongside the full time staff, we pay a portion of the salary for the Editor and the Associate Editor of the journal, as well as stipends and insurance benefits for seven graduate students, who provide a preliminary assessment of the 3,000+ books submitted for review each year. Aside from salary and benefit costs, our only other expenses are about $30,000 in supplies, postage (sending books out for review), travel for staff and editorial board members, and fees to Indiana University.

  8. Joseph Thomas

    Dear AHA,
    This response only addresses one proposed business model, and ignores the fact that most open access journals do not require publication fees. See, for instance, the Directory of Open Access Journals, which lists 224 history titles, only 4 of which require fees.

  9. Larry Cebula

    Rob, does the AHA ever consider the hidden costs to the profession of the current system—the irrelevance it imposes on our work by hiding it where no one but academics can read it?

  10. Sherri L. Barnes

    I commend the AHA for taking a position on the changes that are rapidly occurring in scholarly publishing. I wish more societies would, especially in the humanities. It’s a discussion that needs to take place across the disciplines, for it’s not just a journal economics issue. However, while humanities journals aren’t as expensive as STEM journals, they’re not necessarily a great economic value. Journal values have been calculated at http://www.journalprices.com/.

    For most scholars the value of their work is measured by how much it’s read, studied and cited. Keeping scholarly research under lock and key for a few to discover and access seems counterintuitive to those values, which is why many scholars are archiving their work in institutional repositories supported by universities that want to disseminate their researchers’ work as far as possible. As Micah reported, at least one scholarly society in the humanities (MLA) also sees this as their mission and have adopted open access friendly article publication agreements.

    Given the increasing number of humanities scholars who are starting peer reviewed open access journals, it’s foolish to frame OA as a science movement.

  11. Lee Wright

    Several excellent questions and comments, especially Larry Cebula’s: “The AHA could make an important first step (and generate tremendous goodwill) by putting the full run of its journal online for free.”

    Many of the points made in the original post start with the assumption that the process is essentially fixed. Here the description of the costs is highly informative. Among other things, why hasn’t money been invested in using or adapting a platform that would reduce the labor needed to manage the workflow? Is there a reason that the encoding must be done by a paid staff member, as opposed to using a smarter system that would reduce that burden and shift any tasks that remain to the author making the submission? Is there a reason that the review of initial submissions must be limited to those seven grad students, and that students will only participate if they receive a stipend and insurance?

    This is an age-old challenge: The revenue and business model of a storied organization with monopoly pricing power is being challenged by changes in technology and society that call into question whether the premium being paid is justified.

    The challenge will not go away. The marketplace is brutal and, over time, all no- or low-value added things are driven out. The organization’s opportunity, as Larry indicates, is to lead, not defend. And it is here that the members have the responsibility to closely examine the current operations and assess whether they support the mission of the organization. Several of the commenters point out other approaches. What is it about the current system that has enabled the organization to resist change for as long as it has?

    A final note that deserves reinforcement (and also, coincidentally, from Larry): ”[D]oes the AHA ever consider the hidden costs to the profession of the current system—the irrelevance it imposes on our work by hiding it where no one but academics can read it?”

    Just as most discussions from incumbent organizations that are being challenged by new technologies start with the assumption that their operations are essentially fixed, members may often fail to appreciate that taking advantage of new technologies also has great benefits in terms of broadening the reach of their work.

    Ultimately, the organization is its members, not its hired managers, and the responsibility for instructing those managers to implement new policies and practices rests with members. Organizations whose members respond in ways that advance their mission attract more members; those whose members withdraw decline and lose influence and prestige. As historians, we know this has been true time and time again throughout the ages. There is nothing about the current situation that would suggest that the outcome will be any different for this organization now.

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