War in History: Open Access Journals





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This is a guest post written by Simon Ball, Professor of Contemporary History and Head of the School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow that sets out his response to the recent Finch Report and its implications. We welcome further blog posts from socialsciencespace members and the wider social science community on responses to this important issue.

This letter was written as part of an internal discussion within the editorial board of War in History and SAGE. The discussion was prompted by Dame Janet Finch’s article in The Times, entitled, ‘We Excel in Research. Let’s open up findings: Britain’s strength in science must not be held back by commercial publishing restrictions.’ The President of the Royal of the Royal Historical Society has since written an open letter to Fellows making many of the same points, albeit from the perspective of a learned society rather than a commercial journals publisher. I continue to believe that learned societies and commercial publishers have a shared interest in opposing open access.

As requested at the editorial board of War in History, I’ve written a short briefing for SAGE representatives for their discussions about open access journals.

The collaboration between UK Higher Education Arts & Humanities scholars and peer-reviewed journals, whether published commercially or by learned societies, has been one of the triumphs of the past two decades. The UK government recognises that British arts and humanities have carved out achievements quite disproportionate to its size, in terms of the volume and quality of research output. Government-sponsored research assessment exercises have revealed a high degree of correlation between publication in top tier international journals and research excellence.

The status quo has been challenged. Some argue that the system should be evolved to make top international journals free for any user. In order to make the best journal scholarship free at the point of use a new model would be introduced on the assumption that the producer will pay for the privilege of having research published in a top tier journal.

We believe that this proposal, if implemented, could severely damage arts and humanities academic journals, UKHE, and the global scholarly community. The damage might take four forms.

Loss of reputation: there is already a commercial publishing industry based around the producer pays model: it is called ‘vanity publishing’. It is financially successful but intellectually disreputable.

Loss of quality: academic journals are open to submissions from any scholar willing to put themselves through the peer-review process. This ensures the widest potential pool of contributors. If journals are open to submissions only from those who can pay for publication the contributor pool will be significantly smaller. In addition work that is of an acceptable standard, and paid for, will be privileged over work that is of a higher standard but has no financial backing. Despite the demonstrable benefits of publishing in journals, arts and humanities academics publish only a proportion of their work in such journals. They may wish to publish in conference proceedings or other outlets. These outlets would not necessarily be less prestigious than new-look producer pays journals, merely less costly. The danger is of an overall lowering of standards.

Loss of trust: Currently, neither contributors nor reviewers stand to lose or gain any direct monetary advantage. A system based around contributor payment loses this element of trust. Can any reviewer believe that their quality judgment will override the will of a high-paying contributor? Can the user believe that reviewers were not influenced by the journal’s financial drivers? Scholarly knowledge is a powerful commodity. There are states and institutions willing to finance research in the arts and humanities for their own purposes. The producer pays principle might privilege such research funders.

Loss of pluralism: Access to the scholarly marketplace would be constrained by the producer pays principle. Producers working for rich institutions, or receiving funding from government or charitable bodies, might be able to pay to have their work published. Doctoral students, early career researchers without permanent posts, established scholars employed by institutions who use their resources in different ways, would all be denied access to publication in journals. Why should international scholars, with different funding regimes, wish to publish in UK-based journals at high cost? A key feature of top tier journals is their international scope. In the words of the European Science Foundation’s ERIH International 1 category they are, ‘international publications with high visibility and influence among researchers in the various research domains in different countries, regularly cited all over the world.’ An important corollary of leading international status is that contributors, as well as users, should be drawn from the global scholarly community. It will be particularly hard for scholars working in less developed countries to achieve the entry fee threshold.

Simon Ball MA (Oxon), PhD (Cantab)

Professor of Contemporary History

Head of the School of Humanities

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Dan Scott

Hi Simon Thank you for your post. As the publisher of two OA journals set up specifically to offer an alternative to subscriptions, you concerns are highly pertinent and ones that I have looked in to deeply. Below are some responses to you points: “I continue to believe that learned societies and commercial publishers have a shared interest in opposing open access.” – yes I agree, particularly as many commercial publishers will not be able to replicate the revenues they currently generate from subscription charges by charging article processing fees, institutional memberships or other models. “Government-sponsored research assessment exercises have… Read more »

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