Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Humanities and Social Sciences: thoughts towards transition to OA

Following are some thoughts on how humanities and social sciences publishers can move forward toward open access, inspired by Mary Waltham's brave preliminary foray into research on the economics of these journals, The Future of Scholarly Journals Publishing among Social Science and Humanities Associations, available for download from:

In brief: Humanities and social sciences publishers might wish to consider the marketing advantage of OA in positioning their associations / societies and journals for the future. Members of scholarly societies are scholars. Open access works to the advantage of these scholar-members, who likely have many reasons for belonging to a society, such as fulfilling the service component of expectations for an academic. Why not actively engage members in the transition? This could be helpful not only to transition journals to open access, but also healthy for the association, too.

Institutional subscribers - libraries and consortia - are vocal advocates of open access. Why not engage them in discussion about how to transition? For example, would they consider hybrid site-license / open choice approaches? Since this is a priority for libraries, would moves like this help to protect society publishers from cancellations in these difficult economic times? This post re-analyzes Waltham's data on the feasibility of an article processing fee approach for the 8 journals studied. It is suggested that self-selection of journals may have resulted in high-end rather than average costs. Factoring in advertising revenue, it seems possible that the publication cost for online-only for even these high-end journals with rejection rates in the range of 90%, could be well under $1,000. Assuming that members and institutional subscribers continue to support the journals / associations, needed APFs could be reduced substantially, perhaps to 0. Which is indeed, what most OA journals charge: nothing! Waltham's 8 non-OA journals are contrasted with 716 journals listed in DOAJ under the same general subject areas.

The marketing advantage of open access

As Waltham points out, humanities and social sciences publishers are concerned about: "the publishing support costs of marketing and selling an online version globally to, for example, library consortia and many small society publishers become overwhelmed and decide to partner with a commercial or not-for-profit publisher who can manage and implement much of the complexity associated with the production and sales of the online version".

For the humanities and social sciences journal positioning for the future, marketing to libraries and consortia can be this simple: register with the Directory of Open Access Journals. Libraries around the world are adding the DOAJ list to local serials lists and catalogues; DOAJ subject list links can be added to subject guides in a split second. With this simple step, the small society publisher can compete for impact directly with the large publishers.

Would your members support a move to open access? Why not ask?

The members of scholarly societies and associations are scholars. Open access works in their benefit; many will be authors of the journals supported by the association. Rather than fearing a loss of membership if journals are free, why not educate members about the benefits of OA and ask for their support in the transition?

For the health of the association, it would be wise to carefully frame such research to encourage members to fully consider the full range of value and benefits of the association. People have many reasons for belonging to associations. Membership in a scholarly society per se is likely listed on many a CV. Active participation in association events and volunteer work for associations counts towards the service component of expectations for an academic career - and is a great way to network. It seems reasonable to assume that members generally approve of, and care about, the good work of their societies and associations, such as providing educational opportunities and scholarships. The question of whether members would leave associations in droves without exclusive access to a printed copy of an association journal should be considered within the context of these larger questions.

Would your library and consortial subscribers support a move to open access? Why not ask?

Librarians have been vocal advocates for open access and OA policy. Rather than fearing loss of subscriptions with a move to OA, why not sit down with librarians and figure out how to transition? The University of California and Springer are involved in an innovative site license / open choice for U Cal authors. Would your library customers support a similar move on your part? Perhaps a cooperative transition to OA would help to protect your journals from cancellations in this tough economic climate?

The feasibility of an article processing fee approach

First, I would like to emphasize that the vast majority of OA journals do not use an article processing fee approach. The following comments build on Waltham's data and analysis on the feasibility of an APF approach for the journals studied.

Are Waltham's cost estimates on the high end rather than average?

Waltham found a range of publishing cost / page from $90 - $1,326 (eliminating print costs, not relevant to OA), with an average of $360 / page. With an average of 19 pages / article, this would mean article processing fees would have to be on average $7,000 per article - or $1,710 for the journal with the average cost of $90 / article.

Do Waltham's results reflect the high end of costs / page in humanities and social sciences? Note that this does necessarily reflect the skills of the researcher; it is tricky to do this kind of research, which relies for provision of data supplied by the publishers themselves, who obviously have a vested interest in research which could impact the revenue of their operations.

This research study - which the author points out is very preliminary research - involves only 8 journals in the humanities and social sciences. Each of these journals was self-selected by its association publisher. Looking at the list of titles studied, it appears that each publisher selected its flagship journal. These journals were found to have rejection rates in the range of about 90%. These rejection rates are likely higher than those of the other journals produced by each of these publishers. Since a high rejection rate increases costs (rejected articles require processing, too), the costs of these journals may not be average for the publishers, but rather at the high end.

It is common for OA publishers using the article processing fee business model to have differential fees, reflecting the cost of different journals. Most PLoS journals charge well over $2,000 U.S. per article, while PLoS One charges $1,300 per article, for example.

What about the advertising revenue?

Waltham's research found that up to 45% of a journal's revenue might be coming from advertising revenue. Once this is factored in, the APF for these probably high-end journals to cover remaining costs decreases to a low of $940 for the low-cost journal, or an average of $3,850 per article.

What if memberships and institutional subscriptions continue?

As discussed above, there are many reasons for joining a scholarly society, and it seems reasonable to assume that memberships (and hence membership revenue) will continue with a move to OA. Institutional subscriptions also seem likely to continue for these journals, partially a significant portion of the content is not peer-reviewed. If publishers actively pursue transitional subscription / OA for authors of subscribing institutions models, the odds of ongoing subscriptions seem likely to dramatically increase. If these revenue sources continue,
this changes the scenario for monies needed from APFs to nothing (which is what most OA journals actually charge) to perhaps a small fraction of the publication cost.


While Waltham studied 8 humanities and social sciences non-open-access journals, there are 716 journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals in the fields of the 8 journals studied (details below).

Further Research

What is the difference between journals with a relatively low production cost / page (e.g. $90 / page) and those with a relatively high production cost / page (e.g. $1,326 / page). Hypothesis: one factor may be co-producing with a commercial publisher. Small independent association publishers may have less costs.


Here are the associations and journals sampled by Waltham:

American Anthropological Association: American Anthropologist
American Academy of Religion: Journal of the American Academy of Religion
American Economic Association: American Economic Review
American Historical Association: American Historical Review
American Political Science Association: American Political Science Review
American Sociological Association: American Sociological Review
American Statistical Association: Journal of the American Statistical Association
Modern Language Association: Proceedings of the Modern Language Association (PMLA)

DOAJ Anthropology: 56 titles
DOAJ Religion: 58 titles
DOAJ Economics: 88 titles
DOAJ History: 127 titles
DOAJ Political Science: 120 titles
DOAJ Sociology: 76 titles
DOAJ Statistics: 32 titles
DOAJ Languages and Literatures: 159 titles

Total: 716 journals

Waltham on feasibility of APFs, from conclusion, page 31:
"Analysis of the journal costs provided for this study confirm that a shift to an entirely new funding model in the pure form of Open Access (author/producer pays) in which the costs of publishing research articles in journals are paid for by authors or by a funding agency, and readers have access to these publications for free, is not feasible for this group of journals".

This post is part of the Transitioning to Open Access Series. Comments are welcome. Please send me an e-mail, or post to the Open Access Tracking Project, ssp-list, or liblicense.