Open Access: A Response to Sean Guillory

My most recent blog post (on MOOCs) dealt with digital teaching. Less than a week after it appeared, Sean Guillory wrote an important piece on Sean’s Russia Blog regarding digital scholarship, to wit, the importance of open access for Russian historians. His inspiration for the piece was the suicide of Aaron Swartz, a gifted young computer scientist indicted by the government for downloading articles en masse from JSTOR with the intent to distribute them freely on the web. I do not know enough about Professor Swartz or about the case to comment further on it, and I am wary of quick declarations of the reasons behind particular suicides, but I think the question of open access is an important one. Sean deals with it carefully and intelligently, though I disagree with him on some points. The comments section of Sean’s blog piece includes several thoughtful responses written by Russian historians familiar with the economics of journal publishing and the labor it takes to produce a high-quality journal with rigorous peer review. I highly recommend that readers take a look at both the piece and the comments. Many of the commentators are editors with the big journals in our field, and I wouldn’t presume to add anything of substance from the journal side of the question. Instead, let me offer a few thoughts as an author, a consumer, and as someone involved in faculty governance at a small school.

Guillory entitled his entry “Let’s Start Talking About Open Access.” As Mark Steinberg gently pointed out in the comments, this is in fact a discussion that has been going on for some time. I’ve been thinking about it for several years, for more or less accidental reasons. Ten years ago, I was asked to be a faculty member on our library’s search for a digital resources librarian. Soon afterwards, I was appointed to the faculty library oversight committee, on which I served for two years. I subsequently served on the faculty committee that oversees the entire college budget.  As part of those experiences, I learned how libraries pay for digital resources, the intersection of library budgets with institutional budgets, and the ways that our librarians, at least, think about publication and public access. On our campus, our librarians are vigorous supporters of making scholarship available to as many readers as possible. As a result, our head of libraries has been the most enthusiastic initiator of the discussion regarding open access. A couple of years ago, he led the charge to create an open access policy for Lafayette faculty, and he and I have continued to correspond on access issues, including the disastrous Finch Report.

The Finch Report is a set of recommendations created by a British governmental working group headed by Dame Janet Finch entitled “Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications.”  It recommends that all academic work be made available free to the public on the internet and that the costs associated with the production of such works be borne by their authors. This is a mind-numbingly foolish solution, as many British academics and the AHA have pointed out, but the Finch Report at least clarifies something that, occasionally, airy discussions about open access neglect: nothing is free. Again, this point is well addressed in the comments to Sean’s blog, but it’s worth reiterating. Whenever you hear the word “free” in any discussion on open access, you should substitute the word “subsidized.”  One of the remarkable things about the economics of academic publishing at present is that much of that subsidization takes place invisibly, as many (though not all) academics both write journal articles and referee them without the expectation of piece by piece remuneration. This willingness to work without direct pay creates the possibility for much greater access than the public sphere currently enjoys. And most scholars want to create greater access. In contrast to Sean, I think that most of us and most of our institutions give greater weight to widely distributed journals than they do to those with a smaller reach. It is not my impression that publishing in the American Historical Review, a high subscription journal, is less prestigious than publishing in a smaller venue.

Still, all of this intellectual work is subsidized. The research for the articles is often underwritten by institutions of various sorts. Further, universities and colleges expect professors to be a part of a professional dialogue, and many of them include authoring journal articles and refereeing them as labor that falls under our job descriptions. Some, like my own institution, consider this work carefully when deciding upon merit raises. Others do not. But this doesn’t mean there is no subsidy, just that there is a massive free rider problem at play in any college or university faculty. Thought of more broadly (but not of course literally), we might say that society pays for part of the production of scholarly articles through block grants to professor salary pools rather than piece by piece. Part of it is also paid for by independent scholars and professors who lack institutional support and/or living working wages for the work they do and essentially subsidize the enterprise through their own uncompensated time.

But not all of this labor remains uncommodified. Carolyn Pouncy’s work as the Managing Editor at Kritika is wage labor, as she pointed out in her response to Sean’s blog, and cash from somewhere must be budgeted and dedicated to her position. At present, it is paid for in part by the institution that hosts Kritika, and in part by the libraries that support Project Muse, a service like JSTOR that serves as on online platform for the distribution of digitized articles from a wide clientele of scholarly journals. This limits full digital access to those libraries that subscribe to Project Muse, but it does no one any good to call it a “concentration camp of ideas,” as Sean does. For a concentration camp, Kritika (and by extension Project Muse) is quite happy to let ideas escape into the open web, as I know through personal experience. As part of a move towards a new policy on campus, Lafayette librarians reached out to journals that have published the work of Lafayette faculty with requests to allow those works to be stored in Lafayette’s open digital repository. One of my essays appeared in Kritika a few years back, and Kritika quickly responded to our request with permission to store the final pre-publication draft on the site, minus the typesetting and other professional accoutrements of the finished project in Kritika but with the final pagination in place. Scholars around the world can now read it and cite it even if they do not enjoy a subscription to Kritika or Project Muse. I hope, though, that if you have access to Project Muse, you get the essay from there. Kritika needs to survive.

Gaining rights to make one’s own work open access can be complicated after the fact, and I was lucky to have dedicated librarians willing to shepherd this process through. Usually it is better to negotiate with publishers at the time of signing the contract. The principle is simple. In the best-case scenario, you retain copyright to your work, but grant a license to the journal. Alternatively, they are granted copyright, but you are granted a license to distribute your work in specific ways. This sounds daunting, but it hasn’t yet been for me. I strongly recommend using the resources on the SPARC website and the handy “addendum” form at These are legal forms you can fill out very quickly and attach to your contract when returning it to the journal. I use them for articles and book reviews, and I have not had any problems. Some presses accept the addendum as is.  Others ask me to modify it to conform to their practices. Many big presses now have standard policies in place to allow authors to post some version of their work on their own websites or in digital repositories. Sometimes authors are required to wait a year before posting, sometimes they can do so after the piece has been published. These restrictions seem, to me at least, to be reasonable. My work is not particularly time sensitive, and if it takes a certain delay before opening access in order to ensure that academic journals continue to exist, that seems to be a good tradeoff.

The problem, as Sean suggests, is that a constellation of scholar websites and digital repositories is not optimal for research.  Indeed, any of my students would say the same thing. No matter how many times you show them how to use Historical Abstracts (another database that is not free), or, God forbid, the paper journal copies in the library, they are drawn back into the gravitational pull of JSTOR. Nor is it just students. I am always relieved when I find an article I need and see that the full text is available through our library databases. This is another way of saying that JSTOR (and Project Muse) perform a valuable function, one that costs money and, yes, must be subsidized in some way. Again, this subsidy is paid at present mostly by college and university libraries, which are required to limit the usage of those resources to their own patrons. We see a pattern emerging – the subsidies for scholarship are mostly hidden from view in the depths of university and college library budgets and in the salaries of university and college professors. This creates the illusion that the production of scholarship is free and that only pernicious rent-seekers are preventing intellectual fruits from being more widely shared.

This system is reaching a breaking point, not so much from pressure from open-access advocates as from two other big forces.  The first is that everything I have talked about above relates to humanities and social science journals.  These journals are chump change in library budgets. The enormously expensive journals are in the natural sciences and engineering, which not only charge tens, sometimes hundreds of times more in subscription fees than humanities journals do. For instance, Kritika charges a library $95 to subscribe for a year. The Journal of Comparative Neurology charges $35,489. Science and technical journals frequently levy “page charges” as well. These are the charges assessed to authors for the production of each page in the journal their article occupies. At Lafayette, the college pays these fees as a matter of course out of our common research budget (which, by the way, reduces the amount of money available for humanists and social scientists to conduct their research).  These journals, many of them published by for-profit behemoths like Elsevier, thus literally get it coming and going. It is nice work if you can get it. These science publishers are killing the goose that has been laying them these golden eggs, though, as their charges have been rising well above the rate of inflation and above the ever slowing rate at which tuition can be raised. These are the pernicious rent-seekers, not Slavica or Cambridge University Press.

This brings us to the second big force, which is the crisis of funding faced by institutions of higher education since the financial crisis. The short answer as to who has been subsidizing scholarly journal publishing is: taxpayers and donors. State governments have been slashing support for public universities, so too have federal and national governments elsewhere in the world. Even relatively wealthy private colleges like my own saw such a hit in their endowments and annual giving that budgets have shrunk significantly. Put more simply, due to the actions of science publishers and collapsing library budgets, the current silent subsidy model for journals in the humanities and social sciences is under threat as well.

I don’t know how to solve these problems, but I worry that endorsing wiki-anarchism in the name of open access could fatally undermine the precarious institution of the academic journal. I’m actually rather heartened by the way that folks have been feeling and fumbling their way towards a new model. Journals have gotten more receptive to the idea that authors should have rights to their articles and that those rights can include open access. Colleges and universities have begun creating digital repositories and encouraging their faculty members to participate. Scholars are increasingly turning to immediately open access venues like this Russian History Blog in order to publish certain sorts of ideas. Archives and libraries are digitizing valuable and rare resources for the general public. Our big challenge is to maintain and extend these moves and to keep scholarly journals alive in an age of austerity. As historians, Russian or not, I think our best strategy is to remain aware of these trends, to assert authorial rights to establish open access where we can, to support the small bore moves toward open access whenever possible, and to make sure that we don’t destroy the funding models of our journals before we have a secure path towards ensuring their viability over the long run. Above all, we must continually remind anyone who asks that being a professor encompasses more than teaching and that the scholarly labors we perform are essential for our country and for our common civilization.

By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

2 replies on “Open Access: A Response to Sean Guillory”

Oops, sorry to those who read this piece in the first hour it was out. I realized that I left out a sentence I had meant to put in. It’s now in the version above. I inserted the following: “For instance, Kritika charges a library $95 to subscribe for a year. The Journal of Comparative Neurology charges $35,489. Science and technical journals frequently levy “page charges” as well.”

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