Thoughts on the AHA’s statement on open access

The American Historical Association (AHA) put out a statement recently to express concerns about developments in the open access movement. In brief, the AHA is afraid that the open access model siphons money away from poor authors, flagship journals, and other scholarly publishing activities like peer review. I trust that this is a fair summary of the AHA’s points, but please read the short statement yourself and let me know what you think.

My thoughts on the AHA’s pronouncement are these:

  • AHA is concerned that “junior scholars and those with only tenuous institutional arrangements, cannot pay” to publish their research. It would help me to be as concerned as the AHA is if they gave me a better picture of how many such junior scholars and those with “tenuous institutional arrangements” currently publish stuff that is considered good research or of interest of the public. If there is a non-negligible proportion of scholars who produce good works but who are in penurious circumstances such that they cannot pay to disseminate their works in reputable channels, then the problem is much bigger than Open Access (OA). The problem would then be with academic hiring and remuneration.

In economics, a field that I know best but do not think is very atypical, research found in first- or second-tiered journals are published by scholars, junior or not, at institutions who can well “afford” the fees if they are convinced they should pay to have their works published. Are things different in history?

(Please note here that I am asking about scholarly articles not monographs. Scholarly articles are the subject of OA journals and mandates, the latter initiated by research institutions like Harvard, Yale, Duke and funding institutes like the NIH. As Peter Suber explains, “the OA movement focuses on research articles precisely because they don’t pay royalties [unlike monographs or textbooks . . .].”)

  • The fact that Open Access does not translate solely into “authors pay” is something that has been mentioned elsewhere. Here, I take the AHA’s assumption that authors are required to pay for open access publications at face value. Instead, I’d like to inquire how the AHA comes to the conclusion that “this different unfairness [from having authors pay for publishing] would be at least as pernicious as the current one [in which institutions pay for subscriptions].” “At least as” is a claim that implies some measurement. What does the AHA have in mind? How is it measuring the harm that comes from scholars having to pay to publish and weighing against that against the harm that results from institutions ill affording to pay subscriptions? The AHA does not say. It merely asserts.
  • Open Access is not a new movement, and the concerns the AHA raised are not new. In fact, as Dan Cohen, a historian at George Mason, points out in Treading Water on Open Access, the AHA issued a similar — but superior for being better substantiated and more proactive, in my opinion — statement more than seven years ago. During this time, there has accumulated a large literature on open access that delves into these issues and their solutions in great details. (See Peter Suber’s bibliography, for starters.) Perhaps the AHA does not think that these solutions are adequate. But then is it not better for the AHA to point out how they may be improved or propose some alternative system rather than ignore them altogether and raise the same concerns that are already addressed by those who study open access?

The AHA somehow manages to sound the trifecta of regressive, narrow-minded, and jealous all in one short statement. It lumps scientists in the “rich university, rich authors” category and dismisses the science’s progress on open access as “completely trivial” because of the large grants the sciences garner. It tips its hand that the preservation of the American Historical Review business model is one of its primary concerns. It inveighs against open access without putting forth a single concrete proposal of what should be done. Historians are poorly served by such a statement.

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