Book Review: Open Access and the Humanities

Open Access and the Humanities

Martin Paul Eve, Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Martin Eve’s new book is a welcome examination of the unique challenges that the humanities face in open access publishing. Appropriately enough, it is published open access by Cambridge University Press (as separate PDFs, or download the full PDF from the Internet Archive) under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license (CC BY-SA 4.0). Dr. Eve is a Lecturer in English at the University of Lincoln, co-directs the Open Library of the Humanities (OLH), and frequently speaks and blogs about open access.

Some of the challenges for the humanities in open access publishing become apparent in Peter Suber’s preface. In addition to a general lack of funding in these fields, humanities journals tend to have high rejection rates, so article processing charges (APCs) become a non-starter.  The fee-based model works best in well-funded fields with relatively low rejection rates.  In addition, it is books, not journal articles, that are of greatest importance.

Therefore it is no surprise that Eve’s chapters on economics and monographs (Chapters 2 and 4) serve as the heart of the book. Eve hypothesizes three economic models (p. 57) in which authors are paid for their work, publishers are paid for their services, and libraries provide cooperative funding. Those familiar with the OLH’s funding model won’t be surprised to find the first two models dismissed in short order, and the cooperative model examined at length. Indeed, the cooperative model has already been used to support arXiv, SCOAP3, and most recently Knowledge Unlatched, albeit in a pilot effort. In considering this model, Eve begins by stating that there is already enough money in academic publishing to cover the current production of articles and monographs. Problems of transition funding are addressed, though to me the most interesting problem is how to handle free riders in cooperative efforts (p.75):

The first of these difficulties, the so-called ‘free-rider’ problem, relates to the economic understanding that rationally self-interested actors do not wish to pay for commodities from which others benefit for free. In other words, except in philanthropic modes or systems of taxation for public good, most people usually resist paying for goods for which only they pay, but from which non-purchasers also derive benefit. This results, for gold open access publishing, in a kind of prisoner’s dilemma. If all library entities behave in a purely self-interested way and disallow free riders, these collectively underwritten, non-APC models cannot emerge. Admittedly, the increasing enclosure of universities within market logics doubtless makes it harder for acquisition librarians to justify expenditure on projects where there are free riders to senior managers.

I think there may be additional problems for libraries here (enough for a separate blog post), and I hoped for a fuller examination of this voluntary contribution model, though recent efforts, as Eve notes, have been successful.

Chapter 3 on open licensing helpfully outlines the three current types of copyright and licensing agreements authors will encounter: full copyright transfer, an exclusive license to publish, and a non-exclusive license to publish (p. 88). This chapter also does a good job of describing how copyright restricts the uses of research, and discusses some common objections to CC licenses, such as concerns about derivatives, undesirable re-use, and commercial use.

Eve explains the economic problems of monograph publishing in chapter 4 and offers an overview of four current models of providing open access to them (p. 130-135): print subsidy, institutional subsidy, freemium, and collective funding. I was unaware that publishers pay for peer review of monographs, which contributes to their higher production costs and resulting book processing charges (BPCs) that are largely unaffordable for humanities authors. I was glad to see two issues addressed in this chapter. The first is the role of commercial presses in determining what is published (and therefore who is hired or receives tenure) based on evaluations of potential sales. The second is the role of scholarly societies (p. 128):

…calls to protect society revenue models are often inextricable from calls to protect publisher profits; the two are interwoven. This rhetoric of economy and sustainability, it must also not be forgotten, will always make one group’s sustainability possible only at the expense of another: usually the library.

There are interesting discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of archiving (“green” open access) in the humanities, though it seems that there are more of the latter. Archiving is often not permitted for monographs, pagination is lost, and the strain on library budgets goes unaddressed. Strangely, Eve omits the biggest problem, which is that a majority of authors have permission to archive journal articles, yet so few actually take advantage of it. Additionally, in proposing an archiving workflow for authors, Eve suggests checking SHERPA/RoMEO for permissions. While that is an invaluable resource, I think it is more important that authors read (or at least quickly review) their publishing contract for archiving rights.

Eve’s final chapter concerns innovations, and mostly addresses peer review. While emphasizing that open access does not require changes in peer review, he argues that the opportunity to reconsider other publishing practices should not be missed, and in particular to address the false perception that open access means lower quality. Critiques of “filter-first” peer review are echoed. Two explorations in this chapter are especially interesting: first, how the PLOS One type of review for technical correctness rather than importance might be translated to humanities fields; and second, how assumptions that speed and precedence are necessary only for the sciences might be mistaken.

Eve’s writing style is clear, though over-use of comma phrases tended to bog this reader down at times, and there is the occasional odd construction (“greenly depositing,” p. 11). The book ends somewhat abruptly and might have benefited from a concluding chapter to help synthesize the many aspects of open access publishing for the humanities. The glossary (p. 179-181), while helpful in itself, defines some terms so minimally as to lead to further questions. In addition to the glossary and Suber’s preface, the book contains notes, a bibliography, and an index (which can be supplemented by searching the PDF version).

Despite these minor criticisms, Open Access and the Humanities is thought-provoking and remarkably balanced, perhaps due to Eve’s dual role as open access advocate and publisher. Eve approaches all of these complex issues in a spirit of philosophical investigation, and does not avoid examination of related issues such as academic freedom and research assessment. A broad audience of humanists, publishers, and librarians will find value in this exploration of open access for humanities disciplines, and many of them will no doubt be cheering for the success of the new publishing models it describes, such as the Open Library of the Humanities.

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About Philip Young

Philip Young is Scholarly Communications Librarian at Virginia Tech and is a strong advocate of open access and open licensing.
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