If authors must pay, most humanities scholarship will never be open access

Scarce funding means only the library-driven Subscribe to Open scheme is viable outside the sciences, says Christina Lembrecht

February 8, 2024
Open books, symbolising humanities open access
Source: iStock/seb_ra

Five years ago, I was searching for a way to transition one of our subscription humanities journals to open access (OA). While travelling by train to a conference, I researched different options. If we could find a solution for this journal, then perhaps the same approach could be used for more. But it was already clear to me that traditional OA models weren’t the right fit.

Founded in 1749, family-owned De Gruyter is one of the oldest academic publishing houses in the world. We publish around 1,500 books and articles in 330 subscription journals and 120 open-access journals every year, 70 per cent of which cover humanities or social science disciplines.

The problem I grappled with on that train is one that all humanities and social science (HSS) publishers face: namely, that the models available for OA transition have been developed for STEM disciplines. In particular, while the characteristics of STEM funding mean that the article processing charge (APC) model can work well, it is far from the being the universal solution.  

The APC model works on the basis that the individual researcher or institution has funding for the research in question – but many HSS authors struggle to secure money for their research. For those without funding, who is going to pay for the cost of publication?

Furthermore, STEM scholarship is and always has been predominantly based around conducting and publishing original research. HSS scholarship is different and more diverse. It often emerges over time through debate, commentary and review. A typical humanities journal in our portfolio comprises 50 per cent original research and 50 per cent “non-research articles”. Put simply, nobody funds anyone to write letters, book reviews and commentary – so what happens to these essential fields of scholarship under a pay-to-publish model?

Nor are “transformative agreements” necessarily the key to universal open access, as some have suggested. For us at De Gruyter, it quickly became apparent that authors from affiliated institutions were not publishing enough open-access articles to make our transformative agreements sustainable, let alone drive transformation on a large scale, despite more than 700 institutions in 25 countries participating in agreements. The result was that just about 8 per cent of our articles came from transformative agreements in 2021. 

This seems to be indicative of a larger trend. The first European countries, as well as cOAlition S, have announced an end to their funding of transformative agreements because of their limited success in driving open access transformation on a large scale. Transformative agreements often result in unsustainably high costs for many institutions and the administrative complexity of the model has been identified as a serious issue across the community. Transformative agreements also offer no solution to less well-funded institutions, as has often been noted. So, in sum, we decided we needed an alternative model.  

It is often said that our best thinking comes when we’re doing something other than sitting at our desks – this is certainly true for me. On that train journey, I was intrigued by a new and, at the time, little-known approach to OA called Subscribe to Open (S2O), so when I was back in the office I started to dig deeper.

S2O involves making a title open access for a particular year when enough libraries renew their subscriptions. This has two main advantages for HSS scholarship. First, it involves no cost to the author – which means that all authors can publish regardless of their institution, location or financial means. Second, it supports the journal in its entirety, sustaining the essential “non-research” content that HSS scholars value so highly.

We first used S2O in a pilot project to convert just one journal. The transition had positive results, so we extended the experiment to 11, then to 16 journals in 2023. Last year, we announced that we would adopt S2O to transition 90 per cent of our subscription journal portfolio over the next five years.

We are confident that adopting S2O at scale will work for us because, so far, our experiences and the reactions from customers and the community have been overwhelmingly positive. The changes have been welcomed by journal editorial boards. Usage of the journals we have switched has increased six-fold and the number of countries accessing the content has doubled.

Most importantly, institutions have continued to support the titles. The problem of free riders – where libraries cancel their subscriptions knowing that they can keep access to a journal for free as soon as it switches to open access – has remained merely theoretical for us so far. Our experience has been that libraries want to cooperate and are willing to support open access.

The model will most likely evolve in the future and we would need to think about how to make it sustainable in the long run, also pending the further development of the funding landscape. But we will cross that bridge when we get there.

We’re still learning every day five years into our OA journey. But one thing is clear. While APCs might be the key for STEM publishing, HSS needs a new and different approach. S2O seems like the most sustainable and inclusive option, not just for us, but for everyone in the scholarly communications community. 

Christina Lembrecht is head of open research at De Gruyter.

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Reader's comments (4)

There is an assumption here that a commercial publisher needs to be involved, in this case De Gruyter. But across Latin America in particular, universities produced their own OA journals, and don't need a commercial partner. Production on these is done in the humanities and social sciences by academics themselves, sometimes with small institutional support. Aggregator sites like Redalyc and Scielo assure archiving and sometimes Dois across the continent and beyond. By comparison, to show this is possible in the West, I have edited an Anglophone journal out of the US for 20 years in this way, with a Scopus index of over 4, Web of Science, and working with a small team of global North and South scholars. This serves our niche area in political economy/environmental studies well, and our budget is $0. We publish in 3 languages. Worth remembering that the arrival of the internet in 1993 or so changed everything - we don't need commercial publishers and they add little value to outfits like this. Even our journal production software is open source. The world has moved on.
I don’t really understand why the university consortium model isn’t used to found and maintain HSS journals. Still with the state of HSS at UK universities , with departments closing or shrinking daily, research looks to be on its way out anyway.
"For those without funding, who is going to pay for the cost of publication?" Who pays for the subscription to closed access journals? I don't really follow this augment. Institutions are paying the same, irrespective of whether they pay to read or pay to publish.
The main contentious issue is book publishing. Leaving aside the stipulations that UKRI funded research must be published OA now if it is in book form, the REF will set the general policy in this respect. In the humanities and social sciences a very high proportion of submissions to the last REF were books, and OA did not apply then. If commercial publishers are not involved in publishing humanities books, in particular, then that sphere of activity will quickly shrink and eventually disappear, as the disincentives for academics will begin to pile up (because your work, if published in books, will likely no longer be REF-able). But while UKRI are making OA a condition of funding for 'monographs' whether or not this becomes REF2029 policy is uncertain. In 2013/14 I recall being told that all books for the next REF (2020) would have to be OA, and publisher's representatives from the big academic presses - like Taylor & Francis - were going around giving talks in universities and saying it would cost x thousands (at that point over ten thousand UKP, now it will be considerably more) to publish an OA book. I am sure they were rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of really coining it in. The people in charge of research in my institution at the time sent around emails to academics saying 'no more books!' 'Staff writing books will not have their research supported.' This was in the immediate aftermath of the REF 2014 census (late 2013), before the next recycle had even begun. Well, guess what? When the REF census date came around (Dec 2020) they DID accept books, and those same managers no doubt wanted those books that staff had taken to producing often in their own time and unsupported by their institution, to be included in their submissions. Clearly there is a desire to transition to full OA for all academic publication outputs, but until it is adopted as official policy by the REF, it will be in the interests of Humanities and Social Science academics to resist this move. And also to keep in mind that at this stage in the REF cycle, there are always new policies, policy u-turns and adjustments.