OA and the UK Humanities & Social Sciences: Wrong risks and missed opportunities
Someone once said to me that the best way to get researchers to be serious about the issue of modernising scholarly communications was to let the scholarly monograph business go to the wall as an object lesson to everyone else. After the last couple of weeks I’m beginning to think the same might be said of the UK Humanities and Social Sciences literature. I get that people are worried, even scared. I can also see some are stirring up mud behind the scenes to get academics and editors angry. But the problem is that people are focussing on the wrong problems and missing the significant opportunities to rejuvenate H&SS in the UK.
Thesis: The problem of money
The core of the issue is money. H&SS are chronically underfunded for the number of scholars in the UK. It’s easy to say that H&SS are cheap but they are also labour intensive and people are the most expensive academic resource of them all. This means there is very little spare cash around and when looks to be another demand on a non-existent budget people are going to get upset. And reasonably so. But of course there is money in the system, being used to purchase journal subscriptions and monographs. In the UK this money comes down a different budget line, largely through grant overheads and direct funding from HEFCE with some coming from teaching budgets (or rather, these days, the fees that students are paying or will be paying back in the future). So there is money in the system but its not accessible to scholars, and if it were, they might quite like to spend it on something else (a whiteboard, a new computer, a functioning filing cabinet).
Antithesis: The challenge of “impact” for H&SS
It is a hobby of a certain kind of mass media outlet to pick up and ridicule H&SS projects. Let’s be honest its also a hobby of some quantitative (and not so quantitative) scientists as well. At the same time there is much hand wringing from within the H&SS community that their work is not appreciated by the public, or by government for the wider impact that it has. There is a seeming paradox here. The ridicule arises from the apparent ease of understanding of the topic at hand; the hand wringing from a view that the wider public doesn’t understand. There is of course no paradox, only a communication failure. On one side the intricacies and context are lost and on the other the context and importance.
I believe that research in the humanities and social sciences makes a huge contribution to our culture and our society. In many disciplines the societal importance, whether to policy development, or through cultural enrichment is of far greater value than anything I have done as a scientist. In my current job I’m an amateur social scientist. I (try to) read sociology, history, anthropology and even the odd bit of literary theory to guide me. I can’t of course read most of it, I don’t have access. And I wonder how many other people could benefit from access to history, literary criticism, economics, sociology don’t have access. How many are interested amateurs, and how many policy makers, entrepreneurs, or creatives? And how many are voters?
Synthesis: A great future in an accessible world, but who will pay?
It seems to me that the opportunity for H&SS to reach much wider audiences who appreciate the value of their work generally, and to reach those specific people who will make important use of it is enormous. But most of this work is locked up in books with print runs in the hundreds and journals with similar numbers of subscribers. The existing system is covering its first copy costs – or at least not losing too much money – so further distribution isn’t a problem as long as its cheap, and electronic distribution fits that bill.
So lets start with the minimal approach. Change nothing of the process, simply make electronic copies freely available, retain the charges for print. In the short term libraries are unlikely to cancel subscriptions because frankly the amounts of money are pretty small and libraries do have an interest in supporting scholarly communications. Monographs are still worth buying in book form so charge for that but make the electronic version freely available. I’ll bet the first publisher willing to try a beer that sales go up. In the longer term there would need to be consortium agreements put in place to support the ongoing costs of the journals but that’s probably do-able because the current subscription lists are small and charges are relatively low. A model for making this work on a much larger scale already exists in particle physics in the form of SCOAP3. If even this is too scarey, look at the repository-route. The evidence from particle physics suggests that decades of access through repositories makes no difference to journal viability.
A more daring solution is to go for scale. What happens if the level of interest in a journal or monograph goes up by an order of magnitude? Or two? What does that mean about costs? Are there economies of scale that aren’t currently accessible? Given that H&SS do seem to like print there are possibilities here. Grow the print customer base from a few hundred to several thousand, use the e-version to drive sales, give people a premium experience that means enough of them want that upgrade. One argument that is not going to go down well is “our publishing is really expensive so we have to keep it exclusive”. It’s just not going to wash – that means consolidation and finding efficiencies is going to be necessary anyway, so getting more readers while finding those efficiences is a win-win. If you don’t find those efficiencies someone else will.
Clearly though that approach will work better for some people and for some disciplines than others. More imaginative approaches will involve finding ways to utilise the characteristics of the H&SS communities and the technologies that might support them. Some have argued that a PLOS ONE approach (scale up, keep costs down, simple base criteria for publication) can’t work because there is no simple criteria for “publication-worthy” in H&SS. I’m not convinced this is true - STEM folks said it wouldn’t work for PLOS ONE either – but lets take it at face value. This means thinking the other way, what are the benefits of small and community based scale for publication infrastructures?
One benefit is that small communities tend to know each other, and therefore are willing to contribute effort to a common pool. In fact I bet that H&SS journals are largely run by small editorial boards of unpaid academics who mostly know the authors submitting and mostly know the referees they are approaching. These are ideal conditions for a community to take over control of the means of production and then take a ruthless capitalistic approach to reducing the costs outside of what they value – the review process itself. The technology isn’t quite there yet for a journal system to be run easily by non-technical people, but its not far off, and could built if the community as a whole demanded it. Some communities have done this, and some very prestigious journals are run for practically no money at all.
There are many more potential routes that H&SS could take to engage effectively with an open access future while also engaging with the communities of interest that would appreciate and use their work. It’s not really my place to tell the community what to do, but as a (potential) consumer of this scholarship I’m keen to see something happen.
It comes down to brass tacks
This will however cost money, and the community will argue that its money they don’t have. And this is really the key point and why the whole current strategy is wrong-headed. The British Academy, Institutes for Historical Research, and others seem to believe that the right route is to make a stand, presumably in the hope that this will tone down the HEFCE requirements for REF2020 (the RCUK policy is a given and won’t shift). What the community is failing to grasp is that this is the biggest opportunity in 20 years to re-assess the funding base for H&SS in the UK. HEFCE and RCUK are serious about the move to open access, and serious about doing it in a way that maximises the overall return on investment. They’re prepared, indeed demanding, to fund that process.
UK funding for H&SS research is structurally different than that for STEM subjects. The government, and its funding agencies, have taken to heart the concept that the costs of dissemination are part of the costs of research. The H&SS community needs to be developing a coherent plan for how those costs could be effectively funded and the mechanisms that will be put in place to make sure they’re constrained. Go to HEFCE and RCUK with a plan, that speaks to their agenda, that is well-informed about the core issues and you have an opportunity to rejuvenate H&SS in the UK.
The alternative, to be blunt, is oblivion. On one side you will have STEM researchers, most of them less inclined than me to keep subsidising your communications costs through “our” overheads, teaching budgets, and QR income. On the other will be government asking blunt questions about why your research isn’t being used and spread, while they don’t use it to inform policy development or cultural programs because they don’t even know it exists (pro-tip Google some terms around your area of expertise; any of your work visible?). And in the middle will be funders, increasingly losing their patience with your intransigence, while trying to defend the value of and special characteristics of H&SS, to increasingly unimpressed researchers, institutions, and government, while other subjects areas streak ahead and take advantage of new opportunities. At best this approach will allow a managed decline.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The more I look at, the more I think H&SS and in particular UK H&SS are amongst the best placed to take advantage of both the technological possibilities and the policy landscape. Get informed and look at and discuss the options to find the right approach for your discipline and domain. Once you get over the fact that the status-quo isn’t an option you will see a whole range of new possibilities. This is a generational opportunity to reset the thinking, and critically the funding mechanisms, for humanities and social sciences in this country. Use it or lose it.
Note: For any irritated philosophers amongst the readers I am aware that I’ve mangled the “Hegelian” dialectic that I used as a structure. Think of it as illustrating the choice you have. If I know enough to be dangerous/intriguing but not enough of your methodology to contribute effectively are you better off ignoring me, or engaging with me as both a potential ally and someone who might even contribute back to your thinking? Bear in mind that there are a lot of us out here.