Coffee, Smart Phones, and Open Access in the Humanities

@cplong: Advocacy for Open Access in the humanities is gaining momentum. I myself have committed to reviewing articles for Open Access journals and am working with colleagues to develop a new model of open access online publishing in philosophy via the Public Philosophy Journal. But it’s easy to advocate for OA, especially for established scholars, but what are the wider implications of OA in the humanities, and what sustainable funding models can be identified that would make more scholarship openly accessible to a wider public?

These questions and a concern to add nuance to what all too easily slips into facile moralizing about the virtues of OA and the vices of traditional publishing led Patrick Alexander (@publisher2b) and me to this dialogue on the issue of OA in the humanities.

Patrick, in a recent presentation on OA, you emphasized the massive disparity in funding between STEM and humanities research. This disparity opens opportunities for sustainable OA practices in STEM that remain unfeasible in the humanities. Can you explain the scope of that disparity and its impact on OA practices?

@publisher2b: One of the fundamental reason OA works in the STEM fields is that there is funding available to pay for the APCs (article processing charges), and the amount of that funding is substantial, especially when contrasted with funding for publishing in the arts and humanities. The example I used contrasts the budget allocation requests of the NSF and the NIH with those of the NEH and NEA. First, it is important to remember that tax-funded research in STEM fields often is mandated OA, and that researchers routinely build into their grant budgets funds to pay for publishing OA. Not so in the humanities. Neither NEH nor NEA pay for publishing. Second, the disparity in funding itself is dramatic. Contrast the $37B in the combined NSF/NIH with the $300M in the NEH/NEA. It’s almost incomprehensible.

@cplong: That is a huge disparity. In order to make it more comprehensible, we created this infographic (here is the PDF of the infographic).

Pennies on the Dollar

The data here are based on the budgets from the NSF, NIH  (go to the pdf. p. ES-5), NEA, and NEH. We developed the graphic with @cfenton83, who has a talent for making big numbers comprehensive on a human scale. It was based on the following calculation: $300M to NEA and NEH divided by 316 Million Americans = $0.949/person versus $37.77B to NIH and NSF divided by 316 Million Americans = $119.55/person. It obviously ignores tax disparities and counts all Americans, including non-paying citizens like children. But the difference between a single (very cheap) cup of coffee and a smart phone illustrates the public’s devaluation of the arts and humanities in relation to STEM.

Even if science is a more expensive undertaking than research in the humanities, a small decrease in that disparity by an increase in public funding for the humanities and a commitment by the NEH and NEA to pay for OA publishing might make OA publishing more feasible in the humanities.

Perhaps we should set a goal of funding the arts and humanities at the level of a cup of Starbuck coffee. To afford a tall cup of Starbucks ($1.75), we’d need to increase the funding of the arts and humanities to $553M.

In the unlikely event that increased funding will be forthcoming, however, what are identifiable funding models to sustain OA in the arts and humanities? There are, of course, versions of the “Author Pays” model, be they through subventions from universities or directly from individual authors, but that obviously brings with it concerns about the ethics of self-publication and an unfair advantage to humanists with institutional resources.

@publisher2b: I’m sorry if this sounds snarky, but if there were existing viable financial models for sustaining Open Access (besides Author Pays), many more publishers, institutes, libraries, associations, and other scholarly entities would be rushing to adopt them.

A recent effort to fund OA publishing via crowdsourcing by K|N Consultants ( is underway. It’s too soon to tell whether that will succeed. Knowledge Unlatched, especially designed for OA monograph publishing ( got off to a good start with their pilot program, but it is my understanding that they’ve recently encountered funding problems and its sustainability is in question. An early entry into Knowledge Unlatched, Purdue University Press and Scholarly Publishing Services, also has an impressive track record for publishing OA ( This initiative comes out of the Purdue University Libraries, and enjoys solid university and university library financial support. Purdue’s Publishing Division offers a full suite of publishing services both campus facing and facing outward (as is typical for a traditional university press). (Full disclosure: I sit on Purdue Publishing’s Management Advisory Board.) Purdue has witnessed remarkable numbers of full-text downloads (+8M to date; >2.5M in the past year). It is interesting that Purdue also publishes in STEM fields. Funding comes from earned income and university subsidy as well as grants.

There are initiatives on other fronts: AAU/ARL is working on funding monographs based on R. Crow’s white paper on funding models. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, too, has been exploring the issue for several years, and continues to look at ways to make monograph publishing sustainable (e.g., their Open Library of the Humanities pilot).

Such positive developments are happening elsewhere, but the real math behind these operations is not always clear, and thus it can be hard to replicate in other contexts.

So, a sustainable instance of OA in one situation is positive, but unless it is repeatable, it is not a “model.” Author-pays and sponsorship are the two most common models (I publish a sponsored OA journal). One wonders where sponsorship will come from, especially since sponsored publications do not seem to realize any benefit of scale and there’s only so many sponsors.

@cplong: Yes, we had a good conversation with the Mellon Foundation this summer about possible funding models Mellon might support to sustain open access publishing and the publishing of monographs specifically. Still, even if Mellon invests significantly in this area, humanists without significant institutional support would be at a disadvantage.

@publisher2b: You are entirely correct about the risk that OA does not level the playing field to enter the publishing arena but in fact can tilt the opportunities toward individuals and institutions with resources. It can possibly exclude, for example, many who may not enjoy resources, such as graduate students, adjuncts, independent scholars, and retired scholars.

To address this problem effectively, we also need better data about the costs of OA publishing. The Scholarly Kitchen recently posted a report on “Quantifying the Costs of Open Access Publishing in the UK.” I’ve only skimmed it, but quantitative data about the costs of OA publishing are desperately needed if we’re to build models that work in multiple contexts. This could be a promising start, or it could be that the data show that costs for OA publishing may exceed those of the subscription model. Even in the face of potentially more access, the numbers need to work, especially in the humanities.

Another smart piece from Martin Paul Eve should be looked at too. His “Consortial Funding” model is particularly interesting. He acknowledges the problem with the free rider possibilities (the same problem university presses have in the current system); it’s difficult to imagine, however, how much cost–even spread consortially–could realistically be assumed by this model since it doesn’t, as nearly as I can tell, generate any revenue to support itself.

@cplong: There are complicated and important issues here that underscore the need to recognize that Open Access is not simply an ethical question, though I would suggest it has important ethical dimensions. Still, for those of us who want to advocate strongly for it, we also need to think carefully about how to create the conditions to sustain it. Thank you, Patrick, for your insights here, and we invite readers to join the conversation by posting comments below or by tweeting us and using the hashtag #OAHum for Open Access in the Humanities.

Join the discussion One Comment

Leave a Reply