Open Access and Professional Historians

By Yvonne Perkins

The issue of open access has grown from a fringe movement led by a few mathematicians and scientists to an issue that is being debated in academia throughout the western world.  Governments are taking notice and the United Kingdom is in the process of seeing a significant change in the manner in which academic journal articles are to be published.  The Australian Research Council has recently announced their open access policy.

We are in the midst of a profound change in the system of academic publishing. This is an issue that Australian historians cannot ignore.

What is ‘open access’?  It is recognition of the injustice to researchers who cannot access academic journal articles because of the prohibitive fees charged to people who do not belong to an institution with a library which pays the hefty subscriptions.  Academics in poorer institutions are not able to access vital research papers thus restricting their ability to conduct the kind of ground breaking research that will benefit humanity.  Most research in universities is funded by taxpayers.  Those same taxpayers then have to pay again, as much as $30 per article, to read about the research they funded.  Open access is about making academic journal articles freely open to anyone.

The Australian Historical Association has written a useful summary of the changes in Australia and how they affect Australian historians which we should all read.  The Australian Research Council (ARC) has recently announced their open access policy.  All publications arising from ARC funded projects from the beginning of this year must be deposited in an open access institutional repository within twelve months of publication.

However, this is not the end of the debate.  The publication of academic journals is in a state of flux and it is important that historians keep abreast of the issues and debates not only in Australia but elsewhere in the world.  We are part of one world of historical research and publishing. The academic publishing model chosen by one nation has a direct impact on us as Australian historian, Brett Holman explains in this post in which he describes the implications of the changes in the United Kingdom on his research and writing.

Likewise historians overseas are directly affected by their ability to access Australian history journals.  Melodee Beals is a Senior Lecturer working in the United Kingdom who researches the history of Scottish emigration.  She is interested in both the communities to which Scots migrated as well as the Scottish remaining in Scotland, hence her research includes Australia.  In her blog post about open access she describes the difficulties she has in accessing the journal articles she needs:

I found myself constantly barred from some journal, some database, that I desperately needed. When I begged my librarians for subscriptions, I was politely informed just how much electronic subscriptions cost. As the only researcher in my department who needed this particular publication, how I could I ever justify such a recurring expense?

She gave this remark on twitter recently in response to the prospect of Australian history journals becoming open access:

@perkinsy very much hope it’s soon! Very hard to get digital subscriptions at UK unis.

— Melodee Beals (@mhbeals) March 8, 2013

It is particularly important that the voice of independent historians is heard in these debates.  One of the proposals that has gained favour in some quarters as a result of the Finch Report into open access in the United Kingdom is the gold access model.  Gold access includes an ‘article-processing charge’ (APC).  Under this model it is proposed that the author pays the publisher for the privilege of publication rather than the current model where the reader pays the publisher.  If an historian works at a university they may be able to persuade their institution to pay the charge, but an independent historian would have to fund it themselves.  In the same blog post referred to earlier, Brett Holman also explains the problems that the APC would present to independent historians if this model were to be adopted.

I believe that open access can provide significant benefits to all historians in Australia if the model adopted is carefully chosen after full and reasoned consultation with all historians, academic and independent.  Historians in Australia can choose three responses to the open access debate:

  1. Ignore it in the belief that it does not affect us and won’t in the future;
  2. Insist that the present model of publication and access to articles in Australian historical journals is the best one and that any change will be detrimental; or
  3. Understand that change is going to occur, engage with the debate so that the model adopted in Australia for academic historical journals is the best model for all practising historians in Australia.

I believe that change will occur.  If historians adopt either position one or two above they will be ignored and the changes that take place will not necessarily be in their best interests.

We need to make sure that independent researchers are not marginalised by the model of open access that is chosen.  Professional historians need to become informed and get involved in this debate.  What do you think about open access?  Are there other issues concerning open access and professional historians that we should be aware of?  Add your comment below!

This blog post reflects the views of the author and does not reflect the position of the Professional Historians’ Association of New South Wales.  

Useful Websites and Posts about Open Access

3 thoughts on “Open Access and Professional Historians”

  1. Well said, but as ever, the fundamental issue is one of publishers having to recoup costs and make a profit.No harm in that, but the cost to the researcher is prohibitive. There would have to be another model which allows a front end fee for as ‘much as you can eat’, so to speak. Pay by article is clearly ridiculous, but the existing model isn’t going to be replaced anytime soon. It’s easier said than done and one can hardly blame journals from wanting to seriously damage revenue flows.
    Sounds defeatist? Not intended to, but the blog is a timely reminder that we should continue to look into this and keep the dialogue moving.

  2. Thanks for your comments Ron. You say that “the existing model isn’t going to be replaced anytime soon”, but it is being replaced as we speak. There have already been changes in Australia ie the new Australian Research Council requirements, the development of open access policies at Australian universities such as the Open Access Policy of Macquarie University and institutional repositories such as this one from the University of Queensland. The UK government and funding bodies are working through policies to change academic publishing there. Significantly it is academics themselves that are driving this change through their actions eg. the resignation of the board of editors for the Journal of Library Administration over issues relating to open access.

    While it costs some money to run an academic journal, it does not cost much. Authors, peer reviewers and members of editorial boards all donate their time for free. Yes, layout and formatting of the journal usually needs some skill that needs to be paid for. However, there are many publishing platforms that are available online at little cost and requiring little technical skill. The costs of running an academic journal are very low.

    We need to think outside the square, to set our imaginations alight. This debate is a tremendous opportunity to conceive of something that works better to stimulate good research and debate.

  3. Gold open access does not require Article Processing Charges (APCs). ‘Gold’ refers to work that is published in journals (that are mostly peer reviewed and free) whereas ‘Green’ refers to work made available through a digital repository. If you were to look at the journals in the Directory of Open Access Journals you would find that most of them do not require any kind of fee.

    For more info about Green, Gold, Gratis, Libre, etc. see Peter Suber:

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