Dear American Historical Association

Dear AHA,

 Thank you for your recent “Statement on Scholarly Journal Publishing.” I, like you, agree that the conversations surrounding open access to scholarly research is a very complex issue, with many competing factors. Especially as a humanities-leaning individual myself, I sympathize with your concerns about the seeming focus of this topic on scientific research. I think that focus lends itself well to the argument that publicly funded research should be publicly available, but we are all aware that funding works differently in the humanities. I thank you also for your invitation and admonition to openly discuss the changes in scholarly publishing, and I’m pleased to take the opportunity.

Open access, so we are clear from the outset, is a principle that is concerned with protecting the quality filters that are so vital to scholarly work (peer-review, editorial oversight), while adapting the dissemination mechanism by which that research is shared. Your outline of the challenging circumstances facing the international scholarly community is absolutely right on; in libraries this “inequality of access” was called the “Scholarly Communications Crisis” with serials acquisitions costs increasing to nearly unsustainable levels as our budgets decline. The goal, which is understated too often in my opinion, is that together libraries, publishers and scholars will be able to work toward an adaptable system of publishing.

It is very important at this point that I make one distinction. The findings of the Finch Report, an important document in any regard, are complicated at best. More than a few leaders in open access advocacy have loudly dismissed the report’s insistence on open access journals as a key method for evolving this system. The “author-pays” model for financing these journals is not ideal, and in fact is only one of two very different methods of participating in making one’s research “open access.” The other means of accomplishing open access, archiving versions of scholarly articles in open access repositories, is not only free, but a tool that many University libraries already support. A History faculty member can publish in the prestigious, high-impact journal of choice, maintained by rigorous review and editorial standards, and, with proper licenses in the copyright transfer, place a version of that same article (most often the peer-reviewed version) in an institutional repository. Often times, for the publisher to allow their final published version to have maximum impact, there are short embargoes (6-12 months) on the article in the repository. The fact that there are two entirely different ways to achieve open access for scholarly research is the most common misunderstanding about this topic. Additionally, the Finch Report’s focus on author fees is misguided; in fact 83% of open access journals published by societies do not currently charge author fees but subsidize their costs in a variety of ways (most of which are compiled here in the Open Access Directory).

I’ll briefly address your concerns, one by one:

a) The availability of funding to support open access publishing would not matter the slightest if the focus shifted to utilizing open access repositories to their full potential.

b) Yes, moving the costs incurred from library subscriptions (on the end of the publishing cycle) to supporting or subsidizing publication costs (on the front side of the publishing cycle) is something that is being done. More than a few libraries have instituted “open access funds” [PDF] that are designed to aid faculty who want to publish in journals that charge a fee. Also, a lot of these funds WILL NOT give money to faculty who have grants with publication costs built in. This is just one current way that libraries and universities are experimenting with moving the money to continue to support scholarship while embracing new models of dissemination.

c) The question of the costs and benefits of open access to societies and associations is one that is being discussed even as you bring it up. I am in no place to recommend how the AHA could adapt AHR, but I will point to several authoritative pieces that have dealt with this very recently.




Many of these pieces indicate that the benefits of open access (having humanities research being more widely accessible, read and discussed) could outweigh the costs of waiting to adapt business models that are quickly becoming outmoded.

d) Perhaps an APC system would create poor incentives, however it should be made abundantly clear that none of the open access advocates are hoping to “bypass journals and peer review.” Publishers, who are reaping the financial benefits of scholarly research that is produced of a gift economy, have the most to gain from APCs, as they have gained from library subscriptions. If the goal is to continue to produce high-quality scholarship, which is vetted through the same quality filters, the means by which this scholarship is shared has no bearing. Open access happens after the tried and true review and editing process is complete. I’ll concede that peer review is costly, although there are hopes that, to preserve that system, the costs will be shared and/or distributed differently between the partners in scholarly publishing (libraries, departments, fields, publishers, Associations, etc.)

I particularly like your phrasing that “solutions that ignore the wide differences between the respective landscapes of science and humanities journals generate new, and more difficult, dilemmas.” I’ll offer one suggestion and propose a greater dilemma, both borrowed from your equal, the Modern Language Association. One solution that the MLA has adopted is to adopt open access friendly author agreements, allowing and encouraging the authors that publish in their flagship journals to not only gain some knowledge about the copyrights they hold to their journal articles, but also to exercise those rights and deposit those works in open access repositories.

The greater dilemma, articulated most eloquently by Kathleen Fitzpatick, Director of the MLA’s Office of Scholarly Communications, is that if humanities scholarship doesn’t adapt to the changing scholarly publishing landscape, the public will continue to lose its incentive to believe in, and support “the humanities.” She writes,

The problem, of course, is that the more we close our work away from the public, and the more we refuse to engage in dialogue across the boundaries of the academy, the more we undermine that public’s willingness to fund our research and our institutions…the major crisis facing the funding of higher education is an increasingly widespread conviction that education is a private responsibility rather than a public good; we wind up strengthening that conviction when we treat our work as private, by keeping it to ourselves. Closing our work away from non-scholarly readers, and keeping our conversations private, might protect us from public criticism, but it can’t protect us from public apathy, a condition that is, in the current economy, far more dangerous.

Thank you for engaging this topic, and opening the conversation lines for your members and interested parties like myself.



Micah Vandegrift

Scholarly Communications Librarian

The Florida State University

*Opinions are my own*



3 thoughts on “Dear American Historical Association

  1. Pingback: #AHAGate: In Retrospect | The Infornado

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