Things are Happening in the Humanities. But You Need to be Patient

A few weeks ago, Peter Suber, one of the leading figures of the open access movement, published a blog post on the website of The American Philosophical Association, entitled: ‘Why Open Access is Moving so Slow in the Humanities’. In there, he sums up 9 reasons why this is the case and I will just mention a few below:

‘Journal subscriptions are much higher in the Sciences Technology and Medicine (STM), than in the Humanities & Social Sciences (HSS). In the humanities, relatively affordable journal prices defuse the urgency of reducing prices or turning to open access as part of the solution.’

‘Much more STM research is funded than humanities research, so there is more money available for paying any open access charges.’

‘STM faculty typically need to publish journal articles to earn tenure, while humanities faculty need to publish books. But the logic of open access applies better to articles, which authors give away, than to books, which have the potential to earn royalties.’

Sadness of it all is that this post is a slightly revised version from the original from 2004. Today we’re still dealing with almost the same issues as 13 years ago. One of Suber’s conclusions is that “Open access isn’t undesirable or unattainable in the humanities. But it is less urgent and harder to subsidize than in the sciences.”[1]

I fully agree with this conclusion. But did we achieve nothing for the humanities then? No, a lot of things have happened in the last 5 to 10 years helping the humanities to make a transition to open access. But we are not there yet.

Open Access Journals

Globally several humanities journals have made the flip from toll access (TA) to open access and several new open access (niche) journals have seen the light in the last couple of years. Currently 9,426 open access journals are indexed by the DOAJ, of which a substantial part is in the humanities. A majority of those journals however, and we must not forget this, don’t charge a dime to publish research in open access.[2] In many cases, and this is exemplary for the humanities, foundations, institutions, and societies are paying for publishing research.

The financial model for open access in the humanities is not an easy road. In my previous life as a publisher in the humanities I’ve developed a few gold open access journals, all financed with money from institutions or research grants. However, subsidies for a journal coming from different institutions is a fragile model. Some of the journals had the ambition to move towards an APC model. None have done it so far.

New kid on the block, but very successful, is the Open Library of Humanities, run by Martin Eve and Caroline Edwards. They proposed and have implemented a model, which is a library funded model. With enough supporting libraries they are able to publish humanities research with no APCs. Main goal is to unburden authors with all kinds of financial hassle.

Institutional publishing

Another trend is the renewed rise of institutional (library) open access publishing. Some examples are Stockholm University Press, UCL Press and Meson Press. They distinguish themselves from traditional university press in the way that they only publish research in open access.

Online research tools

Other interesting developments are the experiments with redefining online publishing. I think it’s safe to say that these experiments just happen in the field of media studies. Collaborative research, writing and publication platforms like MediaCommons and the recently launched Manifold are very exiting initiatives. They all experiment with new digital formats, writing and publishing tools, and data publications.

Open Access Books

Open access for the academic book is on the agenda since 2008 / 2009 with the development of, amongst others, the OAPEN platform. And with indexes like the Directory of Open Access Books, established in 2011, open access books become visible and findable. Two weeks ago, a new milestone was reached with 8000+ open access books being indexed by DOAB and published by 213 publishers.Schermafbeelding 2017-06-23 om 23.55.15

However, open access for books is still underrated. There is a lack of aligned policies. Also, the lack of funding options makes it still very difficult for (smaller) humanities publishers to come up with a sustainable model for open access books. The focus for open access funding still lies with article publishing in journals and the financial models that come along with it.

For this website, I keep track of funders (research councils and universities) that actively support open access book publishing in media studies. I do this since 2015, but up till now the options for funding can be counted on 4 hands maximum. But even in the field of open access books things are happening with projects like Knowledge Unlatched. This project looks at funding coming directly from university libraries, supporting the ‘platform’ or book package and not the individual publication.

So, the important question now is what types of sustainable business models are appropriate for open access publishing in the humanities?

I think one important thing to keep in mind is that if we keep comparing the STM with the HSS it will not getting us very far. Another problem is that (open access) funding policies are still very focused on a local or national level or simply only look at APCs/BPCs. We need to work on a better international alignment of open access policies (per discipline) with different stakeholders (funders, libraries, publishers).

The Dutch Approach: Open Science

In February of this year, the National Plan Open Science[3] was launched in the Netherlands. Towards 2020 this roadmap concentrates on three key areas:

  1. Open access to scientific publications (open access).
  2. Make optimal use and reuse of research data.
  3. Adapting evaluation and award systems to bring them in line with the objectives of open science (reward systems).

cover-os-eng2One of the requirements is that by 2020 all researchers working for a Dutch research university need to publish their work (journals and books(!)) in open access. So this includes the HSS as well. To accomplish this the plan is launched to align all Dutch stakeholders to meet these requirements.

During the launch all the important academic stakeholders (research funders and associations) in the Netherlands explicitly committed themselves to this job. In Finland, similar things are happening.[4] And in other countries discussions have started about open access and open science requirements and indicators as well. It’s of great importance to connect these initiatives together as much as possible.

Preprints… “what”?

One other thing that Suber also mentions in his blog and I’d like to bring into this discussion, are preprints. In the humanities depositing preprints or post prints is not so common as it is in the sciences. That is for obvious reasons; loss of arguments and research outcomes, scooping, etc. etc. But are all these reasons still valid?

As academic community, it’s important to share your research to improve science. In the HSS we are apparently in need for platforms that can quickly disseminate research, based on the popularity (also among humanities scholars) of commercial social sharing platforms like and Researchgate. Note that I deliberately call them social sharing platforms, because that’s what they are.

It’s important that we need to make clear to academics what the implications are when using platforms like and ResearchGate. Both examples are commercial enterprises and interested in as much (personal) data as possible. The infrastructure serves a need but it comes with a cost. We need to think of sustainable alternatives.

Preprint servers per discipline. Image credit: Bosman, J. & Kramer, B.

Back to the preprint discussion. In the humanities (thus for media studies), it is unusual to share research before it is published in a journal or book. But if everyone is so eager to share their publications in different stages of their research why is it still not common practice to share the work on a preprint server, comparable with ArXiv or SSRN (when it was not Elsevier property), and new servers like LawArXiv, SocArXiv, PsyArXiv, etc.

Will it ever become common practice in the humanities to share research in an earlier stage? Maybe this practice could help moving the humanities a bit quicker?

Who knows.






Header image credit: Slughorn’s hourglass in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. © Warner Brothers

Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) Terminates Open Access Incentive Fund on January 2018 – Some Considerations

On Monday, June 26, the Netherlands Research Council (NWO) announced that they will terminate the Incentive Fund Open Access on January 1, 2018.[1] NWO started this Incentive Fund in 2010 to finance open access publications and activities that highlight open access during scientific conferences.

The fund has been useful for advancing open access since it became available in 2010. However, this decision soon follows the launch of the National Plan Open Science (NPOS)[2], signed by NWO, early 2017. In this plan institutions commit themselves explicitly to work on a healthy open access climate to achieve 100% open access for researchers affiliated to Dutch research universities. Now it’s obvious that this fund is not going to be the solution. However, it’s a remarkable step especially now. There is still a lot to do.

The choice is unfortunate, the more because NWO has been one of the first national research councils in Europe with an active open access policy and, moreover, a well-funded program from which APCs (and BPCs) could be paid, provided that the research will be available immediately after publication (the Gold route). On a national level NWO and the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) were the first funding bodies to mandate books and allocate money for BPCs. This policy is therefore quite unique, and only in the last three years or so, it’s under development at other places.

The Incentive Fund was founded with the aim to stimulate Gold open access. NWO hoped that with such a fund, this could be a model that universities would take over; individual institutions should bear the cost of open access with their own budgets. This has hardly come to fruition. Only the University of Amsterdam, Utrecht University, Delft University of Technology, and Wageningen University & Research have had such funds. At this very moment only Utrecht still runs an Open Access fund.

It is absolutely fair to ask why NWO should keep on spending money if it turns out that universities seem to find this step difficult. But now the boy scout decides to throw in the towel. Understandable, but disappointing. There are enough pros (and yes, cons as well) to consider.

In this piece, I would like to give some considerations why it would not (or would) be wise to terminate this fund. I take the arguments that NWO puts forward[3]:

“NWO believes that the academic world is now sufficiently aware of open access publishing and its importance.”

I doubt this very much. The debate on open access has so far been predominantly conducted by policy makers, libraries, and publishers. Researchers often submit their articles to the established and renowned, usually high-impact, journals. This (imposed) culture does not necessarily lead to more articles in open access journals. And yes, there are many researchers who are aware or the benefits of open access and publish their work in open access, but to say that this is ‘sufficiently’? The ‘academic world’ is any case an international one.

“Currently there are many more opportunities for authors to make their publications available via open access channels without having to pay for publication costs. In part, this has been achieved through open access agreements between Dutch universities and publishers. In addition, there are a growing number of open access journals and platforms that do not charge publication costs.”

True, enormous steps have been taken over the past 20 years. Lots of journals made the transfer to open access. There are (commercial and non-profit) platforms for articles, preprints, post prints – you name it. But are these all for free?

NWO brings up the current OA Big Deals in the Netherlands. However, these deals are mainly focused on hybrid journals. All Gold open access journals from, for example, Springer or Wiley are out of the deal. For these journals, an APC is still required. At present, only the deal with Cambridge University Press includes 20 Gold open access journals.[4]

In addition, the OA Big Deals only cover a part of all the Dutch open access publications in journals. At the moment, as academic community, we are trying to get more insight into this.

Not to mention the diversity of the deals. At Elsevier, it is possible to publish in 276 journals for ‘free’. All other (1800+) are still paid for. It is therefore nonsense to think that there are enough channels for researchers to publish their research in open access? I want to stress here that I don’t want to say that the APC-model is the holy-grail. Far from. But it’s the reality with which researchers are faced.

“Finally, there is the green route, which authors can use to deposit their articles in a (university) repository at no cost.”

Yes correct. And we have repositories for every university for more than 10 years. With varying success. However, for the time being, the government has also been advocating open access through the Golden route (i.e. via journals) since 2013 and above all stating that it is the most future-proof. Not in the last place by the VSNU.[5] For NWO, the Golden route has always been the main goal. In addition, NWO demands immediate open access (without embargo period). This is hardly possible with Green (self-archiving) open access unless NWO wants to force researchers to publish the preprint without peer review? Apparently, they have revised their own terms and policy. This can happen of course, but I find it strange to argue that a fund aimed at publishing in journals needs to be terminated when Gold is the standard.

You could also argue that this fund leads to pushing more money in the (publishing) system. Then I’d like to say, let’s do better with the national deals and not only focus on hybrid journals.

In addition, there is the already mentioned National Open Science Program (NPOS). This plan focuses on three key areas, which are: 1. Promoting open access to scientific publications (open access). 2. Promoting optimal use and reuse or research data. 3. Adapting evaluation and award systems to bring them into line with the objectives of open science (reward systems).

One of the ambitions is full open access to publications. As stated:

“The ambition of the Netherlands is to achieve full open access in 2020. The principle that publicly funded research results should also be publicly available at no extra cost is paramount. Until the ambition of full open access to publications in the Netherlands and beyond is achieved, access to scientific information will be limited for the majority of society.”[6]

In this transition phase. And with this, NWO supported, ambition in mind, the termination of a transit fund (this is how it should be seen) seems a bit premature to me. However, it should be said that the possibility remains to budget open access publications in project funding at NWO. But it is to be seen for how long this will happen considering their response: ‘for the time being’.


This post has been posted in Dutch online journal Scienceguide Friday, June 30.







[6] National Plan Open Science, p.21