Humanities scholars can act now to go open access (opinion)

The vast majority of humanities research papers are locked behind costly paywalls. That’s because most humanities scholars do not make their research papers open access, or freely available to readers. According to a 2020 study, fewer than 25 percent of papers published in the humanities are open access, compared with closer to 70 percent in the physical and mathematical sciences.

This is a big problem. Those who lack affiliation with a well-funded library, including scholars at less wealthy institutions, independent researchers, and even interested in those members of the public, will find it difficult to access and read papers. And while there are a couple of alternative options they can try to obtain a copy of the paper, these options have their own pitfalls.

The first alternative is for potential readers to reach out directly to the author of the paper they are interested in. But this doesn’t always work out. As an independent scholar, I’ve personally had my emails ignored when I’ve politely asked if I could be sent a copy of a paywalled paper, and others, including researchers and terrorist, have had their requests denied. Not to mention some potential readers, for example, graduate students or members of the public, may not realize that contacting the author is an option, or they may feel uncomfortable doing so.

Pirate websites like Sci-Hub are another, admittedly less than legal, option. But again, there is no guarantee that potential readers can access a paper this way. Academic publishers have obtained court-ordered IP blocking in a number of countries and will presumably continue to do so in the future, meaning that potential readers in those countries will be unable to access Sci-Hub without some tech savviness. And even if Sci-Hub is not blocked, it may simply not have the paper a potential reader is looking for. One study puts its coverage of the arts and humanities papers at 77.7 percent, which means that more than a fifth of such papers are unavailable. And, of course, some readers will not feel comfortable using an illicit pirate website.

The upshot is that readers who are blocked by a paywall are all too often unable to access the paper at all. Think about the implications of this for a moment. Fellow researchers at less well-off institutions and recent Ph.D. graduates without an academic job hoping to get lucky on next year’s job market will be hampered in their research. Journalists interested in covering humanities topics (and yes, it does happen—I’ve written about the philosophy of science, for example) won’t be able to write about, and draw attention to, important humanities research. And members of the public with an interest in the humanities, perhaps wanting to come back to a subject that caught their attention in college, will be unable to satisfy their curiosity.

So what can be done? While transitioning to open-access journals in the humanities is more difficult than in the sciences, there is already a way for humanities scholars to publish their work open access. Many publishers allow researchers to self-archive versions of their published paper—that is, to upload them to institutional or subject repositories or their personal websites, where they can be freely downloaded by anyone, without paying any open-access fees. This is known as “green open access.”

Yet despite this, fewer than 10 percent of humanities papers have been made available via green open access. One reason for this may be that self-archiving can seem confusing at first, as different publishers have different conditions on when, where and how a paper can be uploaded.

For example, the Australasian Journal of Philosophy Allows scholars to upload a copy of the accepted, but not yet typeset, manuscript to their personal website as soon as it is published but requires them to wait 18 months before uploading it to a repository. The European Journal of Philosophyon the other hand, requires scholars to wait 24 months before uploading their accepted manuscripts anywhere.

Fortunately, there is an extremely useful tool that brings all of this information to your fingertips: Sherpa Romeo. Simply type in the name of a journal, and it will immediately display, in a thankfully easy-to-digest way, when and where you can upload your paper and any conditions that the publisher requires you to follow. Once you’ve gone through the process of self-archiving your paper a few times, it becomes second nature.

For scholars new to green open access, there are a few important points to be aware of. First, many publishers do not allow you to self-archive the final, typeset manuscript. Second, many publishers, like Cambridge University Press, forbid you from uploading accepted manuscripts to commercial repositories and social media networking sites like Academia.edu and ResearchGate. So it’s best to stick to your personal website, a repository of your institution manages or a subject repository like PhilSci Archive. Third, some publishers, like Wiley, don’t allow you to self-archive your accepted manuscript until after a certain length of time, known as an embargo period, has passed. A publisher might even have different embargo periods depending on where you upload your manuscript, so it’s best to check their self-archiving policy or Sherpa Romeo before you self-archive.

As you can probably already tell, green open access is not perfect. Requiring scholars to wait months or years before uploading their papers to a repository is not going to help potential readers of recent papers who are blocked by paywalls. And refusing to allow the final, typeset version of a paper with the journal’s formatting and pagination to be uploaded can also cause problems to humanities scholars, who often need to include quotes, and the appropriate page numbers, in citing other papers.

But failing to be perfect doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make use of it. While I remain hopeful that we will be able to reform the current academic publishing system that gives big publishers larger profit margins than Apple or Google, doing so will take time. And in the meantime, green open access is a tool that we can use right now to give more people access to humanities research. Humanities scholars just need to jump in and do it.

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