Open Access Journal Publishing and the History of Science

[I was asked to contribute a short piece for Viewpoint, the magazine of the British Society for the History of Science. This has been published, and is available via the BSHS’s website. While researching the piece, I put out a request on twitter for information about open access history of science journals. I received really helpful responses from a number of people, including Vanessa Heggie (@HPS_Vanessa), Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh), Doris Lechner (@dolechner), Leucha Veneer (@LVeneer), Maths Books (@MathsBooks), Medical Heritage Library (@MedicalHeritage), and Jaipreet Virdi (@jaivirdi). Here is the list – let me know if I’ve missed any:

Isis is not open access, but does make its ‘Focus’ section available freely online here. There are also, of course, other useful open access publications out there such as Reviews in History and Dissertation Reviews that cover the history of science, not to mention the many, many blogs devoted to the subject. The editor of Viewpoint, Melanie Keene, has given me permission to republish my piece here, so here it is…]

BJHS: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

This is an interesting moment to have an anniversary in academic publishing. It seems like the industry is always in a crisis of one form or another, whether related to declining sales of monographs or increasing subscription costs for journals (the two are not unconnected). However, the publication of the Finch report in July and its recent endorsement by the UK government represents a real shift in the economy that underpins how journals are financed. The Finch report, for those of you not following the tribulations of British HE, recommended moving towards Gold Open Access (ie peer-reviewed content that is available free at the point of use) funded through Author Processing Charges (APCs). These recommendations, while representing a welcome embrace of open access, have been roundly criticised for what the report left out. Rather than go over this again, I’d like to focus on what these recommendations might mean for the academic journal as a genre.

The journal is a remarkably durable print form that has served scholarship well for centuries. While what was understood as appropriate scholarship has shifted dramatically over time, the form of the journal has robustly resisted innovation. Although readers unfamiliar with early volumes of the Philosophical Transactions might be thrown by the typography and range of content, they would easily recognise it as a journal and know how it should be read. The form of the journal successfully serves a number of purposes. It is a good way of getting content out promptly, but its rhythms also allowed the supply of content to be managed. As a business model, journal publishing is more forgiving than one-off publication as overheads are lower and investment can be recouped over a sustained period of time. It has proven a good way to make money, allowing publishers to profit by serving scholarship, whether through publications published in collaboration with societies or as independent commercial concerns. For scholarly societies, the journal provides a textualised representation of the community, helping to distribute its codes and ideals and coalesce distant readers into communities, while also providing a useful source of income. For contributors, the existence of a parent publication can provide a useful famework for content, conferring authority onto whatever is published. For the scholarly community as a whole, the journal distributes content in a way that is easily organised, forming a browsable archive in the volumes lined up on the shelf.

What has been surprising is the way the print journal migrated into digital form. The emergence of the web transformed the internet into a publishing platform and prompted endless predictions of print’s demise. As we know, whereas the newspaper industry has still not worked out how to make news pay in the digital age, the book has thrived, albeit, perhaps, at the cost of the high street book shop. Scholarly publishing came late to the web, suspicious of a medium that looked ephemeral when compared to print. The benefits of digital archives, however, were quickly grasped and enterprises such as JSTOR (1995-) demonstrated how back-issues might be digitised and presented online. For publishers, the digital archive was a way of monetising old volumes, creating new products of tremendous value to scholars that could be sold to libraries in addition to ongoing institutional subscriptions. The main benefits, online distribution and search, derived from new digital properties, but the way they were digitised replicated the forms of the print genre.

The key question is whether these print-first digital journals get the best out of the web. If they are primarily a way of distributing peer-reviewed articles, then the replication of seriality is not so important; and if scholars want their work read, they would be better served avoiding a publishing model that locks articles behind expensive paywalls. Publishers are trying to adapt, offering access to articles online before they are attributed a place in the print journal and open access options to contributors who can pay, yet there are many features native to the web that still have no place in scholarly publishing. The link, for instance, that fundamental building block of the web, remains excluded and the persistent use of pdf explicitly models paper. The Finch report by no means answers these questions and, with its assumption that Gold Open Access must equal ‘author pays’, was never going to. What it will do, however, is make scholars think differently about what they publish. I hope that the shock at having to pay to give work away will prompt scholars to think harder about current forms of academic scholarship. Many scholarly societies, including the BSHS, use their journals to raise revenue but, if there are better ways to publish research then I think we have a responsibility to pursue them.

2 thoughts on “Open Access Journal Publishing and the History of Science

  1. Hi, Jim. Wanted to let you know that before June Gale is publishing over 4m pages if STM content from about 1770 to 1920, spanning science (mostly math theory), technology(the tactics of strategic science) and medicine (mainly American medical journals) as part of NCCO. Next year, also as part of NCCO, we’re aiming for another 5M pages of STM journals and monographs but the emphasis on subject and scope is not fully developed. Remember these are “antiques” as far as scientific and medical thought go, so it’s not about open access but rather about dragging this stuff into digital daylight. I imagine the uses are “medicine and…” say gender, or politics or warfare. And three other archives in NCCO this year. Anyway, thought I’d touch base. Hope you are well.

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