Learned Societies and Open Access

by Steven Wheatley, American Council of Learned Societies

Let’s begin with a story from when the research university was still new. William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago aggressively recruited “star faculty” with inventive blandishments. The president was known to promise a wavering scholar that he (almost always a “he” in those days) could serve as editor of not one but two new journals that the university presses would publish: one a journal for academic specialists and a second for the general public (Robert E. Yahnke, ed., A Time of Humanities: An Oral History Recollections of David H. Stevens as Director in the Division of the Humanities, Rockefeller Foundation, 1930-1950 [Madison: Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, 1976], p. 11). This strategy soon proved to be fiscally unsustainable, but we can admire the twin goals of building both scholarly rigor and public enlightenment.

The new research university, together with the modern learned society created at the same time, posited a new paradigm of research that strove for both social and pedagogical utility and restructured the university and its allied systems, including scholarly communication, to serve those ends. In 2015, it seems that so much of their great project is up for grabs. Of particular concern is the future of the scholarly journal in radically changed technological, policy, and social environment.

Today, the executive directors and presidents of humanities learned societies must ask: To what question is Open Access the answer?

They see two separate dimensions of the Open Access movement. First, it is a policy prescription aiming to cure an instance of market-failure in the system of scholarly communication. At the end of the twentieth century, commercial for-profit publishers realized that the economic structure of academic publishing was premised on a third party payer. Faculty expected their university libraries to subscribe to leading journals without regard to cost. With little price resistance from the payer, subscription prices went up steadily and library budgets were overtaxed. The Open Access movement was a treatment for the fever of predatory pricing. This problem emerged in the sciences and proposed solutions assumed the environment of scientific research and publishing. But journals published by societies in the humanities and interpretive social sciences are not part of this policy problem and the solutions proposed do not fit our domain.

There is, however, a second, more normative, dimension of Open Access. It is a vision of scholarly and cultural commonwealth more equal than that we enjoy today, a vision wherein the greater accessibility of scholarship increases its consumption, transmission, and, ultimately, production. This vision is integral to the basic conception of the modern American learned society and, therefore, society leaders in the humanities and adjacent social sciences are exploring how it might be approached without getting waist deep in a Big Muddy of red ink that would imperil their journals and perhaps even the associations themselves.

Most of learned societies in the humanities have roughly the same business model: a three-legged stool of membership dues, conference registration and exhibition revenues, and publications. Publications are mostly journals, although some also issue monographs and reference sources. Almost all societies live close to the margin of their operating income. Their modest reserves could not sustain them for very long without other revenue.

Each leg of this business model is very uncertain now. Society leaders worry about membership in relation to the changing demographics of the faculty and the declining portion of the teaching force on the tenure track. Attendance at conferences and meetings is affected by the vagaries of airline fares and the decline in university budgets for travel. All societies are looking for other means of revenue and new means of strengthening the basic value proposition they present to potential members.

Most society publications make money, but not a lot. One study of eight journals in the humanities and social sciences found that, in 2007, they had about $6.9 million in costs and $8.4 million in revenue. So that would come to less than $200,000 per journal if the costs and revenues were distributed equally (Mary Waltham, “The Future of Scholarly Journals Publishing among Social Science and Humanities Associations“).

Subscriptions to journals in the humanities and interpretive social sciences are cheap. The price of college/university subscriptions to Isis varies from $427 to $989 depending on the institution’s size. To speak loosely but concisely, the prices of humanities journals are “decimal dust” compared to the cost of many STEM subscriptions.

For most humanities journals, subscription revenue from institutions and individuals roughly equals costs, so that their surplus comes largely from advertising and royalties. Most of this surplus goes back into the societies. This return is money the scholarly system pays itself to maintain systems of peer-review essential to scholarly integrity and intellectual advance. This is money well-spent.

So, to what question is Open Access to humanities journals the answer? Is it the answer to the strains on library budgets? Absolutely not. Humanities journals are what the Faculty Advisory Council to the Harvard Library describes as “sustainably priced” (The Harvard Library, “Faculty Advisory Council Memorandum on Journal Pricing” April 17, 2012).  I would suggest that it takes a fairly absolutist, Manichean lens to suggest that any price is a predatory price.

Could Gold Open Access, the author-pays model, work in the humanities? It could, if the humanities had more gold, but we don’t. Last year, ACLS awarded more than $15 million in fellowships and grants, but if recipients of our fellowship used their stipends to pay Article Processing Fees of say, $2,500/article, they would be trading publication costs for research time. The same equation would apply to awards from other national fellowship granting organizations. Something will be left uncovered if the blanket of humanities research support is pulled to cover author publication costs.


As the American Historical Association noted, if the author-pays models were adopted widely in the humanities it would increase the already problematic level of inequality in academia. Wealthy institutions might pay the fees for their faculty, but scholars at most colleges and universities could not expect such support. Also, of course, articles form only a fraction of the pages of humanities journals, with many pages devoted to book reviews. Would article processing fees need to bear the cost of that portion of the publication?

But is Open Access the answer to how a learned society accomplishes its mission? It can be an answer, but only if the society still has the means to accomplish its ends after instituting some form of Open Access. Our member societies are experimenting with different adaptations of OA. Many allow authors of articles to retain rights to post their work on their own website, in institutional repositories, or with ungated links to the journal itself. The Latin American Studies Association has taken a geographical approach to the question: its journal and publications are open access to Latin American IP addresses, while subscribers elsewhere pay fees. Some societies with several publications are experimenting with an Open Access regime of some journals while maintaining the subscription revenues of others.

Can learned societies in the humanities pull off William Rainey Harper’s trick? Can they have the means to identify, celebrate and publish scholarly excellence while also promoting the broadest circulation of new knowledge? I am optimistic that they will, but much experimentation and adaptation will be required. Let us hope they do, for learned societies, with their open membership and democratic governance, provide one of the most powerful solvents for the growing stratification in US higher education.

About the Author

Steve Wheatley is Vice President of the American Council of Learned Societies. This article is a version of the talk that he gave on a panel on open access at the HSS Chicago Meeting, 7 Nov 2014.

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