Regulation and Reality: Experiences of a “Gold” Open-Access Publisher in Social Sciences and in Arts and Humanities

When the British government made the decision to implement all recommendations of Dame Janet Finch’s Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings in July 2012, I jumped for joy. I worked for 6 years in traditional subscription publishing and was increasingly disillusioned with the overuse of taxpayers’ money and other flaws in the publishing system—loss of copyright to authors, long time to publication, the subjectivity of much peer review, and funding systems. I wanted to do something about what I perceived as wrong in traditional publishing. I believe that “gold” openaccess (OA) publishing is the solution—a model that will bring market forces of price comparison and genuine choice to bear, that preserves the quality thresholds associated with scholarly publishing while embracing innovation, and that offers a private-sector solution rather than burdening taxpayers. A strong precedent of successful publications has been set in the science, technology, and medicine (STM) sphere, such as in PLoS ONE and BioMed Central. Scholars, students, and librarians in social sciences and the humanities have the same needs for up-to-date, high-quality research that is freely available.

In January 2012, I put my beliefs into action and set up an OA Web site, Social Sciences Directory (and later a sister site, Humanities Directory). Those directories

  • Are online only and thus dispense with the print legacy of limited pagination and unnecessarily high rejection rates.
  • Respond to changing user behavior by providing a multidisciplinary and multi-content platform whose entry point is a keyword search on a search engine.
  • Make content freely available and allow authors to retain copyright ownership under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.
  • Concentrate peer reviewing on technical soundness: Has sufficient academic rigor been applied to produce results and conclusions that are robust? If so, an article is deemed suitable for publication. This method of review removes subjectivity from the process and relies on objective opinions.

Having set my course against the status quo, I am now encountering firsthand many obstacles, particularly in the UK with the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the conflation of research output with where it is published. The REF’s goal is expensive and self-perpetuating: predefining lists of journals creates bottlenecks as authors try to have their work included, it ignores other viable (or better) publishing outlets, it gives traditional publishers carte blanche in pricing because the system gives them a monopoly, and it creates barriers for such entrants as our Directories that are trying to offer valuable, progressive solutions.

Despite a high level of support, six main recurring objections are being encountered:

  1. No budget. Learning lessons from other publishers that have offered OA but then set article-processing charges (APCs) in the hundreds of pounds and institutional memberships in the range of £10,000 (about $15,000) or more, Social Sciences Directory has APCs of £100 ($150) and institutional membership charges of £2,000 ($3,000). The present commercial publishing model is unsustainable for library budgets.
  2. Lack of ownership for OA funds. OA publishing, particularly outside STM in such fields as social sciences and the arts and humanities, is still not well established. It is unclear who will pay the APCs or membership charges. Neither libraries nor faculty departments are taking leadership in putting effective systems and examples of best practices into place.
  3. Lack of faculty interest. Although I have Lack of faculty interest offered alternatives that have been shown to be fair and viable and that address the relevant issues and received many expressions of support, I have also seen examples of an attitude that dismisses any notion of change. Perhaps most academics operate in a system that insulates them from the business aspects of publishing and need more education in this regard.
  4. Wait-and-see attitude. Most universities have said that they are interested in principle but will not be early adopters. That prevarication suits the traditional publishers, which will begin to offer their own variants, but stifles current alternatives.
  5. Institutional repositories (IRs). Some universities have established IRs and encourage their faculty to deposit papers there. I support IRs but question whether they are an effective solution. Many subscription publishers allow authors to publish papers in their IRs, and this suggests that the work will not be effectively disseminated and therefore does not pose a threat to their subscription sales.
  6. Untested service and unknown editorial board. Existing subscription publishers will look to leverage existing journals by creating OA journals with editorial boards that are familiar. However, the main purpose for many is to support or increase existing revenues, which will occur through setting high article-processing charges and “double dipping” in hybrid journals.

In June 2012, the findings of a survey of librarians’ attitudes and awareness of OA models were published by InTech1. The report generally echoed my experience in this statement: “The greatest concern librarians have with OA centers on the article-processing charges being set too high. There is generally less concern with the quality of peer review.” Librarians pay the bills and want a change to a more cost-effective model; academics want to be published in the best journals and in general don’t worry about the cost. A disconnect exists between the motives of librarians and researchers; if librarians are going to become— as the report summary said—“more closely integrated with their research communities as a partner, educator and innovator”, they need to be more assertive in bringing change about. I have these questions for librarians:

  • What are you doing to build awareness of OA among your research communities?
  • Are you creating informational materials?
  • Are you creating frameworks and processes for the central management of OA funds?
  • Do you understand how OA funds are managed in your institution?
  • Have you established what are fair and acceptable APCs and institutional membership charges?
  • Are you highlighting what the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) is doing to maintain quality in OA publishing?

Someone or some group in the library and academic communities needs to take the initiative and formulate policies. That leadership could be taken by such advocates as OASPA, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, or the Open Knowledge Foundation Network or by such library consortia or groups as the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions or the UK Joint Information Systems Committee. My experiences in scholarly publishing over several years led me to the conclusion that change was desperately needed but difficult to implement in an environment that is traditional and slow to adapt. Change has now been made inevitable; it started in the UK with the Finch report and is likely to take place in many other countries. Perhaps Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s “change curve” needs to be used to recognize the pain of the transition that is under way. I hope that we will move rapidly from a position of shock, denial, and anger to one of acceptance and integration.


  1. TBI Communications (2012), Assessing the role of librarians in an Open Access world, prepared by TBI Communications on behalf of InTech. Survey_Findings_Jun12.pdf.
  2. Educational Business Articles. “The change curve – how do we react to change?” Accessed May 1, 2013.