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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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The predominant intellectual trend of the past 200 years (or longer, actually) has been to relativize and historicize. Although it's possible to read this in a contradictory sense (historicizing is an anti-relativising move), these are also two sides of the same coin. In each case, the mask of universality is removed and that which seemed transcendental is shown as local and contingent; Marx, Freud, Einstein. In the move towards Open Access, some publishers seem to be forgetting that they are dealing with academics for whom this is the modus operandi.

The example that sparked this thought was a call for subject leaders on for a new online journal called the Humanities Directory. My question was a little provocative, but I thought it important to voice my unease about the setup therein:

While I applaud your Open Acces effort, I have a few questions that, owing to the textual medium here, come across a little harshly, but are not so intended. Nonetheless, I'd appreciate a response.

I'm a little unclear as to the role of this site. The introduction says:

"Humanities Directory is an online public database that provides the full contents of the published record of research and scholarly discourse in the arts and humanities in a freely accessible, fully searchable, interlinked form."

So is it a journal, or a database? A database of "the full contents of the published record of research and scholarly discourse in the arts and humanities" doesn't tally with the idea of a single journal (unless this is an attempt to centralise all records) -- a database would be more like the MLA International Bibliography. Coversely nowhere in that introduction is it said that this is a (mega)journal.

I would also like to ask, since you are charging APCs, what proportion of that revenue you are going to re-distribute to peer reviewers? As the charge is stipulated to facilitate review of the manuscript, it seems only right that the people doing the reviews get a decent proportion of the APC. This has, so far, not been common practice among commercial publishers charging APCs. I am aware that there are hosting costs, as well as CrossRef fees (I presume you are issuing DOIs), but you are, conversely, running FOSS for your platform.

The point I'm making here is fairly simple: the "costs involved" that publishers usually cite as the rationale for APCs are entirely unclear and specific, yet presented as universal. Indeed, the publisher sees their own labour power as the only labour worthy of recompense ("costs involved"); they don't consider whose labour is worthwhile. Peer reviewers are almost never paid. So what exactly are those costs? I can list a fair few, as I edit a journal (and pay for the costs myself out of pocket so that I don't exploit the free labour of others):

  • Hosting (~£600/year)
  • CrossRef Membership (via OASPA as scholar-publisher: 55 euros)
  • CLOCKSS archival services or similar (£130/year)

I'm not including any direct labour costs in there that are directly associated with journal activity, rather than necessarily outsourced services, because publishers aren't willing to include peer reviewers in their expenses, so I don't think that their labour costs should be prioritised. As you can see, this is about £800/year. At the charge of £120/article that this new journal wants to charge, the costs are covered after 7 articles. At the higher end of the APC field, where the costs are closer to £2000, I appreciate that the infrastructure challenges are larger, but nonetheless they are nowhere near being able to justify that. Unless they want to include the labour of academics in their system. In short, publishers should either have their commercialised cake, or eat it.