At a recent talk I gave, I was asked whether open access in the humanities is a "solution without a problem". Without wanting to disparage my questioner, I consider this to be a question born of institutional privilege and of conservatism. Firstly, I consider it a perspectivized take on the situation; just because one cannot see a problem does not mean that it doesn't exist, merely that it is invisible to that particular questioner. Secondly, just because we can distribute journals in print over the course of weeks on inter-library loan doesn't mean that there isn't a better way to do it that would be more efficient and make use of the astounding technological developments that are now at our disposal. Some of the below material, in which I look at these questions, comes from my forthcoming book, Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future.
How bad is the economic problem of access? Various studies based on statistics from the Association of Research Libraries show that the cost to academic libraries of subscribing to journals has outstripped inflation by over 300% since 1986. Meanwhile, total library expenditure (i.e. budget for staff, services, technology and books) has outpaced inflation by only 79% over the same period. While the humanities' expenditure accounts for a smaller portion of this 'serials crisis' than the natural sciences in absolute terms, this rise is reflected proportionately in humanities journals. It is also not right to separate humanities budgets from sciences; often these are agglomerated within institutions. The crisis of serials publishing in the sciences (and the humanities to a lesser extent) affects all disciplines and all modes of output, from humanities journals through to monographs. This is an interlinked "ecosystem".
This budgetary problem has been fuelled not only by price increases, but also by an explosion of research output over the past half century. The effect of this serials crisis is one of the core motivators for academic open access advocates: as their libraries are unable to afford the subscriptions, academic researchers and students at many institutions come up against paywalls that hinder their ability to efficiently conduct research and to teach/learn. This effect is not, of course, felt uniformly: those at top, prestigious and wealthy institutions may not suffer from or notice this compared with their colleagues at the poorer end of the financial scale. However, even Harvard University, one of the wealthiest institutions in the world, has claimed that it cannot afford the material that it needs (
which may be more rhetorical than factual EDIT: see end of post). Those without access to a well-endowed library, such as independent researchers or those at poorer institutions, find themselves locked out of a pay-to-read system if they cannot afford the fees. There are, of course, mitigating aspects that help with this. Although slow (thereby disadvantaging those without direct access in terms of productivity), inter-library loans are one good way in which a greater number of people can read work. This seems, however, to be more of a patch that is designed to hold together a system of subscription and purchase access, rather than an attempt to address the underlying economic problems that prevent direct access. It is also not viable when teaching a large number of students to insist that they use an inter-library loan for every reference that they want. At institutions where I have worked, we have a fixed budget. If we want or need a new journal, we have to cancel another (that we also need). I suspect that those who do not face such a challenge underestimate the frustration and difficulty that this entails.
Finally, what I find interesting about this question is that it feels a little like "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". Or, put another way: the economic model is OK for us at the moment, so why should we take a financial risk to improve the way in which we disseminate research? I am not going to say that just because technology exists that we should use it. However, when there are such clear advantages (instant, unlimited dissemination) for disciplines that bemoan their own lack of societal integration and understanding, it feels like an obvious thing to do. Improve our communication systems so that everyone can read our work, regardless of whether they have the means to purchase it from publishers. And the most amazing thing about this phenomenon is that it can be done now, today. Green open access does not require new economic models; it simply requires researchers to learn about publisher policies and, in compliance with them, to deposit their work openly in institutional repositories. The majority of journal articles published today can be deposited. Publishers allow this. There's nothing to pay. And yet, researchers don't until they are forced to. Perhaps there is a cultural fear of being misunderstood? Perhaps it feels too exposing? Or perhaps researchers don't care? I would suggest that they should. Make your work open access. Let anyone who is interested read it, be they colleagues or students at a less wealthy institution, authors of Wikipedia, or simply interested lay members of the public. If we don't take the opportunity to harness a readership on the internet, how can we be surprised if we are not read? What right will we have to bemoan the problem of the future -- the eradication of the humanities through withdrawal of public support and funding in an increasingly utilitarian system -- if we don't address the problems of access in the present?
Addendum from Peter Suber
In relation to my assertion that Harvard's claim that it cannot afford subscriptions being more rhetorical than factual, the excellent Peter Suber has rightly taken me to task. Peter writes:
You wonder whether Harvard's assertion that it cannot afford to buy access to all the journals it needs is "more rhetorical than factual". It's entirely factual. Moreover, it's not new but long-standing and often repeated. In the supplements to my book, I've collected seven public statements from 2008 and 2012 testifying to budget-driven journal cancellations at Harvard.
The serials budget at Harvard may be the largest in the world, but it's not infinite and it's not sufficient. Hyperinflationary journal price increases have outstripped even Harvard's ability to keep up.
Obviously I'm not saying poor Harvard. On the contrary, I'm saying that something is deeply wrong when even a university as wealthy as Harvard is unable to buy access to all the journals needed by its faculty and students.
My apologies! This, though, gives additional credence to the claim that the serials crisis, affecting all disciplines and all publication modes through budget intermingling, is running rampantly out of control.