Humanities and Social Science Journals

Added by Michael Jubb on 06 September 2009 18:38

There was a flurry of comments in the blogosphere when the Chronicle of Higher Education published in July a short article about a report Mary Waltham has prepared for the National Humanities Alliance, with funds provided by the Mellon Foundation, on scholarly journals in the humanities and social sciences (HSS).

The article highlighted the finding that the costs of publishing HSS articles are much higher than for the sciences, and that business models which work in the sciences won?t work in HSS. The full report is now available, and it makes fascinating reading. The eight journals studied are all flagship products of leading learned societies: the Modern Language Association?s PMLA, the American Historical Society?s American Historical Review, the American Economic Association?s American Economic Review and so on. One of the key characteristics of these journals is that they are umbilically linked to membership of the societies in question. To get an individual subscription you have to become a member of the society. And the print copy you get as a result of becoming a member is seen as a critical benefit of membership. That imposes costs on the journals, and also explains in part why it will be very difficult for them to change into e-only publications.

The report provides a detailed breakdown of the costs of publishing the journals. Interestingly, the journal that published most articles (121) in 2007 showed the cheapest cost per article ($2,940), whereas the second most prolific journal (with 101 articles) was the most expensive ($21,450 per article). Costs per article are strongly associated with article length, of course, but even more strongly with rejection rates (the ration between articles submitted and those published). And one of the strong findings here is how high the rejection rates are: five of the journals publish fewer than 10% of the articles submitted. That?s a rejection rate higher than all but the most prestigious journals in the sciences. It?s also fascinating to note how US-centric the journals are: 82% of the articles they published in 2007 were from US authors.

The headline finding is that the length of the articles, combined with high rejection rates and also the need to fund a high proportion of pages that are not in the form of peer-reviewed articles at all, together mean that a move to gold open access on the author-side payment model would imply prohibitively expensive fees for authors (or their employers or funders). That finding clearly needs to be tested, as the report fully recognises, across a wider range of journals. But not the least of the merits of this report is that it identifies a number of important questions that require further investigation.

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