British academy

British Academy report offers new evidence about the impact of Open Access journal publishing

17 Apr 2014

A new British Academy report offers the first full evidence-based analysis of the impact of UK Open Access policies on the current pattern of humanities and social science journal publishing.

The report, Open Access journals in Humanities and Social Science, investigates some of the major issues involved in the UK’s Open Access agenda, seeking to examine various practical issues and difficulties that may arise, particularly in ‘green’ open-access journal publishing.

Author of the report and Publications Secretary at the British Academy, Professor Chris Wickham, said: “Far too much of the current UK Open Access debate has been based on very little evidence, particularly in the large humanities and social science sector. This project, funded by HEFCE and run by the British Academy, aimed to change that, and I believe it has. I hope that the conclusions of the report will shift the field of debate.”

The key issues investigated in the report were:

  • the degree to which non-UK journals are ‘compliant’ with current UK open-access policies, particularly ‘green’ Open Access policies;
  • the differences between journal ‘usage half-lives’ (i.e. the number of months after which half of the eventual readers of an article will have downloaded it) across the same disciplines;
  • library acquisition policies, and the degree to which these are affected by embargoes before articles are openly available. 

Research for the report looked at Open Access use and understanding from across the humanities and social sciences. Key findings of the report include:

  • There are wide differences in the patterns of the type of publication and publisher used across the sector;
  • Current UK Open Access rules are not understood and adhered to throughout the international community;
  • Journals in some subject areas (particularly English and Modern languages) have very low levels of Open Access availability outside the UK, which creates problems for Research Council funding of these disciplines according to currrent rules;
  • No change is needed for embargo periods in humanities and social science;
  • The length of time that research remains relevant, as measured by article downloads, is surprisingly stable across disciplines;
  • As long as embargoes remain at 24 months, green Open Access will not have much effect on the buying of journals by libraries, or on journal financial viability.


Dr Robin Jackson, Chief Executive of the British Academy, said: “Open Access publishing in principle offers many advantages, but current policies have some shortcomings, particularly for humanities. This report offers a number of important insights based on evidence of actual practice in journal publishing”.

Open Access journals in Humanities and Social Science stems from research funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and overseen by the British Academy.

Led by Professor Chris Wickham, FBA (British Academy Publications Secretary), with support and co-writing from Dr Rebecca Darley and Dr Daniel Reynolds.

David Sweeney, Director of Research, Innovation and Skills at HEFCE, said:  “We note with great interest this report. The findings were provided to the funding councils as a key input to our consultation on open access in the REF, and I am sure the report will now go on to spark further debate. The findings about journal half-lives are particularly interesting and should give pause for thought to those arguing that the patterns of research publication in the humanities and social sciences are qualitatively different from those in the natural sciences. Likewise, the discovery that embargo periods are a relatively unimportant factor in librarians’ subscription decisions is a key one, and will help policymakers to make more informed decisions in future.”

The report shows that there are separate ethical, financial and practical arguments in favour of developing Open Access provision. However, at the same time, various difficulties have been identified in practice and must be looked at in order to future-proof expansion of Open Access and the effect on the research sector. Independently of the Open Access debate, the rising price of journals, at a time of budgetary restraints, needs to be addressed systemically.  Open Access journals in Humanities and Social Science asks that the sector begins discussing the question at the heart of the Open Access issue: who should bear the cost of publishing?

Open Access journals in Humanities and Social Science is available to read online from the British Academy website.