I’ll Take the Humanities for Ten Thousand

Jennifer Howard of the Chron (subscription required) offers a preview of a study commissioned by the National Humanities Alliance and funded by Mellon which looked at the back office costs of flagship journals published by scholarly societies (many of them in the social sciences, oddly) and concluded that they actually cost more than STM journals. Articles are longer, and rejection rates in these disciplines is higher, meaning more costs for handling the gatekeeping functions.

This does not surprise me given that STM authors often pay page charges, and they pay on the other end, too; one biologist recently told me that she had to pay $250 to a publisher get a .pdf of an article she’d written. She was surprised to learn that this isn’t standard practice in other fields. The full-color and expensive paper often used in STM journals isn’t as common in humanities and social sciences journals, but those journals also don’t get significant ad revenue from corporations published on glossy full-color pages.

And the fact is, there’s a lot of money sloshing around STM research that hyperinflates its prices. Grants fund research, and so can also fund publications bills. (Your tax dollars at work!) And STM information has a “street value” that doesn’t exist for the humanities or for most social science research. The people with deep pockets in medical, engineering, and other applied science fields don’t buy or publish in journals that discuss Latin American history, theological views on compassion, or examinations of the effectiveness of mixed-income housing replacements for public housing projects.

What does surprise me is the cost of producing these flagship journals. According to the study:

It cost an average of $9,994 in 2007 to publish an article in one of the eight journals analyzed, compared with an average of $2,670 for STM journal articles.

Frankly, I’m dumbfounded. Are they are figuring in the salaries of the faculty who do all the free work? That’s the only way I can come up with that math. The report isn’t on their Web site as of this writing, but I’ll be looking for it.

I’ll also be looking for its recommendations, since the author-pays model will not work for these disciplines (your tax dollars not at work!) and clearly something here is badly broken.

And maybe this number should be discussed by every tenure and promotion committee in the country. Couldn’t we make our decisions based on quality and significance rather than on quantity? What we’re doing now is hopelessly wasteful in every possible way.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

2 thoughts on “I’ll Take the Humanities for Ten Thousand”

  1. I imagine salaries are part of the costs with editorial staff and other overhead. It would be worthwhile to see discrepancies over publishing models rather than subject areas – electronic only, university press titles, etc

  2. I was wondering the same thing – where are they coming up with that $9K number. Are they basing it on a faculty member who is donating their time as an editor. Just applying it to my own situation I spent about 5 hours reviewing a single article for a journal for which I am an editor. That wouldn’t even begin to come close to what this study is suggesting – unless there is some truly expensive part of the journal process that is a mystery to all of us. Guess we won’t know more until we see if the study really breaks down all the component costs of a single article.

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