Blog Post

Humanities, Social Science Publishing: Costs More Than Science--and We Need More Of It Too!

Jennifer Howard, in a concise and important article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, has reported today on one of the single most important studies I've read of scholarly publishing, "The Future of Scholarly Journals Publishing Among Social Science and Humanities Associations."   Here's the bottom line:  publishing in the humanities and social sciences costs more than publishing in the sciences.  The electronic part of those costs are relatively minor.  And we need more, not less, publishing in the humanities and social science fields.  Acceptance rates in the humanities and social science journals is a scant 11 percent.  In comparable journals in the sciences, the acceptance rate is 42%.  (Add to that the difficulty of publishng books in the humanities and social sciences:  I know from Ken Wissoker, Editorial Director at Duke University Press, that he alone--not all the book editors but he alone--turns down approximately thirty book proposals a week.  A week.   He publishes about sixty books a year.  That's about one book published for every fifty or more that he has a chance to publish.  Formidable odds.)


[And keep this in mind too:  according to a study conducted by the MLA recently, over 88% of Carnegie Research doctorate institutions report that a monograph is either "very important" or "important" for tenure.   1 in 50, and your tenure depends on it?   Now, there's a crisis for you!  Why aren't university administrators appalled that their junior faculty in the humanities and social sciences face such brutal odds?]


I rant a lot about quantitative studies, and I rant in all directions.   We are often bullied by numbers that measure only part but not all of a problem.  That is one of my pet peeves.   Why are you quantifying that?, I often want to know, when a, b, and c also need some data.   For ten years, I've been saying that we cannot just produce figures about how much the humanities and social sciences cost relative to the sciences, but we need to know why we cost, and also what we bring in.  (If our class sizes are enormous and we don't have huge equipment costs, and if we aggregate all of the costs and expenses, then it turns out, as Chris Newfield (author of Unmaking the Public University:  The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class and Ivy and Industry:  Business and the Making of the American University, 1880-1980) has shown, that the humanities and social sciences are a bargain.)  At the same time, the antipathy of some in the humanities and interpretive social sciences towards quantitative studies means that we can perpetuate the "victim" and "crisis" models without ever really knowing the facts.


This study, funded by the ever-generous Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, finally has some cold, hard numbers.   Mary Waltham, an independent publishing consultant who organized the study for the National Humanities Alliance, did a superb job of not stopping at the "how much" but also asking "why?" and "why compared to what?"   These are deep and profound questions, deep and profound findings. 


Now, all we have to do is find a solution.   According to Howard's article, the study finds that an article in a humanities or social science journal costs on average of  $9,994 to produce (compared to an average of $2,670 in STM journals).   Until the study itself is released, there is no way of knowing what methodology or metric has gone into determining these costs so I cannot vouch for them.  But, if there is such a disparity, and if these costs are reasonably accurate, then the old idea, that authors themselves would subsidize their own publications, is highly unrealistic.  Humanists and social scientists don't have grants to cover such publishing costs.   Nor does electronic publishing curtail costs in the areas that cost the most in these fields.  


Nor does open access change much.  Subscription fees don't come close to cover the average cost of $313, 612 per journal reported as the actual, all-told costs in this article (and, again, I would caution that it remains for the release of the entire study before we can understand exactly what is factored as a "cost" here).   Even if the cost is anything close to this amount, then might as well have open access since it does not pay---but it means we have to come up with some other form of subsidy and just accept it as the cost of doing humanities and social science business.


I have to admit that, as the day has worn on, I've had second thoughts about this study, and am now eager to examine its premises and its methods.   However, even with some skepticism, I am intrigued by the way it lays out certain comparatives across disciplinary divisions.  Too many studies focus on only one aspect of the problem, as if all other aspects were fixed, static, finite, or definitive.   These articles focus on the humanities and social sciences as "a problem" because they are not supported by external funding, but do not factor in all of the other supports by the university that go into platforms on which that external funding rests.  What costs are offset, and what offsets what, are rarely considered in tandem with such factors as tuition costs, fte's, technology investments and maintenance, physical plant needs, lab costs (human and material), and so forth.


Perhaps universities simply need to consider the cost of running humanities and social science publishing as one of the intrinsic costs of these fields, offset by the enormous number of students we teach.  My guess is that if someone does those numbers, and also factors in the lower relative salaries of humanists and social scientists and the lower equipment and technology costs, that humanists and social scientists still subsidize the rest of the university.  Now THAT is the quantitative study I'd like to see next!  


Here's the information about how to obtain this article.  The study itself is not yet available but will be released soon:

This article, "Humanities Journals Cost Much More to Publish
Than Science Periodicals" is available online at this

This article will be available to non-subscribers of The
Chronicle for up to five days after it is e-mailed.

The article is always available to Chronicle subscribers at this




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