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by KnowledgeWorks Global Ltd.

The last decade has not been smooth sailing for the humanities and social sciences (HSS) publishing sector. Among their many gripes, academics across most subjects frequently point to decreasing graduate job prospects, low course enrollment numbers, and the general trend of consistently overlooking and underfunding HSS disciplines.  

On the publishing side, Open Access mandates and pressures to rapidly embed new business models across journal and monograph publishing programs have only added fuel to the fire, leaving the HSS sector in a state of flux and with an uncertain future.  

A challenging environment 

In stark contrast to STEM, HSS academics have comparatively limited access to funding for their publishing endeavors, which means APCs (article processing charges) or BPCs (book processing charges) are often a pipe dream, and that the gold OA models and transformative agreements extolled by STEM publishers are all but out of reach for many HSS publishers.  

This sentiment of disparity was very much emphasized several years ago by multiple independent and society HSS publishers and university presses who penned and signed a series of open letters in response to Plan S. The publishers argued that the proposed mandates failed to take the differences between STEM and HSS into account and that, while they largely agreed to the end objective of accelerating OA, their demands and expectations were unrealistic, especially given the funding challenges within the industry.  

The current state of play 

Fast forward a few years since the peak of the debate and the numbers tell a slightly predictable story. Papers published in physical sciences have seen adoption at an impressive rate, with a reported 70% now publishing via OA, with APC funded gold OA becoming the dominant model. Meanwhile, OA uptake in HSS still lags far behind, with just 25% of papers publishing via OA and scarcity of funding proving the biggest barrier.  

As many HSS publishers are discovering—especially the native OA publishers and presses–research published via OA is being downloaded, read, and cited by a much broader, global readership than anything kept behind a paywall. The moral case for OA in HSS is more or less indisputable. But with no globally standardized, sustainable or popular way of funding it, and no clear roadmap showing how to get there, the business case has never been as clear cut. Yet there are signs that things could be starting to change.  

A spirit of dialogue 

Since the introduction of Plan S in 2018, and the shock of the initial expectation that HSS publishers should simply fall into line on their one-size-fits-all approach, certain funders within the industry are starting to become far more willing to collaborate, consult and listen. One of the first major concessions that demonstrates this in action was when, following considerable lobbying, cOAlition S amended “Principle 07” of Plan S to acknowledge the distinctive nature of HSS monograph publishing and ease some of the time constraints on publishers. 

We are now slowly starting to see policy makers and funding groups making a big point of consulting with publishers, academics and other industry experts ahead of implementing major new policies. An example of this is in the UK, where the four higher education funding bodies – who control around $2.5bn in annual block grants—recently launched the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2029 OA policy consultation. Following a global trend, their proposals state that monographs and other long-form publishing outputs must be made OA within two years of publication, but that they are also “looking forward to a wide range of input and evidence that will allow the proposals to be revised and refined. 

Diamonds are forever? 

While this approach has no doubt relieved some of the immediate pressures put on the HSS publishing ecosystem, it fails to resolve the most pressing issue—business models, and who actually funds the publishing of research. One of the most talked about candidates to emerge in this debate is the Diamond OA model, whereby neither the author nor reader pays. Gathering plaudits in some quarters of the industry, this variation is being heralded as an equitable and sustainable model for the future, one which prioritizes the dissemination of scholarly research over income generation.  

For Diamond OA to thrive in HSS, the onus will be put on publishers to find the financial resources to publish research, and with estimated costs at between $10k-$15k per monograph this will not be a simple task. But with longer embargo times and a variety of creative ways to recoup costs within this time period—such as federal funding applications, freemium models, and Subscribe to Open—it is not surprising that HSS publishers are starting to take note.  

With its unique set of challenges, requirements and needs, HSS publishing has struggled to commit to an OA future. Undervalued and underfunded, the barriers preventing the sector to evolve have been considerably more than most have had to contend with. But there are signs that the winds are changing and that with a renewed sense of collaboration and the emergence of new models, we may not be far from a world where HSS and OA go hand in hand. 

KnowledgeWorks Global Ltd. (KGL) is the industry leader in editorial, production, online hosting, and transformative services for every stage of the content lifecycle. We are your source for peer review servicesmarket analysis, intelligent automationdigital deliveryand more. Email us at

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