SSH Journals in Canada -- An Unpredictable Future?

Late last week, I wrote about the demise of PubMed Central Canada, and some of the lessons that might be drawn from that turn of events. This week, I'll explore proposed changes to the funding and hosting of social science and humanities (SSH) publishing in Canada, changes that could introduce unnecessary and unwelcome instability and uncertainty.

Currently, SSH journals in Canada can apply for up to $30K annually in support from the Social  Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Funding is distributed at the rate of $850 per published peer reviewed article. These support programs are designed to be arm’s length from actual activities they support so that they are not partisan.

According to some, that arm had been withering even before the latest turn of events. Now, a proposal is on offer which seems to intrude on grant recipient functioning by using carrots and sticks to manage how grant recipients can conduct their business, including:

At a meeting last year about proposed changes to SSHRC funding, only two journal editors were present, while four members of the SSHRC presided.

The 12-month embargo for HSS content presents very real risks for income loss for SSH publishers and their journals. While a 12-month embargo may work for medical and scientific journals, which generally publish many articles comparatively frequently, SSH titles in Canada and elsewhere publish far fewer articles less frequently. For example, to qualify for SSHRC funding, a humanities or social science journal in Canada only needs to publish two issues per year and 12 articles over two years. Clearly, SSHRC knows these journals are vulnerable to a shortened embargo period.

Some of the implications may include:

  • Weaker subscription-based journals, which are some of the strongest in the market
  • Heavier subsidies for academic journals, drawn from library budgets
  • More market consolidation as independent publishers lose their ability to earn reliable revenues independently

The particular challenges with OA for SSH journals -- including shortened embargo periods -- have been known for nearly a decade. In a 2009 report entitled, "The Future of Scholarly Journals Publishing Among Social Science and Humanities Associations," covered by Phil Davis at the Scholarly Kitchen, Mary Waltham outlined some key facts the SSHRC apparently has failed to comprehend:

  • The cost per page published in 2007 averaged $526, and given the length of a typical SSH manuscript, this means that each manuscript costs upwards of $10,000 to publish
  • Six of the eight journals included in the study charged institutions less than $270 for a combined print plus online bundle. Delivering a whopping 9,610 published pages at a total price of $1,301, Waltham calculates that this represents an average cost of only 14 cents per page, far below the cost of production.
  • Given these factors and others, Waltham concluded that author/producer pays OA publishing for SSH publishers “is not currently a sustainable option for any of this group of journals.”

Sidenote: For a report about the sustainability of SSH publishing, it's ironic that the page hosting the report now leads to a "not available" page. Apparently, hosting the report was not sustainable, either.

These challenges for SSH journals come as Canadian educational publishers are attempting to recover from what many consider to be a mistaken policy extending fair dealing (i.e., fair use) provisions to cover bulk copying of classroom materials, enacted in 2012. These exceptions forced many publishers to dramatically curtail their activities in the market, with some leaving altogether. In an interview, John Degen, executive director of the Writer’s Union of Canada, said:

I hear again and again from professors and from teachers saying that they simply don’t feel they have access to enough Canadian works right now. And they have to go elsewhere. Their institutions are insisting that they only use free material, and a lot of free material is coming from outside of Canada.

Recent lawsuits about the enforcement changes are working their way through the courts, with one (Access Copyright v. York University) resulting in a decision strongly favorable to publishers (it is being appealed). A government review of the rules is now underway. The main point here is that even benevolent policy changes can backfire in the market if they are not underpinned by sound economics, with the result being fewer options for readers, educators, librarians, and others. 

This hints at the overall lesson. When non-market forces enter a market, the consequences are unpredictable. OA has always had a whiff of regulation about it, with regulators taking different approaches, and not always moving things in the direction some hoped or anticipated, and often sowing intramural and/or extramural confusion.

No matter what transpires, Canadian SSH publishers have a more unpredictable future now than they did a year ago. Given the unpredictability of publishing generally these days, that's a worrisome development.