The UKRI open access consultation deadline is this Friday and we’re likely to see a flurry of responses leading up to it. One response to the consultation caught my eye today from the Friends of Coleridge, a society that ‘exists to foster interest in the life and works of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his circle’. I wanted to jot down a couple of thoughts on this because I think it represents something quite interesting about the way that open access is playing out within UK humanities organisations.

The response itself was made on a public listserv — along with contributions from the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry and the British Society for the History of Mathematics — and was subsequently shared on Twitter. In it, the Friends of Coleridge explain how their existence would be ‘threatened’ by the UKRI policy for open access because people would no longer need to pay membership dues for content that they could find online for free. The Friends publishes a print journal twice-annually called The Coleridge Bulletin that is sent directly to members and then published online after a three-year period with no charge for access (although there were articles available from 2018 so I’m not sure how accurate the three-year period is). As far as I can tell, the journal does not appear online anywhere else beyond the pfds on the Friends website.

The articles themselves are well typeset and clearly a great deal of care and attention has been placed on the production of each article. The response to the UKRI consultation also mentions that ‘all the costs of conference planning, journal editing and event organizing are undertaken by the society’s officers free of charge’. In many ways, though not (obviously) radical in its politics, the Bulletin would fit well with the kind of DIY ethos of the member presses within the Radical Open Access Collective, many of whom publish work purely as a labour of love with no expectation of a financial return.

So the UKRI’s proposed OA policy represents a quandary for the Friends of Coleridge: either they keep their embargo and lose authors who are no longer eligible for the REF, or they remove their embargo and potentially lose paying members who can access the content for free online. From either perspective, the UKRI policy seems to be an unwelcome development.

It might be tempting to argue that the journal should have seen this coming. That they should have professionalised their publishing operations better and embraced the power of online distribution. However, I would disagree with this reasoning and would argue that these kinds of scholar-led humanities journals are incredibly valuable and show the power of the web far better than, for example, the average Taylor and Francis society journal does. What’s more, the journal even appears to have embraced freely accessible pdfs long before many other humanities journals have done so, albeit with an embargo before the content is made available online.

But the point remains, what would the journal stand to lose by relaxing its embargo? My sense is not very much at all. It is important to bear in mind that relaxing the embargo would not require the journal to release all its content immediately on its site; rather, their authors would be permitted to upload their final accepted manuscripts (word docs) to their institutional repository for immediate public access. It is hard to imagine Coleridge scholars cancelling their subscription to a high-quality print journal just because they can now access a handful of un-typeset pdfs in various institutional repositories. If anything, the circulation of content online would potentially attract a new readership for their print journal. The risk of removing the embargo appears minimal to me and there are many potential upsides to an expanded readership.

But the arguments about the benefits of OA do not seem to cut through the policy framework and filter down to small humanities journals. This is because the discourse on OA in the humanities is still one of reaction and of resistance to seemingly punitive impositions on behalf of UK funders. UK humanities organisations have lobbied hard to be left alone by UKRI and continue to present the same arguments they have done against it, particularly the association of open access with the dreaded APC and CC BY licensing. This is perhaps a failure of OA advocacy to show the benefits of open access and of taking an interest in the political economy of publishing, though it’s perhaps also down to ingrained conservatism on the part of UK humanities disciplines more generally.

For what it’s worth, I do not think that the Friends of Coleridge are actually that representative of the average learned society, but instead that they have been subjected to a discourse on OA — that is often channeled from the big commercial publishers — that sees no obvious benefits to the greater circulation of humanities knowledge and overplays the downsides. Many humanities societies have been convinced by their publisher that relaxing an embargo will lead to subscription cancellations, which in turn will reduce society revenues. No doubt this rhetoric is seeping into all areas of the humanities and influencing the debate.

Despite the lack of evidence that embargo removal leads to subscription cancellations, it is clear that many people think that they do. Of course, many subscription revenues will dry up for other reasons, chief of which that libraries are cancelling their Big Deals because prices are unsustainable. As publishers look to cut costs to protect their profit margins, learned society revenues are the first for the chop. Only now, publishers will be able to tell learned societies that it was the pesky government intervention that is hastening their demise, not the unsustainability of their own subscription model.

Either way, for the Friends of Coleridge who do not have ties to a multinational commercial publisher, the benefits of relaxing their embargo appear to outweigh the downsides, and I would expect the same would be true for many other humanities journals. The problem is that, as is often the case with policy frameworks, it is very difficult to see the positives of something you’re being instructed to do.