Open Access and French Language Humanities and Social Science Journals

Sector Trends, Changes in the Regulatory Environment, and 2018 Outlook
IDATE/ – October 2015

(Voir la version française)


How can the European Commission’s recommendation of 17 July 2012 for free access to scientific publications be applied in France?

How can the results of research work be disseminated, particularly in the area of the humanities and social sciences (HSS) where there are a great many French-language publications, without jeopardizing the journals and publishers who produce them and without altering the quality of services offered to students, researchers, and teacher-scientists? Given the specific aspects of French-language HSS journals (more than 1,000 titles), is it worthwhile to prohibit, as Germany has done, the authors of publicly funded research from assigning their rights exclusively so as to enable them to put an open-access copy of the final version of their articles in institutional directories for free distribution after they are published?

Unfortunately, the impact study which the Ministry of Higher Education and Research entrusted to the Institut des Politiques Publiques (IPP) and made public in July 2015 entitled « Quel délai pour le libre accès des revues de sciences humaines et sociales en France ? » (“How long before France allows free access to humanities and social science journals? ») does not, in our view, provide an answer to these questions, nor does it advance the debate. Although it concludes, unsurprisingly, that reducing the time it takes before journals are distributed free of charge (reducing the “mobile barrier”) would increase their distribution, it remains silent regarding the cost of putting in place an open-access policy.

To remedy the gaps left by the IPP study,, which has a special vantage point inasmuch as it is by far the platform that distributes the most French-language publications approved by AERES or by international bibliographic sites, conducted a complementary study with the help of IDATE. This effort is aimed at assessing the consequences for the economics of French-language journals and their publishers of the measure proposed by the authors of the IPP study (the chance for the author of an article coming out of publicly funded research to distribute his text on an open-access basis twelve months after its publication, even if he has assigned exclusive publishing rights to a journal or publisher) 1.

This complementary study, which focused only on HSS journals distributed on, yielded the following results:

1. A Particularly Fragile Sector

Independent of the issues facing us here, the situation facing French-language HSS journals is already particularly delicate. On average, their revenues dropped by 15% between 2010 and 2014, mainly because of the decline in acquisition budgets among French university libraries. Even if this decline is slowed, by 2018 the average French-language scientific journal could be operating in the red, as any increase in their digital revenues would not make up for the decline in their hardcopy revenues.

2. A Risk of Rapid Implosion

The measure currently being proposed by the authors of the IPP study would speed up and accentuate this movement. Indeed it is most likely that, if it were adopted, these establishments would, one by one, establish rules forcing researchers and teacher-scientists to make their publications available on an open-access basis in their institutional directories. Then, private global actors—mainly social networks of researchers—would seek out the texts available in these institutional archives in order to redistribute them (free of charge) on their sites. In this context, the publishers responsible for these journals would have no other solution than to align the mobile barrier of their publications with the embargo period chosen by the public authorities, which would quickly put both and its partner journals (or publishers responsible for them) deep in the red.

In short, the effects of the measure could well be disastrous:

  • the disappearance of a large number of leading French HSS journals, or a deterioration in their quality;
  • the weakening of a group of publishing houses or independent publishers;
  • the likely halt of;
  • reduced distribution abroad of works coming out of French HSS research;
  • and, finally, a deterioration in the service offered to researchers, professionals, and the general public interested in the humanities and social sciences.

Without any supporting measures, the risks of a real implosion of French-language scientific publishing (in the HSS domain) should not be underestimated.

3. Toward a “Platinum” Model Combining Free Access, Journal and Author Independence, and the Maintenance of Quality Publishing?

The advantages of a more open model of distribution for scientific publications are such that we cannot limit ourselves to prolonging the current situation as is, especially since, even from an economic standpoint, this situation is today showing its limitations.

Since it is highly probable that an “author-payer” model (in which each author would pay APC—article processing charges—or publication costs for each of his articles) may be imposed in the HSS field, at least in the French-speaking world, we might consider a “Platinum” type of model, whose main components would be the following:

  • establishment by the Ministry of a system of “upstream” payment by publishing houses and publishing services for the articles of their researchers;
  • free publication on of the digital version of their partner journals (or at least journals agreeing to participate in this model), with no embargo period;
  • automatic exchange of metadata between and the institutional directories;
  • a change in publishing contracts so that in the future authors assign only a “right to publish” (for journal articles) to the publishers.

The IDATE/ study shows that the costs of setting up such a model would ultimately be quite limited. Calculated based on the group of 436 research journals likely to be distributed over the next three years on the portal (excluding professional journals, debate journals, and general-interest journals), the cost would be 7.7 million euros annually (or on average 600 to 650 euros per article). Moreover, part of this amount (certainly around one-half) would correspond to a drop in library acquisition budgets, so that the net cost for the public authorities would barely exceed 4 million euros annually. But setting up such a system raises various questions: what should the precise scope of this model be? How should these APC costs be distributed between the publishers and the Ministry? How can they be calculated to avoid the negative effects noted in the STM field? How can we ensure that this model is always funded? And journal independence: How can we keep this model from having side effects that disadvantage other publishing sectors, in book publishing and the press? We must therefore undertake an immediate, joint debate in this regard.

4. …But a Delicate Change

This joint debate could, however, be futile if—even before this model is eventually put in place—the scientific publishing sector were profoundly thrown off base by implementation of the measure proposed by the authors of the IPP report. We should therefore either adapt this measure or figure out how to support it in the short term.

One approach might be to adopt the principle of an embargo period (and hence a mobile barrier) sufficiently long to enable and the publishers publishing HSS journals to continue selling these publications under reasonable conditions in their hardcopy and digital versions.

If, on the other hand, the Ministry (or the parliament, when it debates the bill on the “Digital Republic”) wanted to stick with the measure proposed by the authors of the IPP study (i.e., setting a maximum one-year embargo period), specific budget resources should be provided to enable the journals, publishers, and to bear the loss of income they would suffer because of the change in regulations, and to prepare for their eventual migration toward a “Platinum” model.

In this case,’s partner publishers could undoubtedly commit themselves to aligning the mobile barrier of their journals with the embargo period (one year), and could reduce the price of the licenses for accessing its packages pro rata to the share of article consultations (today on a conditional-access basis) dating from the mobile-barrier period thus adopted (62%).

Assuming—and this remains to be verified—that establishing a maximum one-year embargo would lead not only to a reduction in digital revenues from journals, but also a 20% drop in their hardcopy revenues, this would seriously damage and its partner publishers and would therefore require intervention by the Ministry to the tune of 4 million euros annually (estimated by taking a group of about 400 research journals, with the exception of all professional journals, debate journals, and general-interest journals). Because of the drop in the fees for the services offered by, some (certainly around 50%) of this amount could, however, be offset by the drop in French library acquisition budgets.

5. Conclusion

Without specific supporting provisions, the measure proposed by IPP (the possibility for the author of an HSS article resulting from publicly funded research to distribute his text on an open-access basis twelve months after it is published, even if he has signed over exclusive publishing rights to a journal or publisher), which is now supported by CPU, Couperin, and ADBU as part of the consultation for the “Digital Republic” bill, could have the opposite effect from the desired one (“promoting free access to publicly funded research works”).

The IDATE/ study in fact shows that its economic impact could be catastrophic, not just for the portal and HSS publishing houses but also for French-language HSS academic journals. Without significant and well-thought-out supporting measures to fund the costs of digital publication and distribution, the risk is in any case great that this measure will quickly lead to the disappearance of a number of these titles. This would seriously jeopardize the distribution in France and abroad of French research works and hence, ultimately, of this research itself. But at the same time, the advantages of a more open model for the distribution of scientific publications are obvious, and changes throughout the world of science—the evolution toward “open science”—make it problematic to keep the current situation as it is.

To come out on top of this situation, we could, for example, consider using a “Platinum” model consisting of having HSS journals funded “upstream,” partly by the Ministry and partly by the publishers, under a nationwide agreement in exchange for a commitment by the publishers of these publications to distribute them free of charge digitally with no embargo period. The cost of this would be limited: on the order of 8 million euros annually (for just over 400 HSS research journals distributed on the portal, with the exception of professional journals, debate journals, and general-interest journals). 8 million euros, a significant portion of which would be offset by a drop in library acquisition spending. But even beyond these budget issues, setting up this model would raise many issues if we want to avoid any negative or unwanted side effects.

A joint effort bringing together all the stakeholders (authors, journal editors, publishers, aggregators, librarians, publishing-house executives, and the public authorities) should therefore be urgently undertaken and independent studies conducted to determine the feasibility of implementing such a model, and how to go about it. We must also consider together how we can migrate, if necessary, toward this “Platinum” model or some alternative model (short-term application of a reasonable mobile barrier, supporting measures, etc.) so that we can combine the broadest possible dissemination of knowledge, maintenance of quality publishing, journal and author independence, and a plurality of stakeholders.

1 This study is binding only on its authors and not on all publishers and/or editors of journals distributed on the portal.

Download the full study (in French) (PDF – 5,2MB)