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The difference between science and humanities research

David Crotty posted a fascinating article on Scholarly Kitchen  last week, highlighting a fundamental difference between scientific and humanities academic publishing.  His argument related to open-access publishing, but this simply highlights the distinction between the two kinds of activity. Is that distinction justified?

The difference is this: academic science publishing may have an impact beyond publication of the research.  If a researcher discovers a cure for cancer, one would hope that the article describing it is then used to deliver a solution. As a result of this, scientists largely accept that the act of publication is freely available - at least, the continuing rise in open-access publishing within STM would suggest this is the case. Crotty argues that scientists are happy for their research to be freely available, because they have the opportunity of patenting their research (as a result of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980), and can thereby make money from commercial exploitation of that research. While that may not be true of all scientists, it is undoubtedly true that a lot of money is made by commercialising scientific research. 

In contrast, humanities researchers publish the “results” of their research with no hope of any subsequent gain. The research is the end point, and this perhaps explains why many humanities academics are reluctant for their research to be made freely available – they feel that the only opportunity for income is from potential publication of their work.

The Finch Report (2012) described academic research in the same way both for humanities and for science. It stated:

The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable.

This presumed distinction between arts and sciences appears to be the reason why several humanities-based groups oppose open-access publication of publicly-funded humanities research, for example, the American Historical Association, stating in 2013 that they want to allow universities to block access to PhD theses for several years, since otherwise those doctoral students will not be able to publish.

Is this a correct argument? Here are some suggestions why humanities research should be made freely available.

  • To the best of my knowledge, nobody ever read a PhD thesis for pleasure. If a humanities doctoral student has a great idea, then an enterprising publisher may suggest that they adapt their thesis for a commercial publication – and good luck to the publisher and to the author. An example of this kind of publication is Last Trains, by Charles Loft (2013), a fascinating (and highly readable) book based on the author’s PhD thesis about the Beeching Report.
  • While the publication of a monograph may be essential to the advancement of an academic’s career, it no longer represents any kind of profitable activity for the academic publisher; even for Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, the print run for an academic monograph would typically be as few as a hundred copies. It could be argued that online publication, as an open-access monograph, is a far more effective solution – with a print version only available via print on demand, for any institution requiring it. 
  • Only a small minority of academic scientists ever profit from their research. It does not seem to be the case that every science researcher is motivated by dreams of entrepreneurial success, in other words. 


Clearly there is a difference between science and humanities research. But I don't think the case for not making publicly funded humanities content freely available  has yet been made satisfactorily.