Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, September 25, 2006

The NEH weakens its preference for OA projects

Scott Jaschik, NEH vs. Historians, Inside Higher Ed, September 25, 2006. Excerpt:

A week ago, when the National Endowment for the Humanities was asked to respond to a letter from historians and archivists questioning some recent policy shifts by the agency, an NEH spokesman called the letter “thoughtful.”

On Friday, the NEH released a formal response to the letter, calling it anything but thoughtful. Rather, the letter was characterized as containing “inaccuracies and distortions” and the scholars involved were accused of spreading “false and misleading information.”...

In addition, while the NEH says that complaints from the scholars about grant requirements were inappropriate, the endowment has changed the grant review criteria to explicitly state (as requested by the historians) that projects not be excluded for not being online and free....

[A] major part of the dispute concerns language in the revised rules for Scholarly Editions Grants that suggested that the projects that are produced digitally and that are made available online free would receive “preference” when grants are awarded.

The scholars who produce these projects have noted that they are already working to make much of their work available online, much of it free. But in many cases, they have noted, the rights to the work are controlled by university presses, which publish the work — often times at a financial loss. With funding in this area so tight, scholars said that a preference would de facto be a requirement — and one that puts them in an impossible position, since they need to work with university presses and the NEH.

On this issue, the NEH was more conciliatory. While stating that NEH officials didn’t understand why there was so much worry, McDonald noted that the digital policy was part of a broader endowment effort to make more of the work it supports broadly available online. But “in the hopes of putting this issue to bed once and for all,” he said that the NEH had made several “small modifications” to its grant rules to specify that the “preference” is not a requirement. Those changes include an explicit statement in the Frequently Asked Questions section in which NEH answers the question about whether there is any requirement in this area with a direct “No.”

[Roger A. Bruns, president of the Association for Documentary Editing] said that he did view these changes as providing “a bit of relief,” but he took issue with the idea that the historians had created more concern about this issue than was necessary. “The way they wrote the guidelines was poor — they just weren’t well written,” he said. He also said that concerns remain about how strong a preference is involved, and what impact that would have....


  1. For background, see Jaschik's September 18 story and my blog comment on it.
  2. Another part of the dispute between the historians and the NEH centers on a new form of peer review that NEH will use for grant applications.  I've omitted that here because it's unrelated to the OA policy.
  3. The new NEH policy on OA shows up in two places.  First, on the guidelines page, the preference for free online access remains but is limited to "online projects".  Previously it applied to "projects" without qualification.  This may seem inconsequential, since only online projects can be OA.  But it's still a retreat, since it no longer sends the message that applicants preparing scholarly editions should aim to produce online editions.  If an applicant aims to produce a print edition, the OA preference may not apply, depriving most taxpayers of access to a publicly-funded work of scholarship.
  4. The second place where the new OA policy shows up is in the FAQ, as Jaschik notes.  Here's the full text of the new Q&A:
    Does the NEH Digital Humanities Initiative require that all Scholarly Editions projects be published online and with free online access?

    No. While the NEH encourages online publication, especially for new projects, the Digital Humanities Initiative does not require that all editions be published online or preclude applications from projects that intend print publication. For further guidance applicants should consult the expectations in the guidelines regarding the "final product and dissemination" of scholarly editions grants.

    Because the original statement of the preference for OA projects could not have been construed as a requirement, I don't see this clarification as a retreat (in contrast to the new language on the guidelines page).
  5. I'm pleased that the NEH still prefers OA for NEH-funded online projects, and that it encourages NEH-funded projects to be online.   But I'm disappointed that it weakened its preference after one complaint without inviting public comments from groups with other interests.  The public deserves OA to publicly-funded research.  It's good for students and scholars not affiliated with wealthy institutions; it's good for authors, who enlarge their audience and impact; and it's good for the funding agency and taxpayers, who increase the return on their investment.