Humanities left behind as China embraces open access science

Open access, as long as you’re a scientist. Shepherd Zhou/EPA

Two large Chinese funding bodies for scientific research are promoting so-called “open access” to research outcomes, according to an article in Nature. The Chinese Academy of Sciences and the National Natural Science Foundation of China announced that researchers they fund should make their papers available in open-access repositories within a year.

This shift towards what is known as “green” open-access comes ahead of a meeting of the Global Research Council in Beijing, where the issue is due to be discussed by world funding bodies. The problem is that in China there seems likely to be one rule for natural sciences, and another for the humanities.

Most scholarly communities in the natural sciences across the world have been sharing research outcomes and research data online in various repositories for quite some time now. Why should China be any different?

Chinese universities are lavishly funded, both by the government and by private organisations. In return, the funders demand to see publications in leading international scholarly outlets. In the natural sciences, open access is more and more the norm, so China is conforming. End of story. Or is it?

In the UK, open access is promoted for all disciplines – not just the natural sciences but also the humanities. It is very difficult to do this for many reasons, including the fact that humanities scholars tend to publish more in book form and less in article form.

Making books available for free is much harder because the costs of preparing a book manuscript are very significant. The UK government aims over time to make scholars themselves pay publishers money to ensure that their work is published for free – known as the “gold model”.

When I try to explain this to my lavishly funded colleagues in China, they gasp. Then I tell them that the UK government has ceased all grant funding for the undergraduate teaching of humanities and social sciences, and they gasp even more, shake their heads, and say: “And you accuse our government of censorship!”

The censorship question

Ah yes, censorship. That is what it’s all about, of course. How can you have “open” access in a country that practices political censorship, with a government that funds academic research exceptionally well, on the condition that certain “sensitive” topics are overlooked.

The Chinese Communist government, even in its darkest, most authoritarian days, has often been tolerant towards the natural sciences. The party is fond of presenting its own ideology as “the most scientific” and its own interpretation of social conditions as based on “scientific fact.”

Many scientists and engineers were able to do their work relatively undisturbed during periods of political upheaval and most of them have been relatively uninterested in taking political positions. A famous and very significant exception is the late astrophysicist Fang Lizhi who inspired a generation of pro-democracy activists in China in the 1980s.

Generally speaking, though, little of what natural scientists in China have been doing has been deemed politically sensitive and, as a result, they have been able to work to international standards much more than their counterparts in the humanities.

Humanities behind closed doors

There seems to be no current intention for China’s research funders to promote open access in the humanities and social sciences. Scholars in those fields in China are also encouraged to publish as much as possible in high-ranking journals.

Citation indexes are considered hugely important and “bibliometrics” are pervasive. So much so that many Chinese universities have started to appoint academics working as consultants in Western countries to teach Chinese scholars how to write articles that have a chance of getting accepted by journals high up the Social Sciences Citation Index or the Arts and Humanities Citation Index.

But how would you get an article on, say, recent Chinese history accepted by an international high-ranking journal if you are not at liberty to analyse critically certain aspects of that history? Or if you are not able to access important publications on the topic by scholars working outside China?

This is why open access could be a game changer for the Chinese humanities and social sciences: not because it would make more Chinese research available outside China, but because it would inevitably make more research from outside China available in China.

I would not be surprised if, at least for the humanities and social sciences, Chinese funders would end up, more or less willy nilly, supporting the gold model where academics pay to get published. Because at least that way they could ensure that “open access” remains firmly in the hands of a select group of publishers charging very high prices for their publications. Even if under “open” access they are charging the universities rather than the readers.

The real surprise would be if China would go “green” on open access, as the two science funding councils have, even in the “softer", more sensitive disciplines.