Effect Measure

“Open Access” is apparently an Idea whose Time has Come:

All papers by Harvard scholars accepted for publication as of today will be freely available to the public. The Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences unanimously passed a motion last night (February 12) that requires all arts and sciences faculty articles to be made publicly available.

Harvard is the first US university to mandate open access to its faculty publications, Peter Suber, open access advocate, wrote on his blog yesterday. The mandate “should be a very powerful message to the academic community that we want and should have more control over how our work is used and disseminated,” Stuart Shieber, Harvard computer science professor who introduced the motion, said in a news release from Harvard. “We do research and our goal is to disseminate this research as broadly as possible, nobody disagrees with that,” Shieber told The Scientist. “Now we have to figure out the best way to do it.” (The Scientist)

The requirement isn’t retroactive, although many academics already make their papers available. New NIH rules require deposit of scientific papers funded by NIH money in a publicly accessible repository within 12 months of publication. The Harvard requirement mandates immediate free publication online in a Harvard hosted repository, searchable by Google and other search engines. Thus Harvard authors are not supposed to publish from now on in some extremely high profile journals like Nature and Science who prohibit fee access of papers for a period of time after publication. Whether these journals will publish Harvard papers under these conditions now is a question we don’t know the answer to. It could get very, very interesting.

This development is more than fine with me. If you read regularly you know I am a staunch advocate of open access — the idea that scientific literature should be freely available to all who want it, without the need to ask permission or pay. Most university research has already been paid for by tax dollars. It is put under wraps or sold by for-profit publishers or some big scientific societies so they can make money off of it. These publishers have shown themselves exceptionally rapacious in their pursuit of profit. Nature and Science are in a slightly different category because they add considerable editorial value to the papers with Commentaries, News items and other services. I subscribe to both and consider the money well spent. But I am buying the ancillary value, not the papers.

By way of full disclosure, I have been for some years co Editor-in-Chief of an established, peer reviewed specialty scientific journal that is entirely open access. I decided to take on the thankless and onerous editor task because I believed strongly in the open access idea. I do not support open access because I edit an open access journal. Our publisher is still a for profit entity (although they pay me nothing, alas). The OA business model is that dissemination of scientific research is part of the cost of doing the research. There is a processing charge to cover the costs of open access publication, no different than other research expenses. The research funding source pays for publication, not the scientific readership.

Harvard has taken a bold step that will almost certainly be imitated. The Harvard proposal is actually said to be modeled on one working its way through the process at the University of California in Berkeley now. If adopted by two of the most prestigious research institutions in the world — one private, one public — the tide will have turned. The Scientist story linked above quotes an expert familiar with the scientific publishing world as predicting the big for-profit publishers will start abandoning their current subscription model and hop aboard the bandwagon by scarfing up OA publishers.

That is a worry for me. If Elsevier or Wiley buys my publisher the first thing I can expect is for the processing charge to be ramped up. If that happens, expect me to be the first on the ramp. The exit ramp.


  1. #1 NotACalBigot
    February 15, 2008

    The University of California effort appears to be systemwide, not just on the Berkeley campus.

  2. #2 Colst
    February 15, 2008

    I see words like “mandate” and “requirement” and I’m a bit puzzled. There is actually no requirement or mandate involved, according to everything else I’ve read. It’s significant in that it makes open-access the default, but Harvard faculty members are still able to opt out.

    See, for example:

  3. #3 revere
    February 15, 2008

    Colst: The reports I have read say it is a mandate but you can get a waiver. Many “mandates” are like this. You are required — unless you do something to un-require yourself. Terminology, perhaps.

  4. #4 D
    February 15, 2008

    Yet, the ability for some government scientists to publish in open access journals has been reduced in the past few years. For example, the CDC has dropped its “full member” status in BioMed Central. Today, even Harvard is listed as a “supporter member” of BMC. For BMC, which incorporates a large body of journals, restricted or nonexistent membership means that institutional researchers have to go hat-in-hand to find the funds for publication. And then it seems like the vanity press.

  5. #5 bar
    February 16, 2008


    Thanks & congratulations.

  6. #6 gilmore
    February 16, 2008

    A victory for the taxpayer! Doesn’t happen often enough. Thanks for continuing to bring up the subject Revere. Another feather in your hat.


  7. #7 anon
    February 16, 2008


    Now please a feature to exclude these unfree papers
    from google which may have the keywords which you
    typed but won’t show it before subscribing or paying.
    They distort the search.

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