Harvard considers Free Access

In today's NYTimes: At Harvard, a Proposal to Publish Free on Web:

Faculty members are scheduled to vote on a measure that would permit Harvard to distribute their scholarship online, instead of signing exclusive agreements with scholarly journals that often have tiny readerships and high subscription costs.

Although the outcome of Tuesday's vote would apply only to Harvard's arts and sciences faculty, the impact, given the university's prestige, could be significant for the open-access movement, which seeks to make scientific and scholarly research available to as many people as possible at no cost.

"In place of a closed, privileged and costly system, it will help open up the world of learning to everyone who wants to learn," said Robert Darnton, director of the university library. "It will be a first step toward freeing scholarship from the stranglehold of commercial publishers by making it freely available on our own university repository."

Under the proposal Harvard would deposit finished papers in an open-access repository run by the library that would instantly make them available on the Internet. Authors would still retain their copyright and could publish anywhere they pleased -- including at a high-priced journal, if the journal would have them.

What distinguishes this plan from current practice, said Stuart Shieber, a professor of computer science who is sponsoring the faculty motion, is that it would create an "opt-out" system: an article would be included unless the author specifically requested it not be. Mr. Shieber was the chairman of a committee set up by Harvard's provost to investigate scholarly publishing; this proposal grew out of one of the recommendations, he said.

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I am a little surprised (and massively impressed) that Harvard, of all places, is making this initiative. Fingers crossed for a positive outcome. I only hope that science publications from the medical school follow the model outlined by the Arts and Sciences faculty.

Kudos to Harvard for making this decision. Hopefully this will encourage other universities to follow suit and make open access more mainstream.

I am particularly excited for the numerous freelance science writers out there. Currently, many have a hard time accessing the articles they need to do their job. For example, writing a review for a client requires access to dozens of papers that may be hard to come by if you are not associated with a large university or company and the client may not always provide you with ALL the papers you need.

Anna, your Millennium Conference may have been the straw that broke the camel.

Karen, yes, I think that this move by Harvard will get a lot of other universities to follow suit. This may be the tipping point for Open Access.