Harvard Libraries join the fight for open access

A few months ago, I wrote about the problems with academic publishing:

These days, there's an entire industry of academic publishers that have become so fully integrated into the research system that many scientists don't realize that there's any distinction between doing science and publishing in journals. However, these journals cost an enormous amount of money (mostly public tax dollars), yet add little value to scientific research, while simultaneously slowing the pace of discovery and limiting the dissemination of knowledge.

Many individual scientists have taken personal action to combat this problem (the most effective of which is a boycott of Elsevier led by mathematician Timothy Gowers), but individual action is not enough to break through the institutional barriers that give the monopoly to these academic publishers. That's why I was thrilled to read today that my University has decided to put its considerable institutional weight behind the push for open access:

Exasperated by rising subscription costs charged by academic publishers, Harvard University has encouraged its faculty members to make their research freely available through open access journals and to resign from publications that keep articles behind paywalls.

A memo from Harvard Library to the university's 2,100 teaching and research staff called for action after warning it could no longer afford the price hikes imposed by many large journal publishers, which bill the library around $3.5m a year.

This could be a game changer. Harvard's name alone commands attention, and if a university with such an enormous endowment is labeling costs as unsustainable, other institutions are bound to take notice.

Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a US-based international library membership organisation, said other universities may follow Harvard's lead.

"Highlighting the role of the faculty is exactly what we need to do. Libraries have been trying to ring the alarm bell about this for a while, but it's the faculty members who are the producers and consumers of the articles. They have got the keys to making significant change in this market. Having Harvard call this out in front of the faculty is a very significant move."

Though open access journals aren't my desired end-point, I think they're a critical starting point in changing the system, and will help pave the way forward. I don't usually brag about going to Harvard, but I'm proud of my school today. Here's hoping others start to follow suit.

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"I think they're a critical starting point in changing the system, and will help pave the way forward". That's the most important step to encourage people to take action against powerful companies.

Good to see that research community is united to promote the bases of scientific philosophy. No one can achieve liberty without free thought and information. A imagine plain people browsing scientific papers to confirm and understand information given by the old midia. Internet access and free information will certainly catalyses the transformation to a better world

Thanks for the post

So, would the Harvard Business Review become public access? somehow, I think that has a smaller chance than snowball in hell....

By Ramji Balakrishnan (not verified) on 29 Apr 2012 #permalink

Ramji, the difference with the HBR is that the contents are the intellectual property of Harvard, whilst scientific journal publishers contribute very little to the intellectual content.

Most Open Access journals are not free. What's happening here is that the University Library is campaigning to push publishing costs out of its budget and into the research budget.

Yes, there are Open Access journals that are free, but most (especially the higher profile ones) are not. That's because there is quite a bit of work to make a good journal - and someone, somewhere, has to pay for that.

I'm all in favour of Open Access, but most people advocating it don't really understand the implications. 'Pay to publish' rather than 'Pay to read' will change what gets published where.

@ Tom - You're right of course, but when the costs of publishing are invisible to the producers of the content (researchers), there's no incentive to change behavior.

Also, let's imagine a future in which all publishing is open access (pay to publish as you put it). Will those tiny journals that few people read continue to be profitable? Right now, publishing companies have an incentive to just start more journals, regardless of quality, because they can always find research to publish and can bundle the subscription fees in with journals that libraries need. In a pay-to-publish world, niche journals will actually have to provide added value to get enough people to submit content.

Of course, this runs a separate risk of people doing shoddy science and just paying to get it published somewhere, but I have to believe that these people will have a hard time finding the funding to continue this process if none of their work is ever read.

The problem is that in a pay to publish world great companies like tobacco companies or oil companies or even pharmaceutical companies will have the means to disseminate studies supporting their interests more easily. Open access publishers should accurately disclose who funded the fee on behalf of the author.

@ Ha-Vinh - Transparency in funding is always important, regardless of the business model. The hope is that peer review will catch those blatant conflicts of interest, and respectable journals won't publish industry hack-jobs.

Even in the current system, there have been examples of companies setting up their own journals solely for the purpose of promoting their own shody "science..." If anything, I think open access policies will make this sort of obfuscation harder to pull off, not easier.