Open Access

June 29, 2009 | Chats with the University Dean

The Internet has revolutionized the way we access the news, read books and listen to music. Now digital technology is changing academic publishing. A movement is growing to promote free and open access to scholarly articles”and libraries are leading the way. Harvard, MIT and the National Institutes of Health have all adopted resolutions to make their researchers’ publications free and accessible.
Opposition to open access has come from major scholarly publishers, like Elsevier and Blackwell, and some academics, who claim that it would compromise the high standards of peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Another challenge comes from Rep. John Conyers, who introduced a bill (the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act) that would bar Federal agencies from implementing open-access policy, arguing that open access is damaging to the commercial market in academic publishing.
To help us make sense of the controversy surrounding open access in academic publishing, we talked to Curtis Kendrick.
IG: How did the trend toward openness in scholarly publishing come about?
CK: The open-access movement came about from the sea change in publishing. Digital technology created the means to disseminate information cheaply and immediately. And the many advances in knowledge, in particular the sciences and medicine, have given rise to an unprecedented rate of research. Yet, access to this wealth of information is restricted to those who can afford to pay the high subscription costs, and the high prices of journals make it hard for even the wealthiest libraries to acquire them.
IG: Why is open access important and how can it help turn around this shortfall?
CK: Open access is critical for scholars, who rely on the exchange of ideas, and perhaps even more so in the developing world, where access to libraries and to the Internet is limited. The Hunter College Kitengesa Community Library Research Project is a good example of the latter. A rural library in a war-torn village in Uganda”which Dr. Kate Perry started with her husband from a tin box of books”has grown into an important learning center in just a few years. By giving people access to the wider world of learning through books and the Internet, the library project has helped foster literacy in the community.
IG: That’s wonderful. But does open access mean the end of commercial publishers?
CK: No, I don’t think so. Open access provides the means to improve the system of scholarly publishing by breaking the monopoly that commercial journals have over intellectual property. That doesn’t mean we’ll do without commercial publishers altogether, but we’ll have a viable alternative, provided that a sound model for open-access publications evolves in parallel. Open access would also end the current practice in commercial publishing that requires authors to buy back their own work from publishers if they want to use it in the classroom.
IG: That’s similar to the scenario with online doctoral dissertations, which are off-bounds to authors who don’t have a subscription to ProQuest.
CK: Yes, exactly. The negative consequences don’t end there. Since libraries have to cut back on their acquisition of monographs to make room for expensive journals, university presses are cutting back on the number of books they publish. This hurts young scholars, who have fewer opportunities to publish their dissertations and other works in university presses.
IG: Critics of open access say the Internet can’t replace peer-reviewed journals.
CK: I think it was Esther Dyson who said digital technology would usher in new business models for publishing free content on the Internet. That’s what’s happening now in university and research libraries. As librarians and scholars explore this new frontier, they’re making sure that the editorial processes for maintaining the integrity of digital publications are of the same high quality as in traditional publishing: peer review, high quality editorial boards and copyediting. They’re also grappling with creating an infrastructure that can manage digital collections. And there’s the question of copyright. Nowadays most digital resources are licensed to the publisher. This means that once the subscription ends, access to information ends, too. This is another area where libraries are providing leadership.
IG: How are they doing that?
CK: Harvard and MIT have adopted resolutions making their faculty’s publications available to the public for free and open access on the Internet. Under this policy, Harvard and MIT will receive noncommercial licenses from authors, meaning that they cannot make a profit from publications. Universities and faculty have the right to use and share the articles in any way they like other than to draw a profit. Of course faculty can opt out and sign exclusive agreements with commercial journals. Columbia has not yet adopted a comprehensive open-access policy, but it has created an academic commons, an online repository run by the library, for faculty who choose to make their research free and accessible.
IG: What else are libraries doing to speed their open-access policies?
CK: Adoption requires support from the wider academic community, not just libraries. The impetus will have to come from the university administration, and it will also have to gain acceptance from the scholarly community. Digital scholarship will have to earn their recognition and be on par with publishing in the established journals. For now, publishing in established journals is still the way of getting tenure, and that will have to change if open access is to gain acceptance.
IG: Please expand on this last point.
CK: Essentially promotion and tenure committees have to accept open access publications as potentially the equal of print or fee-based publications. That means putting open access publications through the same rigorous peer review process of traditional publications. We know that this is happening. The NIH is making accessible the peer-reviewed manuscripts of the research it funds through the National Library of Medicine within 12 months of publication. That time lag lets scholarly journals retain their role of breaking the research news first, but it also lets the NIH share intellectual property widely”
and fulfill its mission to the public. And that is the responsibility of every college and university.