Harvard backs open access initiative similar to one passed by UCSC in 2005

On February 13, 2008, Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences unanimously carried a resolution supporting a form of free online access, termed "open access," for scholarly articles. Harvard's resolution brings into practice the principles put forward in a motion passed by the UCSC Academic Senate in 2005.

This form of open access, enabled through the retention of copyrights, is intended to give scholars, backed by their universities, the right to post on the web articles that have been published in existing journals. Last year, discussion of a more detailed resolution failed to implement a systemwide open access policy for the University of California. The UC administration and senate supported the principle of open access but were uncertain about the implementation of the proposal.

Harvard's resolution is remarkably wide. It gives the president and fellows of Harvard College the right to "make available [faculty members'] scholarly articles and to exercise the copyright in those articles." This means that Harvard can establish systems to provide free access to journal papers after they have been accepted or published by an academic journal.

The resolution follows in the wake of a mandate issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH sought to have the recipients of its funding post their scholarly articles online within a specified period after their acceptance by journals. Initially this took the form of a voluntary request, but in a bill adopted on July 19, 2007, Congress upgraded that to a requirement that "all investigators funded by the NIH submit . to the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts . to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication."

The goal of this open access movement is to maximize the advancement and application of knowledge by ensuring that scholarly research is widely available at no or minimum cost to the reader. Various business models are being tested or are already well-proven to cover the costs of producing journals and retain the full rigors of peer review and still allow this expanded access to results of research and scholarship.

Nevertheless, adding institutional policies to this evolution is a new development and the full implications of the Harvard and NIH moves are not yet fully apparent. What it means for the future shape of scholarly communication is not clear.

There is, of course, a significant tension between the goals of academics and the practices of commercial journal publishers and of some scholarly society journal publishers. Research suggests that free availability of journal articles does not undermine existing commercial journals. One report concludes that "the evidence there is to hand points to the likelihood that the peaceful--and perhaps mutually beneficial--co-existence of traditional journals and open-access archives is entirely possible; in biological terms, mutualism, rather than parasitism or symbiosis, might best describe the relationship." Commercial journal publishers do not accept this research finding. And it is certainly the case that the continuing rapid rise in the cost of subscriptions to commercial journals online provides significant impetus to the movement for open access.

In 2004, the UCSC senate was the first UC campus to pass a resolution threatening to cut ties with Elsevier journals when Elsevier was intransigent in its demand, in negotiations with the UC Administration, for rapidly rising prices. Partly as a result of that resolution, the University of California won that battle. Elsevier returned to the negotiations with greater flexibility, and the price for UC systemwide 10-year access to Elsevier journals was reduced by several million dollars.

Harvard's resolution is a significant step forward in the battle for open access. It further opens the path to wider access to the findings of academic research. UC faculty can back this highly desirable goal by retaining sufficient copyrights so that they can post their articles to public repositories like the UC eScholarship Repository and PubMed Central. Increasingly commercial and scholarly journals allow such posting, sometimes with a delay of a few months after publication. For more information on retaining copyrights, visit Reshaping Scholarly Communication.

Ben Crow, an associate professor of sociology at UCSC, is chair of the systemwide Senate Committee on the Library and Scholarly Communication.