Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

More on the imminent OA mandate at Harvard

Robert Darnton, The Case for Open Access, Harvard Crimson, February 12, 2008.  Darnton is the Director of the Harvard University Library.  Excerpt:

The motion before the FAS [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] in support of open access to scholarly articles concerns openness in general. It is meant to promote the free communication of knowledge. By retaining rights for the widest possible dissemination of the faculty’s work, it would make scholarship by members of the FAS freely accessible everywhere in the world, and it would reinforce a new effort by Harvard to share its intellectual wealth.

The University Library has taken a leading role in that endeavor. Far from reserving its resources for the privileged few, it is digitizing its special collections, opening them to everyone online, and cooperating with Google in the attempt to make books in the public domain actually available to the public, a worldwide public, which extends everywhere that people have access to the Internet. If the FAS votes in favor of the motion on February 12, Harvard will make the latest work of its scholars accessible, just as it is creating accessibility to the store of knowledge that it has accumulated in its libraries since 1638.

The motion also represents an opportunity to reshape the landscape of learning. A shift in the system for communicating knowledge has created a contradiction at the heart of academic life. We academics provide the content for scholarly journals. We evaluate articles as referees, we serve on editorial boards, we work as editors ourselves, yet the journals force us to buy back our work, in published form, at outrageous prices. Many journals now cost more than $20,000 for a year’s subscription.

The spiraling cost of journals has inflicted severe damage on research libraries, creating a ripple effect: in order to purchase the journals, libraries have had to reduce their acquisitions of monographs; the reduced demand among libraries for monographs has forced university presses to cut back on the publication of them; and the near impossibility of publishing their dissertations has jeopardized the careers of a whole generation of scholars in many fields. It would be naïve to assume that a positive vote by the FAS on February 12 would force publishers to slash their prices. But by passing the motion we can begin to resist the trends that have created so much damage....

The Harvard University Library will set up an Office for Scholarly Communication to make the open-access repository an instrument for access to research across all disciplines in the spirit of the “one-university” environment that the HOLLIS catalog now provides for holdings in all the libraries, more than 80 of them, throughout the University system. The Office for Scholarly Communication will also promote maximum cooperation by the faculty. Many repositories already exist in other universities, but they have failed to get a large proportion of faculty members to submit their articles. The deposit rate at the University of California is 14 percent, and it is much lower in most other places. By mandating copyright retention and by placing those rights in the hands of the institution running the repository, the motion will create the conditions for a high deposit rate.

What further sets Harvard’s proposal apart from the others is its opt-out provision....Whereas other repositories depend on faculty opting in by volunteering to provide digitized copies of their work, the Harvard system would have all faculty members grant a non-exclusive permission to the President and Fellows of Harvard to distribute their articles. The system would be collective but not coercive.  Anyone who wanted to retain exclusive rights to her- or himself could do so by obtaining a waiver. Of course, those who cooperate with the system will also retain full rights to the publication of their work. By sharing those rights with Harvard, they sacrifice nothing; and they will have the collective weight of Harvard behind them if they resist a journal’s demand for exclusive rights. We have designed a legal memorandum called an author’s addendum to reinforce them in negotiations with commercial publishers....


  • For background, see my earlier blog posts on the evolution of the Harvard policy.
  • If FAS votes yes today, Harvard will be the first university in the US to adopt an OA mandate.  The Harvard policy will also be one of the first anywhere to be adopted by faculty themselves rather than by administrators.
  • The Harvard proposal, like the draft proposal under consideration at the U of California, is what I call a permission mandate rather than a deposit mandate.  Instead of requiring faculty to deposit their postprints in the IR, it merely requires them to give the university permission (non-exclusive permission) to host the postprints in the IR.  Then the university will take on the responsibility of making the deposits itself.  I described the advantages in SOAN for December 2007:  "This model reduces the demands on faculty and increases the certainty about permissions.  As long as the university is willing to pay people, usually librarians, to make the actual deposits, it could be a faster and more frictionless way to move the deposit rate toward 100%."  If Harvard votes yes, I believe it will also be the first university anywhere to adopt a permission mandate.
  • It's true that most TA journals (about two-thirds) already permit postprint archiving, and authors who publish in them needn't retain any rights in order to self-archive.  But some of those journals may rescind their permissions over time; some already put harmful restrictions on their permission (fees, embargoes, or prohibitions on deposit in certain repositories) and some may add restrictions later; and about a third of TA journals don't permit self-archiving at all.  A permission mandate is an easy way to provide a continuing legal basis for green OA to all of an institution's research output.
  • It's also true that a university could require the deposit of peer-reviewed manuscripts immediately upon acceptance for publication, and then switch them from closed to open access after the publisher's embargo runs (what I call the dual deposit/release strategy and Stevan Harnad calls immediate deposit / optional access).  That has the advantage of not requiring authors to retain any special rights, and the disadvantage of accommodating publisher embargoes.  When embargoes are inevitable, the dual deposit/release strategy is preferable; but in a case like this, embargoes are not inevitable.  Moreover, since no universities have yet adopted permission mandates, this is a good chance to see how well they work.  Harvard could provide immediate OA if its deposit procedures are fleet and efficient, and merely delayed OA if not. 
  • A permission mandate is a university version of the kind of policy pioneered by the Wellcome Trust and adopted last month by the NIH.  Faculty must retain permission to provide green OA to a copy of their peer-reviewed manuscript, and may transfer all other rights to a publisher.  Publishers will have all the rights they need to publish (and more) and authors will have the one right they need to self-archive.  As I put it when describing the NIH policy earlier this month, "publishers cannot complain that [green OA under these conditions] infringes a right they possess, only that it would infringe a right they wished they possessed."  It's simple and elegant. 
  • Publishers who dislike the idea could respond by refusing to publish work by Harvard faculty.  But that will not happen.  Harvard is inserting the wedge and making it easier for other universities to follow suit with similar policies.

Update.  Also see Patricia Cohen's story on the Harvard policy in today's New York Times.

Update.  Also see Stevan Harnad's comments.  Stevan argues for an immediate deposit / optional access policy rather than a permission mandate.

Update.  Also see the article in Library Journal Academic Newswire.