Harvard Open Access

Harvard University faculty of Arts and Sciences voted last week to approve an open access policy for scholarly research.  By default, research articles will be published on-line and available for free. The faculty member will retain copyright and can opt out of the system.  A couple of good summaries can by found at the NY Times, Bloomberg and in a Nature Publishing Group blog (be sure to read the updates at the bottom of the blog, as the author makes some clarifications).

I think the following quote summarizes the underlying intention nicely:

“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.”

This is reminiscent of the Capetown Open Education Declaration. It also reminds me of the talk that Hal Abelson gave at the Sakai Conference in Amsterdam.  I remember drawing a picture in my notebook that I’ll just describe now (away from my scanner).  It showed the University paying the salaries of the faculty (of course grants come in here too). The faculty gives the article to the publisher, typically for minimal or no compensation. The publisher then sells the journal back to the University for thousands of dollars.  The schools pay the faculty to do the research and then pay the publishers to have access to that same research. No wonder tuition is increasing faster than the rate of inflation.

Now I understand that my argument is a bit silly and that journal publishers provide a valuable service, which includes peer review, editing and collecting similar articles together. But I think the price of those journals, in many cases, has gotten out of proportion with the costs of the underlying activities that are needed to provide that valuable service. Because the journal owns publication rights they have a monopoly on that content and can exercise monopoly pricing.

I’m not anti-capitalism. I believe in intellectual property rights and the ability to exploit inventions for profit, even “monopoly” profits. These motives drive great innovation in capitalist economies and it would be silly to argue against eliminating them. The especially twisted part of the academic journal equation is that the research (the “risky” investment that monopoly profits are intended to reward) is being conducted by the same institutions that are paying the exorbitant prices for the end product.

But I also do think that education is different from other fields. We should be looking for ways to make educational materials as available and low cost as possible. Open content and open technology movements in education are extremely important. We don’t need to threaten the existence of the dominant journals or technology companies. But we do, hopefully, put pressure on these organizations to keep their pricing within reason and look for ways to open up their business practices.


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