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Open access and scholarly publishing: is it time to tear down the paywalls?

Should the heights of academic endeavour be available for all? andrevanb

For researchers, not least those in the sciences, being published in the right sort of journals is no vanity project. It’s a matter of huge importance, with very real implications for people’s careers, and by extension their ability to put food on the table.

These journals are the sounding board for new ideas; they validate and advance particular disciplines; they are seen as a reliable reference point, the tried and trusted tools of the trade.

But does that mean journals should continue to expect to take copyright from their authors and charge often substantial fees just to read them?

A Magill.

A princely sum

Recently, this website published an article about Princeton University going “open”. In the past, when Princeton scholars wanted to publish in academic journals, they’d have to assign the copyright to the journal.

There were rigorous restrictions on having any other versions of the paper visible in public places, and especially on the internet.

Princeton has reversed this polarity. Now, staff may not assign copyright to journals, whatever the journal’s policy states, without special permission. By default, staff retain copyright over their own work, and can make copies of their papers available wherever they wish, especially online.

Princeton is not the first leading US university to do this. MIT and Harvard already have similar, and indeed stronger, safeguards in place regarding copyright.

Of course, it’s easier to take this pre-emptive step if you’re big, rich and in the top 20 US universities. Staff in institutions outside this enchanted circle remain in the thrall of journals and their publishers. Staff must publish for tenure, annual review, promotion and career advancement.

Most of us will just sign the copyright away for the benefits we hope will accrue. Individual researchers are relatively powerless in their interactions with journal publishers.

But universities such as Princeton are in a position to swing blocks of leading researchers behind a coherent policy direction of open scholarship. This constitutes a substantial change in the dynamics of scholarly publishing, and potentially levels the playing field.

Princeton’s action is no capricious or idiosyncratic step – it’s part of a wider movement to openness.

Nicola Corboy.

Open up

As a concept, “open” is much like “green”: it comes with a pre-made aura of favourable vibes. Just as “green” implies “environmentally responsible” and “natural”, so “open” implies “unrestricted sharing”, “collaboration”, and “socially and intellectually inclusive”. Who could quarrel with that? And yet …

Universities are elite institutions. They are separated from the polloi by the specialisation of their disciplines, the esoteric language they use, and the material (read: financial) resources needed in order to gain access to their work.

University libraries pay millions every year for journal subscriptions and copyright fees. Princeton is challenging this by saying, in effect: “Here is our work. You are welcome to use it, if you can”.

At a time of international financial crisis, the move to open up access sounds initially inviting, courageous and socially responsible. It fits with the 1980 Brandt Report, chaired by former German Chancellor Willy Brandt.

That report proposed a radical sharing and transfer of wealth (information and scholarship are forms of wealth) from rich and privileged countries such as Germany to the poorer and deprived nations – most of Africa, and many of the poorer parts of Central and East Asia.

Not so fast …

Universities and the publishing industry are undergoing tectonic changes, as the global shifts brought on by the internet continue to ripple outwards.

The role of journals for the distribution of ideas and research is no longer a given when those ideas could easily be made available through your browser.

Even the richest universities are being squeezed by the results, direct and indirect, of the global financial crisis. The soul-searching this engenders goes like this: is opening up access to scholarship consistent with business models whereby we are increasingly required to find funding sources other than annual allocation from governments? If we have a valuable product, shouldn’t we protect access to it?


Sound the siren

The call of the open is seductive, and not just because, as with the Greek Sirens, it sings an enchanting tune. It is:

1) Ethically persuasive. The “democracy” of scholarship is emerging as a key value, especially in the face of certain controversies. Should someone be able to patent parts of a genome, especially the human genome?

2) Politically compelling. Though there are many who argue consumers should be prepared to pay for quality, there is a growing clamour against exclusive, exclusionist approaches to scholarship, especially when much of it is funded by the public.

3) Intellectually persuasive. Fast, reliable access to current, high-quality leading work promotes excellence in research. This has been devastatingly well-proven by the website, which gives free access to more than 700,000 top papers in physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance and statistics.

The implications of openness are wide-ranging, the challenges exciting, the potential outcomes, without any sense of hyperbole, revolutionary.

This is the first in a series of related articles to be published during Open Access Week.

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