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Open-Access Policies – What’s Taking So Long?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

As seems appropriate for a school whose colors are orange and black, Princeton began implementation of its open access policy for faculty publications on Halloween of this year.  The policy means that the institution requires (and supports) its faculty members to publish their scholarly work in venues which either support open access to the material or which allow Princeton to make the work available in its own publically accessible online repository.

Princeton joins a short but impressive list of American institutions with similar policies such as Harvard, Stanford, the National Institutes of Health, MIT, and the MacArthur Foundation, as well as 65 others. This policy, and others like it, contributes to a global open content movement which aims to make all information freely available in the hope that easier access will yield greater future intellectual and cultural advancement.

Here is how open access to scholarly publications fits into that broader concept.

Making Information Freely Available
The basic concept behind open access (open access does not allow modification of the material, whereas open content can be changed) is that the free and open exchange of scholarship provides a fertile ground for future inquiry and the continued advancement of knowledge. This is entirely in keeping with the way scientific and other knowledge develops – each generation of research findings serves as the basis for the next, and so on.  This concept makes complete sense from a research perspective. Publication of scholarly findings in journals which require a subscription or other fee for access curtails the natural progress of knowledge formation.

Add to this natural process the fact that much academic research is funded by government grants, so access should be free anyway. Many institutions that offer research grants such as the MacArthur Foundation and the NIH require that publications resulting from research that they support are freely available to the public. Here is an excerpt from the NIH policy which clearly outlines the requirement:

"The Director of the National Institutes of Health shall require that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication: Provided, That the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law."
(NIH.gov)

The administrators at NIH clearly understand the value of open access, as do the other institutions that have adopted similar policies. But what exactly are those benefits? And who do they help?

The Benefits of Open Access
It was stated above that the open exchange of information is a natural part of the scientific research process. However, open access policies have other benefits as well. One benefit to open access is in the protection if offers to the faculty members producing the research. In much academic publishing, the author relinquishes the rights to his/her own work once it is accepted for inclusion in a journal or book. Ironically, this strange twist of copyright means that the creator of the research cannot republish, post their own work online, or even modify or use parts of it for other publications. Princeton’s policy addresses this issue:

"The new policy protects faculty members from giving away all of their publication rights when they publish refereed and conference articles in a journal. Access to many journals is restricted by subscription, institutional or organizational membership, or other factors."
(News at Princeton)

In addition to the protection that these policies offer for faculty, there is a much wider societal benefit to the free exchange of information. There is a need for ongoing professional development and learning in all fields and open access to scholarly research provides one way in which practitioners in any field can continue to develop their knowledge. This need is particularly true in the medical field, where doctors can have easy access to the latest research to further their knowledge, suggest new techniques, and provide the best service to their patients. In this way, open access also provides a source of information for amateur scientists who can actually help to advance the state of knowledge in a given area if they have better access to what is already known and what current researchers are discovering.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the open exchange of research is a contributing factor to the move towards an open culture which allows for a wider input into the creation of new knowledge. Combining open source, open art and literature, and open access to information pushes the envelope of our cultural advancement by allowing new ideas to be inspired by existing media, knowledge, and discoveries. This is the most useful way to spark future innovation and the new ideas that will help society advance and evolve.

What’s the Delay?
The 71 American institutions that have open access policies represent only a fraction of the degree granting institutions in this country (@2,300 4-year colleges). Keep in mind that those 71 institutions also include the NIH, the MacArthur Foundation, and other organizations that do not count as institutions of higher learning. If the benefits of open access policies are so clear, and so many top research institutions have them, why aren’t a majority of American colleges and universities following suit?

A 2007 decision by a University of California review committee tasked with approving or denying a motion to implement open access throughout their system sheds some light on where the holdups may be for those institutions not following their peers. The primary reasons given for failing to adopt an open access policy were:

  • Financial burden of implementation – it could cost too much to put the system in place and maintain it.
  • Procedural burden of implementation – time would have to be spent to implement the policy.
  • A burden on faculty – there would be increased responsibilities for faculty in understanding and following the policy and negotiating with publishers.
  • Threats to academic freedom – general availability of scholarly research could spark public criticism.
  • Uncertainty about the status of graduate students – would graduate students be covered by the policy and what would happen after graduation?
  • Financial effects on the publishers – there would be a financial impact on scholarly societies and publishers if they could not charge for access to research publications.

(Proposed UC Open Access Policy Summary of Non-Senate Responses, July 26, 2007)

None of these concerns seem insurmountable. I understand that there are realistic concerns about the implementation of open access policies. However, the benefits so far outweigh the negatives here that any obstacles should be addressed in order to improve access for everyone.  It is not difficult to image the ideal world of free access to information. It will require a significant change in the way we value knowledge and its availability, but if every one of the 2,300+ 4-year colleges or universities in the United States required open access for all of their scholarly work, we would undergo a massive jump forward in our collective, societal knowledge base.