Open access publishing: Harvard ups the ante

It was a good week for science. Well, for open access publishing, which is the future of scientific communication. Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted a thunderous YES to a proposal to publish their academic papers on the internet. The proposal, reproduced below, is a bit hazy on the timing of public posting. Does a piece of research only become a “scholarly article” once it has appeared in a journal?

If not, many scientific publishers will be in a quandary. One of the ways they justify their journals’ extortionate prices is to pump out stuff that is new, exciting, and not available anywhere else. Researchers have been loathe to put papers on the net because it might undermine their chances of getting published in a high-prestige journal. But the Harvard vote has upped the ante quite considerably. It would be suicide for journals to refuse to consider a paper from one of the world’s most prestigious universities, just because the university already has it on its web site.

If research gets posted before “publication” in a journal, you can expect shrieking from the large publishers about the dangers of abandoning the hallowed (but oh-so-very-very-imperfect) peer review process. Plug your ears to the shrieking. Open access publishing is becoming a fact (in some fields, such as physics, it’s been a fact for a while). We’ll still need journals as a filtering system, an imprimatur of quality. But we may not need to pay US$ 800 a year to view their contents. On-line posting may also act as a catalyst to faster publication; never a bad thing when research has any policy implications in the real world. Some commentators suggest it will give journals a kick up the butt, so that they get more interactive and creative.

An aside: I was curious that the New York Times reported this momentous event in its books section, rather than in the science section. Perhaps I’m being one-eyed, but it seems to me that this will affect the world of science rather more than the world of publishing.

The proposal read as follows:

“The Faculty of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University is committed to disseminating the
fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible. In keeping with that commitment,
the Faculty adopts the following policy: Each Faculty member grants to the President and
Fellows of Harvard College permission to make available his or her scholarly articles and to
exercise the copyright in those articles. In legal terms, the permission granted by each Faculty
member is a nonexclusive, irrevocable, paid-up, worldwide license to exercise any and all
rights under copyright relating to each of his or her scholarly articles, in any medium, and to
authorize others to do the same, provided that the articles are not sold for a profit. The policy
will apply to all scholarly articles written while the person is a member of the Faculty except
for any articles completed before the adoption of this policy and any articles for which the
Faculty member entered into an incompatible licensing or assignment agreement before the
adoption of this policy. The Dean or the Dean’s designate will waive application of the policy
for a particular article upon written request by a Faculty member explaining the need.”

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This post was published on 18/02/08 in Science.

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  1. Pingback by Much ado about the Harvard OA policy « Be openly accessible or be obscure, 26/02/08, 01:48:

    […] Open access publishing: Harvard ups the ante, Elizabeth Pisani, The Wisdom of Whores, February 18, 2008. Excerpt: The proposal, reproduced below, is a bit hazy on the timing of public posting. Does a piece of research only become a “scholarly article” once it has appeared in a journal? […]

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