Winds of change – ivy league universities make mileage from open access

2009 might turn out to be the year in which the tipping point has been reached in scholarly publishing. There is an increasing tide of criticism of conventional, commercially-driven journal publishing and its systems for evaluating and ranking scholars and universities.  For example in a scathing article published in Times Higher Education last month Sir John Sulston, chairman of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester, and Nobel prizewinner in the physiology or medicine category in 2002 is quoted as saying  ‘[Journal metrics] are the disease of our times.’

But it is a crystal-clear spring day in Cape Town today, so let’s opt for the good news. And that is that Harvard and four other leading universities in the US are leveraging considerable strategic benefit from adopting open access.  Harvard has launched DASH,

its open access repository; a group of 5 leading universities, including Harvard, have launched a Compact for Open Access Publication; and, in support of this Compact, Harvard has developed  HOPE – its policy for the management of for funding support for open access publication.  This is a policy that could well serve as a model for universities wanting to tackle this issue.

From a South African perspective, do our leading research universities, which currently compete fiercely to get journal articles into the journal indexes in order to corner a place in international university rankings, need to start rethinking their strategies to concentrate more on providing access to their scholarship? And given that South African universities are in even greater need of getting readership for their research and suffer much more than the well-endowed US institutions from ever-escalating subscription costs, should we not be more active in our support for open access authorship?

What is striking in Harvard University’s announcement of the launch of its open access repository, DASH, is the way the university is using this launch as a powerful marketing exercise to promote the contribution that open access can make to profiling the quality of its scholarship:

“DASH is meant to promote openness in general,” stated Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library. “It will make the current scholarship of Harvard’s faculty freely available everywhere in the world, just as the digitization of the books in Harvard’s library will make learning accumulated since 1638 accessible worldwide. Taken together, these and other projects represent a commitment by Harvard to share its intellectual wealth.”

Visitors to DASH ( can locate, read, and use some of the most up-to-the minute scholarship that Harvard has to offer. DASH users can read “Anticipating One’s Troubles: The Costs and Benefits of Negative Expectations” by Harvard College Professor Dan Gilbert. Markus Meister, Jeff C. Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, weighs in with “LED Arrays as Cost-Effective and Efficient Light Sources for Widefield Microscopy,” while Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow asks “After Brown: What Would Martin Luther King Say?”

From Abu Ghraib to zooarchaeology, from American literature to the Zeeman effect, more than 1,500 items can be located in DASH today, with the number increasing every week. As vital as the repository is to current work, DASH also houses a growing number of retrospective articles and papers. Contributors include Harvard President Drew Faust and University professors Robert Darnton, Peter Galison, Stanley Hoffman, Barry Mazur, Stephen Owen, Amartya Sen, Irwin Shapiro, Helen Vendler, and George Whitesides.

The Compact for Open Access Publishing has been launched by Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, and the University of California, Berkeley. In the first instance, this is profiled as a public good intervention, but it also takes account of the increasing pressure that is being placed on library budgets and hence on access to research, as a result of rising journal costs in a recessionary climate. A key goal of the compact is to ensure that universities have in place support mechanisms to provide funding for scholarly authors publishing in open access journals, in those cases where author fees are charged. This is seen as a way of levelling the playing fields:

‘The compact supports equity of the business models by committing each university to the timely establishment of durable mechanisms for underwriting reasonable publication fees for open-access journal articles written by its faculty for which other institutions would not be expected to provide funds.’

This is a conscious effort to plot a path from an old model to a new. In an interview on the launch of DASH and the Compact for Open Access publishing, Stuart Schieber, Director of the Office of Scholarly Communications at Harvard, is clear – and as articulate as ever, about the need to change the system:

Scholarly publishing is going through a transformation as a result of systemic problems in the underlying business models, which have led to a spiral of hyperinflating costs, journal cancellations, and reducing access to the scholarly literature. With the economic downturn, this access problem will only be exacerbated. DASH is an attempt to solve the symptom of reduced access, at least to our own articles. But we need to turn our attention to the underlying problem, to find sustainable alternatives to the dysfunctional subscription-based business model that has supported journal publishing in the past.

Over the decades, academia has established a substantial infrastructure to support scholarly publication based on that business model—publishers to manage logistics and production, subscription agents to handle order processing, library budgets to pay for the subscriptions, overhead from grants to fund those library budgets, and so forth. We need to start establishing the infrastructure to support alternative models, and to get the mechanisms of scholarly communication on a sound, sustainable footing.

There are lessons to be learned all around, here, about the ways in which the world’s leading universities address their strategic goals.

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