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Split Over Open Access

June 4, 2009

In the debate over "open access" to scholarly research, the Association of American University Presses has weighed in on the "anti" side of things, backing legislation that would end a federal requirement that work supported by the National Institutes of Health be available online and free within 12 months of publication.

The stance of the presses has pitted the publishing arm of higher education increasingly against many other parts of academe, as many scholars and librarians are enthusiasts for open access, and a growth number of college and university faculties are backing the idea. Now 10 university press directors are coming forward to announce jointly that they also support the idea. And while they don't specifically identify the legislation that the AAUP is backing, they make clear that they don't back it at all.

The dissenting press editors' statement says: "The undersigned university press directors support the dissemination of scholarly research as broadly as possible. We support the free access to scientific, technical, and medical journal articles no later than 12 months after publication. We understand that the length of time before free release of journal articles will by necessity vary for other disciplines. We support the principle that scholarly research fully funded by governmental entities is a public good and should be treated as such. We support legislation that strengthens this principle and oppose legislation designed to weaken it."

The statement was signed by the following directors: Meredith Babb (University Press of Florida), Thomas Bacher (University of Akron Press), Walter Hildebrandt (Athabasca University Press), Jane Hoehner (Wayne State University Press), Donna Livingstone (University of Calgary Press), Phil Pochoda (University of Michigan Press), Mike Rossner (Rockefeller University Press), Sandy Thatcher (Penn State University Press) and Bruce Wilcox (University of Massachusetts Press).

Their statement goes on to say: "We support the archiving and free release of the final, published version of scholarly journal articles to ensure accuracy and citation reliability" and "We will work directly with academic libraries, governmental entities, scholarly societies, and faculty to determine appropriate strategies concerning dissemination options, including institutional repositories and national scholarly archives."

Rossner of Rockefeller University said that the press directors issued the statement as they wanted "to align ourselves with the stances taken by many universities -- by faculties and administrators -- on scholarly communication."

He said that many academics feel "excitement" about the open access movement, seeing it as advancing the mission of scholarly communication and helping to keep research available at a time when many libraries and scholars don't have enough money.

Policy positions from the AAUP opposing open access -- such as this statement backing the legislation (commonly called the "Conyers bill" after its sponsor, Rep. John Conyers) that would revoke the current NIH requirements -- generally express support for the concept of open access, but fears about its financial impact.

"The members of AAUP strongly support open access to scholarly literature by whatever means, so long as those means include a funding or business model that will maintain the investment required to keep older work available and continue to publish new work," said the statement. "However, trying to expand access by diminishing copyright protection in works arising from federally-funded research is going entirely in the wrong direction, and will badly erode the capacity of AAUP members to publish such work in their books and journals."

The problem with that argument, Rossner said, is that there is nothing inconsistent with backing open access and having a business plan that works for university presses. He noted that Rockefeller University Press went open access in 2001 for material that has been published at least six months. Revenue from journal subscriptions has gone up during that time, with funds shifting from print to online, but flowing in nonetheless.

"I've certainly thought about the business implications of open access for my university press, and the others who signed thought this statement was compatible with their business models," Rossner said. While he said different university presses may have different approaches to the issue, he said it was important for people to know that there are university presses that endorse open access and don't want legislation that would roll back initiatives under way.

Peter Givler, executive director of the AAUP, said that while members of the association had the right to express their views, "we took this position believing that it reflected the views of a strong majority of our membership."

Givler said he was frustrated that "there's a lot of misunderstanding about the real issues here." He said that presses are very much in the business of "dissemination of knowledge -- the issue is how to pay for it." While there is "a lot of experimentation going on," he said it was not clear that models broadly exist to help university presses in an open access system.

"The fundamental principle in copyright law is that a publisher is granted by means of a contract certain exclusive rights in order to generate the revenue to keep the whole enterprise going," Givler said. "We don't make profits."

To those who think university presses should be able to endorse open access now, he said, "look at what's going on right now. Look at the enormous financial pressure universities and university presses are under." Even if the government is paying for the research covered by the current requirements, "the publishing process is not paid for by the taxpayers."

 

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