Standing Up for Open Access

After complaints from MIT faculty and others, engineers' group rethinks policy that limits transmission of materials on an online database.
May 21, 2007

Professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were perplexed: How could a membership organization that gladly accepts and archives their scholarly work turn around and limit transmission of the material?

MIT faculty have contributed roughly 350 papers in the last eight years to the Society of Automotive Engineers' digital database, according to Ellen F. Duranceau, scholarship publishing and licensing consultant for MIT Libraries. They were used to sharing the technical papers found through the site with colleagues and viewing the material in multiple sittings.

But a policy enacted by SAE about two years changed the nature of the service. The group began requiring users to download a plug-in that prevented sharing encrypted documents over a network. Users could only view a paper on a single desktop computer and were allowed one printed copy per access code. No saving a copy to the computer. No photocopying. SAE also changed pricing models so that users were charged per view, Duranceau said.

Last month, MIT Libraries explained in a blog posting its decision to cancel access to the database because of the restraints. The decision set off a chain of events that has led SAE to reconsider its policy. The case shows, among other things, the extent to which faculty members will go to protect the free flow of academic information in a time when technology allows for greater research sharing.

Wai K. Cheng, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and an SAE fellow who led the faculty charge against the restrictions, presented his concerns to SAE's publications board last month. The organization prides itself on its efficient search engine and comprehensive database, he said in an interview, which made the change in policy all the more annoying.

"It is a step backwards," Cheng said. "All of the sudden we're back to archiving papers by printing them out. They want to put a lock on this thing and make it more difficult to operate."

As a result of his and others' lobbying efforts, the panel last month announced plans to form a task force of professors, librarians, its own board members and others to rethink the policy. An SAE spokeswoman declined to explain why the policy was initially changed, saying only that decisions will be made by the end of the summer after the task force finishes its review. Cheng said he has never received a clear answer on whether the decision to restrict access was primarily an economic or philosophic one, or both.

MIT faculty members grew concerned about the policy as its March database subscription renewal date approached. Since SAE grandfathered in the policy, the university didn't have to adhere to any new changes until its contract ran out. Cheng said some colleges whose contracts ran out before MIT's stopped subscribing to the database service.

In the meantime, as SAE looks into its policy, subscribers are again seeing the more relaxed access rules that they grew accustomed to before a few years ago. Instead of using the SAE service, the MIT Libraries purchased from the group CD-ROM and PDF versions of the published papers, and is working on a digital catalogue.

Duranceau, the licensing consultant, said faculty at MIT are committed to keeping their papers open to as many eyes as possible.

"The core issue is the reaction of the authors here in discovering that when they had written papers and given SAE the right to the materials, [the group] betrayed their trust," she said. "No one was under a naive assumption that everything should be free, but there was an understanding that things should be made as barrier-free as possible."


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