Harvard Opts In to 'Opt Out' Plan

February 13, 2008

Harvard University's arts and sciences faculty approved a plan on Tuesday that will post finished academic papers online free, unless scholars specifically decide to opt out of the open-access program. While other institutions have similar repositories for their faculty's work, Harvard's is unique for making online publication the default option.

The decision, which only affects the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, won't necessarily disrupt exclusivity agreements with journals or upend the academic publishing industry, but it could send a signal that a standard bearer in higher education is seriously looking at alternative distribution models for its faculty's scholarship. Already, various open-access movements are pressing for reforms (from modest to radical) to the current economic model, which depends on journals' traditional gatekeeping function and their necessarily limited audiences but which has concerned many in the academic community worried about rising costs and the shift to digital media.

It isn't clear how or whether Harvard will ensure that professors who haven't opted out will submit finished papers, and even what "finished" means. Can academics submit non-peer-reviewed work? Can they selectively upload articles and withhold others for prestigious journals? Either way, most publishers don't seem overly fazed by the development; many contracts with scholars already allow authors to post their work independently of publication in a journal, and the Harvard plan both protects authors' own copyright to their works and avoids forcing a decision on its faculty.

The unanimous vote gives Harvard a "worldwide license to make each faculty member’s scholarly articles available and to exercise the copyright in the articles, provided that the articles are not sold for a profit," according to a statement released after the vote. That license will be used to post the articles free online, where they could be crawled and accessed through search engines such as Google Scholar.

"This is a large and very important step for scholars throughout the country. It should be a very powerful message to the academic community that we want and should have more control over how our work is used and disseminated," said Stuart M. Shieber, the James O. Welch Jr. and Virginia B. Welch Professor of Computer Science, who sponsored the bill before the faculty governance group.

In an op-ed published in The Harvard Crimson on Tuesday, the director of the university library, Robert Darnton, wrote: "In place of a closed, privileged, and costly system, it will help open up the world of learning to everyone who wants to learn ... ideas would flow freely in all directions."

At that sentiment, Allan R. Adler, vice president for legal and governmental affairs at the Association of American Publishers, scoffed: "To some people, that sounds like a description of Harvard itself."

Publishers don't oppose open-access plans per se, Adler said. It is mandates they take issue with, such as the requirement imposed by Congress last year that National Institutes of Health-funded research be published online at PubMed Central. With Harvard's opt-out provision, he said, there's still "some degree of choice." He also maintained that (for-profit) journals perform a vital scholarly role by facilitating peer review and the selectivity that goes hand in hand with quality work.

Some supporters of the Harvard plan have alluded to the increasing price of journal subscriptions, a cost that some maintain forces libraries to cut down on the number of monographs and other scholarly books they purchase. But Peter Givler, executive director of the Association of American University Presses, which represents publishers of academic books, said there's no evidence that that's the case. "One of the categories of expenses that has also been going up for libraries is the investment that they’ve been making for electronic infrastructure," he said, raising the prospect that the costs of one type of publishing are merely being squeezed to pay for another.

Laura Brown, a senior adviser to the Ithaka project, which studies how information technologies can be applied to higher education, including electronic publishing, said she thinks the move could place Harvard in a leadership role on the issue. But she suggested that the effort was directed more at motivating faculty to fill the institution's electronic repository. At other colleges, she said, such repositories often languish because there is no mandate. And with more content in the repositories, she said, it would be easier to study which methods of digital delivery work and how scholars use such databases.

"If you just put everything up there and say, 'Here it is,' I think that you would miss a lot out of what happens out of the publishing process," Brown said, alluding to some advocates who would rather see all scholarly research available free. In other words, she doesn't believe that "all is free" is a sustainable model, but that the future might consist of "layers of free": "layers of gated stuff and the whole community has to figure this out together and what it looks like."

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