If universities pay the salaries of researchers and provide them with labs, and the federal government provides those researchers with grants for their studies, why should those same universities feel they can't afford to have access to research findings?
That's part of the argument behind a push by some in Congress to make such findings widely available at no charge. The Federal Public Research Access Act  would require federal agencies to publish their findings, online and free, within six months of their publication elsewhere. Proponents of the legislation, including many librarians and professors frustrated by skyrocketing journal prices, see such "open access" as entirely fair. But publishers -- including many scholarly associations -- have attacked the bill,  warning that it could endanger research and kill off many journals.
In an attempt to refocus the debate, the provosts of 25 top universities are jointly releasing an open letter that strongly backs the bill and encourages higher education to prepare for a new way of disseminating research findings. "Widespread public dissemination levels the economic playing field for researchers outside of well-funded universities and research centers and creates more opportunities for innovation. Ease of access and discovery also encourages use by scholars outside traditional disciplinary communities, thus encouraging imaginative and productive scholarly convergence," the provosts write.
While the letter acknowledges that the bill would force publishers and scholarly societies to consider potentially significant changes in their operations, the provosts conclude that the legislation "is good for education and good for research."
The letter originated with the provosts of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which includes the universities of the Big Ten Conference plus the University of Chicago. Others joining the effort include the provosts of such institutions as Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Texas A&M University, the University of California, the University of Rochester, Vanderbilt University, and Washington University in St. Louis.
"I think the provosts are concerned that our scientists are doing important research, and their fields demand that they publish the research in highly respected journals, and then those journals become more and more expensive and control information in a way that is worrisome," said R. Michael Tanner, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs of the University of Illinois at Chicago and one of those who worked on the letter. When universities can't afford to keep all of their subscriptions, universities face the prospect that their own faculty members can't read the findings of fellow faculty members -- even when taxpayers paid for the research.
"At a certain point, we can't be held prisoner within the publication system," Tanner said.
Tanner said he was worried about how the changes already taking place in publishing -- and those that could potentially take place because of this legislation -- would affect small publishers. But he said that the reality was that larger publishers were making large profits off universities like his.
Barbara Allen, director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, said that she hoped the open letter would reshape the debate on open access. "The public debate on these issues seems to be driven by the commercial publishing sector, and the scholarly publishers were lining up with the commercial sector," she said. The provosts wanted to make clear to Congress and others that "our needs as communities of scholars" aren't necessarily the same as those of large commercial publishers.
It's not at all clear that the legislation will go anywhere this year, with Congress already headed into pre-election season and debates over scholarly publishing not exactly competing with Iraq or the economy for voters' attention. But the proposal is almost sure to return next year -- and the provosts' action marks a shift of sorts for academic leaders. Scholarly associations (many of which depend for their budgets on journal sales) have been against these kinds of changes -- even as more and more of their members demand free, online access for information. The groups that represent colleges have also been less than enthusiastic about this push. The Association of American Universities -- which includes most of the institutions whose provosts signed the open letter -- hasn't taken a position on the bill, and officials say that they see both benefits and problems with the legislation.
While the provosts don't claim the legislation is perfect, they want university leaders to be decidedly on the "open access" side of the debate.
Not surprisingly, publishers are not pleased by this turn of events.
Alan Adler, vice president for legal and government affairs of the Association of American Publishers, said "what the university community is excited about is the prospect of being able to get access to all this published material free online, which is not terribly surprising. But why should universities be excited about the government inserting itself into the process of providing access to research?"
Adler said that there are all kinds of dangers behind the concept. He said that the cost to federal research agencies might be so high that it would take money from research. He said that the government might not create good databases. He said that the government might lose interest in the databases, after their creation undercuts the subscription models of existing journals and potentially forces some of them out of business.
He noted that for many scholarly groups, journal subscription fees finance a range of activities beyond the journals themselves-- and he wondered how those fees would be affected if many people felt no need to subscribe.
The provosts' letter acknowledges that a new system could involve real change for journals, which play a vital role in scholarship. The push for open access, the letter says, is a "challenge to us all to think about how best to align the intellectual and economic models for scholarly publishing with the needs of contemporary scholarship and the benefits, including low marginal costs of distribution, of network technology." If the bill becomes law, the provosts say, they will work with publishers to help deal with any problems.
Tanner of the Illinois-Chicago said that he was worried about small publishers and that universities "may have take steps to make sure publications continue." But he also noted that many smaller journals are losing subscriptions already -- and that universities already can't afford to provide access to every journal a faculty member might want.
Some observers say that the provosts' letter reflects what may be an immediate impact of the legislative proposal -- even if it moves nowhere this year. John C. Vaughn, executive vice president of the Association of American Universities, said that based on his discussions with publishers, "absent some pressure like this legislation, they'd probably keep doing business as usual." The provosts who are backing the bill are sending a message to publishers "to think harder about how to make things work in a new way," he said.