Updated: Harvard Research Studies May Go Open Access

The Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences is voting today on a proposal for the university to distribute their research studies online instead of signing exclusive agreements with journals that often have small readerships but high subscription costs. Should the measure be approved, research from the arts and sciences faculty will be made available online via the Office for Scholarly Communications at no cost to readers and may open the door for Harvard Medical School to go open access as well. Currently, the school is trying to get faculty to comply with Congress’ recently passed mandate requiring National Institutes of Health articles be made freely available through the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central database. So far, many of the faculty members support the open access movement, as it provides free education for all those eager to learn. Robert Darnton, the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library, contends in The Harvard Crimson today that the current, closed and costly system cuts into a library’s budget for books and monographs, hurting academic publishers, which in turn hurts up and coming professors who must publish to gain tenure. Furthermore, the proposed measure allows authors to maintain their copyrights, so that if they so desired, they can still publish at subscription-required journals. This “opt-out” system enables authors to request for their research to be removed from the open access system.

The NY Times reports that the publishing industry and some scholarly groups have opposed certain forms of open access, arguing that the free distribution could erode the quality of research and cut into subsidies that some journals provide for educational training and meetings, since open access articles would not undergo the same rigorous process of peer review that published articles do. Some even fear that smaller journals might face closure, disappearing into the cracks of increased competition between open access and larger, more profitable publications. Still, open access proponents don’t foresee the possible weakening of research ethics and quality, citing the availability of many physics journals as an example of education thriving in the free, online repository.

Update: The FAS approved the proposal tonight, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Open access activist Peter Suber of nonprofit group Public Knowledge said the move makes Harvard the first US university to adopt an open access mandate. (Full proposal via PDF.)