Researchers and provosts make the case for open access

March 5, 2012

The many real and prospective constraints on broad and affordable access to published scholarship recently spurred a grassroots effort to push back against the business practices of the world’s largest scientific journal publisher, and prompted a strong statement by a group of chief academic officers.

The grassroots effort, The Cost of Knowledge has obtained a commitment from 7,642 researchers around the world (as of this writing) to refrain from publishing, refereeing, and/or doing editorial work for Elsevier journals. Among the signers are 28 U-M faculty members and graduate students, most of them mathematicians and scientists.

On the boycott website, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics James Milne commented, “Scientists once had an implicit contract with their (mostly small) publishers: we gave them our work and they published and distributed it at a reasonable price. Investors have made billions by breaking this contract.”

The stated objections to Elsevier’s practices are that they charge too much for journal subscriptions; they bundle subscriptions, compelling libraries to buy many journals they don’t want; and they support legislation that aims “to restrict the free exchange of information.”

Elsevier responded in the Chronicle of Higher Education, pointing out that last year its prices were lower than their competitors, and questioning why it became the focus of a boycott. Elsevier announced its withdrawal of support for the Research Works Act on Feb. 27, just a few hours before the bill’s legislative sponsors indicated that they would not take further action on it. (It remains to be seen whether Elsevier’s decision will affect the boycott, beyond a modification to the website that strikes out the Research Works Act as an example of legislation it supports.)

Many commenters, both for and against the boycott, also have wondered why Elsevier should be singled out, among them Kevin Smith, Duke University’s scholarly communications officer. On his blog, Smith noted that he is “glad to see the petition,” but also wrote, “I have to say that Elsevier is not the only ‘sinner’ guilty of these infractions, or necessarily even the most culpable among commercial publishers.”

Broader issues affecting open access to scholarship are addressed in the essay “Values and Scholarship,” which appeared in Inside Higher Ed. It is signed by the provosts of 11 research universities, all members of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, and which all told engage in more than $5.6 billion of funded research each year. Among the signers is U-M Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Phil Hanlon.

The essay was motivated by the proposed (and now moribund) Research Works Act (HR 3699), which it calls “legislation that undermines our university norms and aspirations” that would “reverse a 2008 administrative mandate by the National Institutes of Health that grantees deposit the results of their funded research in a publicly accessible archive, and prohibit other agencies from issuing similar mandates going forward.”

But the demise of the Research Works Act does not render the provosts’ words moot, says Paul Courant, university librarian and dean of libraries. He points out that the essay addresses important issues that go well beyond both the proposed legislation and the Elsevier boycott, which the provosts refer to as an “act to recalibrate the balance between commerce and the broader goals to which (researchers) are dedicated.”

Courant applauds the provosts for exhorting campus leadership to work toward policies that reflect the widely held belief in the value of unfettered scholarly communications. “In the end, they remind us that our own faculty and administrators can do a great deal to facilitate open access,” he says. “We respond well collectively when legislators and publishers challenge our ideals; and we should harness that same energy toward making changes on our own campus.”

Among the provosts’ recommendations are encouraging faculty members to retain their copyrights, and thus the ability to share their work via open access institutional repositories such as Deep Blue; making promotion and tenure review more responsive to new modes of scholarly communication; developing scholarly publishing models that reflect the values of the academy; and assessing the value and terms of use of library purchased or licensed content.

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Last modified: 03/05/2012