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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2009

Open Access Growing Steadily, But Powerful Gatekeepers Remain

The recent vote by MIT faculty to freely and publicly distribute research articles they write marks a sea change in the relationship be­tween academic authors and publishers of scientific journals.

“Resistance by publishers to authors retaining copyright and posting their scholarship online is diminishing,” says Brent Roe, executive director of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries. “Work by professor Stevan Harnad at Montreal’s Université du Québec and others indicate that a majority of journals now allow authors to engage in internet self-archiving on an institutional repository or some other form of open distribution of their work.”

Most scholarly literature is owned by large international conglomerates and paid for by subscription, site license or pay-per-view. Publisher opposition to open access has been one of the main barriers to the wider dissemination of academic articles.

Mounting Pressure

But an attempt to get a better balance in the system happened five years ago with the release of an “author’s addendum” from the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. The addendum alters the standard contracts with publishers to allow authors to re­produce and distribute their articles for noncommercial purposes, such as disseminating their work on personal or institutional websites.

Proponents say the change in practice benefits the entire research community and individual academics alike. Articles in institutional repositories are more actively used and cited by the world’s scientific community than ones that are not.

“Until now, authors — usually with support of their libraries — have had to approach journals individually about accepting the addendum,” says Jennifer McLennan, SPARC communications director. “Now, as institutions adopt campus-wide open-access policies, authors have the weight of a MIT, Harvard or Stanford behind them. The climate has changed totally.”

But individual scholars still have a prominent role to play, she added, citing the case of Chris Boulton, a PhD student in communication at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Last year Boulton submitted an article with the addendum attached to The Communication Review, a Taylor & Francis journal. His article was accepted for publication, but the addendum was rejected. The journal’s publisher asked Bolton to give up the copyright to his article, but he refused and in turn rallied the other contributors in the journal edition behind the demand, delaying the release of the publication. After three months of negotiations, Taylor & Francis reversed their policy and agreed to accept the SPARC addendum.

“The first response was no, and this could easily dissuade a vulnerable academic trying to establish a publication record,” says Boulton. “But we pushed back. If publishers are flooded with the addendum and more authors refuse to blink, we will force changes.”

Cost & Benefits

Beyond the struggle of individual academics to control their work, economic efficiency arguments in favour of open access are resonating at institutional levels, as evidence suggests that shifting to new models of scholarly communication could save millions of dollars annually.

To assess potential cost reductions in the UK, professor John Houghton at Melbourne’s Victoria University and professor Charles Oppenheim at Loughborough University compared toll (subscription) publishing involving reader charges and use restrictions; open-access publishing
where access is toll-free and costs are paid at the author’s end; and open access self-archiving where authors freely distribute their articles.

Their comparison demonstrated significant cost savings on a per journal article basis: $143 million a year by shifting from toll to toll-free and $206 million by moving from toll access to open access self-archiving. The authors also suggested the financial return from greater research accessibility could result in additional benefits worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Related Article
CAUT Bulletin April 2009 “MIT Faculty to Make Articles Freely Available to Public.”