The Harvard Arts and Sciences faculty recently approved a resolution giving the University permission to make their scholarly articles available to the world at no charge. Here’s the official press release from Harvard, and here’s the text of the resolution, as given in the official faculty council agenda. (The resolution text is on the second page. It could have been amended before the vote, but I haven’t heard of any amendments.)
This is the first university-level open access mandate in the US, from the most prominent university in the US, and as many have noted, this is a huge step forward for open access to research. There are two aspects to the mandate: the familiar aspect directs faculty to supply Harvard copies of their papers to post; the more novel aspect stipulates that Harvard automatically get the rights to post their faculty papers for free. Harvard allows faculty members to exempt papers from these requirements, but it must be done in writing, with reason, separately for each paper that a faculty member wants to exempt.
I find this approach ingenious. As people maintaining institutional repositories have come to know, there are two main barriers to distributing one’s faculty’s work in one’s repository: getting hold of the work, and getting the right to publish the work. The first of these can be handled in various ways; whether the faculty, the departmental administrators, or the librarians get the content to the right place, it’s all purely a matter of local negotiation. But that’s not the case with rights. By the time we repository maintainers get content from authors, the authors have often signed their rights away to the journals that published the papers. The publishers have effectively called dibs on redistribution rights, and we can’t distribute unless they agree to it. A faculty member that may want to have us distribute her work too may no longer have the power to let us– she’s already signed that right away to someone else.
By requiring (non-exclusive) rights to free, open access distribution to any new paper created under its employ, Harvard is effectively calling dibs before the publishers can. So if I’m running a repository at Harvard (or another institution with a similar policy), copyright clearance becomes much easier. I don’t have to look up and carefully parse a journal’s self-archiving policy, try negotiating with publishers, or verify that I have the permitted version of a paper to archive and the proper embargo period. As long as the paper is dated after the mandate went into place, and the paper’s not on my institution’s exception list, I can just grab and go. Or, I can accept my faculty’s and department’s self-deposits without having to go back and forth with them about whether they have the right permissions and are following the right procedures for that publisher. Publishers may want their authors to sign away the rights that they’ve given us, but they can’t, at least not without going out of their way to do so, because we already have those rights. And as Dorothea Salo points out, there are disincentives for both publishers and faculty to rock the boat here. Under this arrangement, the norms have changed– from restricted access as a default, with the onus for exceptions placed on the library or the scholar, to open access as a default, with the onus for exceptions placed on the publisher or the scholar.
Some open access advocates have argued that one could design a mandate that was even more open-access-friendly. That may be, but to judge this mandate a failure (as the linked post above appears to at one point) seems to me an example of the “perfect” being the enemy of the good. This mandate is faculty-friendly as well as being open-access friendly, in that it minimizes the extra work faculty have to do and assures them the last word in access control, should they decide to exercise it. And that, I believe, is crucial to its having been adopted at all, and to its subsequent acceptance by faculty. (Remember, this is the first open access mandate that a US university faculty, let alone one with the clout of Harvard, has adopted on its own.)
In the future, perhaps universities will adopt even more effective policies to share their research output with the world. Right now, though, I’d say this is a big step forward, and one that I hope that my university and many others will consider emulating.