We call dibs! (or, the genius of the Harvard mandate)

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.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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2 Responses to We call dibs! (or, the genius of the Harvard mandate)

  1. Adam Corson-Finnerty says:


    I appreciate your thoughtful comments on the Harvard FAS decision. I suppose that the key point is that Harvard has established a “default” in favor of Open Access.

    In reading about this decision, I found myself wondering exactly how it was going to be carried out. It’s one thing to “mandate” that a faculty member do X, Y, or Z. It’s another thing to get him or her to do it. As you know, when universitys have created repositories and invited their faculty to add their stuff, most faculty have not bothered to do so.

    It appears that the Harvard Library’s Office of Scholarly Communication will be charged with making the policy into reality. I suspect that if they rely on the individual faculty member to submit their finished article electronically, they will have tons of problems with compliance unless they set up some sort of “automated” system, or the libarians do the work for them, through electronic harvesting.

    I would guess that Harvard (and the rest of us) will be heavily influenced by the methods that NIH adopts. See “How to Comply” at http://publicaccess.nih.gov/

    It is my impression that at the Penn Libraries, we have used a “Harvard Lite” policy. We have approached the Dean and Faculty of a specific school (Engineering, Social Policy and Practice, Nursing) and asked them to adopt a default in favor of publication in our repository. Then we harvest articles for each faculty member, show the list to her/him and allow them to cross out anything they don’t want added. John, have I got that right?

  2. John Mark Ockerbloom says:

    Thanks for your comments, Adam. I’d agree that getting hold of the content is a non-trivial issue. In this post, I just gave it a quick mention, since I wanted to focus on the copyright issue. Here at Penn, we’re handling content acquisition in various ways, including making sure we have commitment from the departments that join, and hiring staff to bring the content in. Our new Selected Works service is also intended to encourage more faculty to post their own work and/or citations of their work, which will then be easier for us to pull into the repository as well. And yes, down the road I think automated protocols like SWORD and OAI will be important as well.

    As far as I’m aware, though, Penn haven’t done anything in terms of calling dibs on copyright, though; we have to work with whatever rights are left over after the publisher agreements are signed. (We do have agreements with departments to deposit work, but they don’t say anything about pre-emptively assigning certain copyright-realted rights to new creations.) If we did have dibs, we could potentially bring in more content with less work, since the copyright clearance we now engage in could be greatly simplified. But that’s basically a change in the conditions of faculty employment, which the faculty themselves would have to embrace. And at Harvard, they did.

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