MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 2
November / December 2008
The State of the Institute?
A Call for Articles for Special Edition
Faculty Newsletter
The Renovation of 10-250: A Case Study
Worrying About Others: Notes on the Unfolding Financial Crisis
Please Vote!
A Perspective on the Future Energy Supply of the United States: The Urgent Need for Increased Nuclear Power
Can We Fix American Education During the Current Economic Crisis?
Open Access Publishing: The Future of Scholarly Journal Publishing
MIT Takes a Lead Role in Washington
Excerpts from Bosston
Requests for Proposals for Teaching and Education Enhancement
from the 2008 Classroom Survey
Printable Version

Open Access Publishing: The Future of Scholarly Journal Publishing

Hal Abelson

There has been a growing perception over the past decade that the public, and the progress of scholarship in many disciplines, would be better served if peer-reviewed scholarly publications and data were distributed online so that they can be openly accessed and built upon, rather than through exclusive publishing agreements that restrict access and reuse. This perception has led to the emergence of policies that encourage or mandate open-access publishing, such as recent requirements by the National Institutes of Health, the European Research Council, and the Wellcome Trust.

At the same time, the continued shift towards an information economy has brought with it an increasing tendency to view scholarly writings through the lens of intellectual property, and there has been a concomitant heightening of concerns about copyright and licensing in academe. Alongside this has come an enormous increase in the cost of institutional subscriptions for scholarly journals in many disciplines, and an increasing imposition of licensing terms that restrict the reuse of scholarly works in teaching and research.
All this has placed significant stress on the historical system of scholarly journal publishing.

As faculty members at one of the world's premier academic institutions, we all have an enormous stake in how our scholarly contributions are published and disseminated.

In September 2008, Faculty Chair Bish Sanyal appointed an MIT Faculty Ad-hoc Committee on Open Access Publishing to coordinate a faculty-wide discussion of how our scholarly publications are and should be disseminated, with particular attention to the possibility of providing "open access" to those publications. The intent is for the faculty to discuss these issues in the fall and, if support for an open-access policy is established, for the Committee to draft a resolution to come before the faculty in the spring.

Committee members will be visiting departments over the coming weeks to explain the issues and receive feedback from the faculty. The Committee has also created a Website to provide background materials and to allow the faculty to submit comments. The purpose of this article is to provide a basis for a broad discussion by outlining the situation facing the MIT community.

In the Committee's view:

  • MIT has a mission to further scholarship and to disseminate knowledge.
  • Historically, this mission of dissemination has been accomplished through a productive symbiosis: faculty write scholarly articles and give these articles to publishers, who then handle the academic review, production of the manuscript, dissemination of the journal, and advertisement of articles. The use of the term "give" here is intentional, because we mean the literal and complete transfer of copyright. Legally, the article becomes the publisher's property, and the terms of dissemination and further use are determined solely at the publisher's discretion.
  • This symbiosis has become increasingly unbalanced over the past two decades. The impact of this disequilibrium has been different in different disciplines, but it is now apparent that the present system of scholarly publication creates serious issues for universities and for many members of the faculty.
  • It's not apparent what an optimal future system would be like. A key observation, however, is that at present, publication agreements are almost always negotiated between publishers and individual faculty members who typically pay only cursory attention to the details of contracts. To publish articles in scholarly journals, authors generally must sign publication agreements whose terms are set by the publishers. To move to a better system, we need processes through which faculty can play a role as a collective body, not just as individuals.
  • Last year, the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Harvard Law School faculty unanimously adopted a policy stating that faculty members should grant Harvard a nonexclusive right to make their scholarly articles available on open-access terms for non-commercial use. This system would allow anyone to view, download, and use these articles, as long as they don't sell them – essentially the same terms under which MIT makes OpenCourseWare available. An opt-out provision allows Harvard faculty to withhold these rights on a paper-by-paper basis.
  • MIT is a different institution than Harvard, and an appropriate action for MIT's faculty might well be different from the one that Harvard chose. Nevertheless, Harvard's policy provides a useful straw man for discussing the form an MIT policy might take. On the Committee Website, we have included links to the Harvard faculty resolution and to an accompanying FAQ from the Harvard Office of Scholarly Communication. The Open-Access Committee encourages members of the faculty to read those documents and welcomes their questions and comments.
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Following is a list that briefly summarizes some aspects of the present scholarly publishing system that can pose problems for some MIT faculty.

1. As scholars, many of us would like to make our work as widely available as possible, and the Internet facilitates this distribution at low cost. But this desire conflicts with the business models of some of the publishers who control the major journals in several fields and who limit access to those who pay fees.

2. Access restrictions and publication agreements may prohibit faculty members from distributing their own work even to students and colleagues. Authors might even be restricted from reusing figures and tables from their own articles. Legally, these writings are no longer theirs, once they have transferred copyright to a publisher.

3. Scholarly publishing has become subject to business consolidation, and monopoly pricing is becoming an increasing problem. The five largest journal publishers now account for over half of total market revenues. Over the past 15 years, the price of scholarly journals has grown roughly three times as fast as the Consumer Price Index, and library budgets, even at premier institutions, are straining under these pressures. One consequence has been a challenge to libraries' continued ability to purchase the books and monographs that are the major form of scholarly writing in some fields and to subscribe to new journals.

Libraries Purchases vs. CPI
Libraries Purchases vs. CPI
(click on image to enlarge)

The figure shows the impact at MIT since 1986: While the Consumer Price Index has risen about 85%, expenditures on serials have risen more than 350%. In contrast, expenditures on books have tracked the CPI, and the numbers of books and serials purchased have remained comparatively constant.

4. Libraries pay fees for annual access to digital serials. If a journal subscription is terminated, the university and its faculty can lose access to prior issues even though these issues were "published" when the subscription was active.

5. In the digital environment, search, advanced indexing, and automated textual analysis are emerging as important tools for scholarship. Many publisher contracts with libraries explicitly prohibit these activities, with publishers beginning to offer these services as lucrative premium "extras."

Certainly there is much here to ponder as we consider appropriate MIT Faculty responses.

Please visit the comment site. We look forward to important and stimulating discussions!

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