MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIV No. 4
March / April 2012
The Next President of MIT
The Search for MIT's Seventeenth President
MIT 2030: A Capital Planning Framework for the Future
MIT's Ongoing Commitment to OpenCourseWare
New Open Access Working Group Formed:
Formulating Response to Elsevier's Policy Change
MIT: Rebuilding Community
Over-Schooled and Under-Skilled
Faculty Committee Activity: Spring 2012 Update
Travis Merritt and the Founding of Charm School Training Scores Big at MIT:
Gets Personal with lyndaCampus
MAP Program: Calling All Faculty
Workshop: Leadership Skills for Engineering and Science Faculty
On the Creation of MITx
Past Presidents of MIT
Printable Version

New Open Access Working Group Formed:
Formulating Response to Elsevier's Policy Change

Richard Holton

In 2009 the MIT faculty passed the groundbreaking Open Access Policy, making faculty papers freely available on the Web. It was decided at the time that the implementation of the policy should fall to the Faculty Committee on the Library System. But it soon became clear that this was a major task, and that larger issues about open access also needed to be addressed. So when I stood down as Chair of the library committee last year, Janet Conrad, the incoming Chair, suggested that we form an Open Access Working Group. After a February call for participation, I am delighted to say that we now have a very strong group (see a list of members at the end of this article). I am honored to take on the role of Chair, and I look forward to working with the group, and to getting as much input as we can from the whole MIT community.

A central issue that the group needs to address concerns publishers’ responses to the MIT Policy. Some publishers – MIT Press is a shining example – have supported it from the beginning. Some were wary at first, but have now found ways to accommodate the Policy’s requirements; examples here include Nature and Springer. Others haven't yet said much.

One publisher, Elsevier, has, however, taken a very different tack. They issued a revised author contract that indicates authors “must obtain an express waiver” from the MIT policy in order to publish with them. And last year they put in place a new Posting Policy, i.e., a policy governing how their authors can publish their pieces on the Web.

The new Posting Policy states that in general authors are allowed to post their articles on their Websites, but then adds a caveat saying that this does not extend to repositories with “systematic posting mandates”:

“However, our policies differ regarding the systematic aggregation or distribution of AAMs [Accepted Author Manuscripts] to ensure the sustainability of the journals to which AAMs are submitted. Therefore, deposit in, or posting to, subject-oriented or centralized repositories (such as PubMed Central), or institutional repositories with systematic posting mandates is permitted only under specific agreements between Elsevier and the repository, agency or institution, and only consistent with the Publisher’s policies concerning such repositories.” (The full text is available at:

The wording is very unclear; no one is quite sure what a “systematic posting mandate” is. Duke, for one, who has an open access policy very much like ours, has concluded that such policies aren't “mandates” since they allow people to opt out, and hence that they are not covered by the new Elsevier posting policy. But it is clear that Elsevier is trying to do what it can to undermine such policies, and to confuse faculty about what they are and are not allowed to do. Certainly that is the interpretation of the Coalition for Open Access Repositories, who, in their response, “strongly oppose the changes made by Elsevier to its article posting policies” and “join the research community in condemning Elsevier for its recent business practices and lobbying that undermine policies and activities promoting open access to scholarly literature.”

Of course Elsevier appears to leave the door open: they say that they are prepared to enter into “specific agreements” regarding such repositories. Sometimes such agreements require that papers be embargoed for lengthy periods. Sometimes they involve additional payments to Elsevier. An example of the latter approach can be seen in the agreement that they struck with the Wellcome Trust. Elsevier accepted the Wellcome requirement that articles written under their grants be freely available, but levies a charge of $3000 per article, “to help offset the cost of peer review and other publishing costs.” This is hard to justify, given that the peer reviewing is done by academics for free, and that Elsevier is still charging the same very large sums for the journals in which the articles appear. Were there no “systematic posting mandate” Elsevier would allow the Wellcome authors to post their articles freely on their own Website. But since there is such a mandate, they impose a $3000 tax per article on the Wellcome Trust. I suggest that the Wellcome Trust have rather more important things on which to spend their money.

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I’m not alone in objecting to Elsevier’s behavior: outrage at their policies has sparked an Elsevier boycott. This was launched as a result of a posting by Fields medal-winning mathematician Timothy Gowers, which cited Elsevier’s pricing practices and their support of the Research Works Act (which would make the NIH Public Access Policy or any similar policy illegal) as his motivation for declining to review or edit for them, or to publish in their journals. He suggested that a public Website be created, which a volunteer did a few days later. The site, “The Cost of Knowledge,” now has around 8000 signatures, including at least 45 from MIT. The more signatures, the greater the pressure will be. So great is Elsevier’s domination, that in some areas publishing in an Elsevier journal is close to inescapable, especially for junior faculty who need to get their work noticed. But the boycott petition allows for this; if you feel that you cannot undertake not to publish with Elsevier, but are sympathetic to the aims of the boycott, you could sign up not to referee or to do editorial work. (And yes, you will see my name there.) 

Scott Aaronson (EECS), one of the Working Group members, argues that this boycott has been a long time coming. “I’ve simply been waiting for what I saw as the inevitable moment when a critical mass of academics would ‘wake up’ to the issue that the existing publishing model, with ever-increasing prices, was ‘unsustainable,’” he says. “Now that one of the greatest mathematicians on earth (Timothy Gowers) is spearheading the boycott movement, and dozens of other leading figures in the mathematical community have declared their support, that moment may have arrived.” Seth Teller, also from EECS, cites access concerns: “I signed the petition simply because I believe that if taxpayers fund research, they should have access to the results of that research without going through a paywall.” And Kai von Fintel (Linguistics), another Working Group member, in addition to signing the boycott, has announced his own personal manifesto, which would exclude publishing in Elsevier journals or any others that don’t allow “authors to deposit at least the final manuscript version in an open access repository (such as MIT’s Dspace or the Semantics Archive), without any embargo.”

Some have questioned whether Elsevier is really worse than other publishers. Their response to open access policies is one area where they clearly are worse. There is a growing sense that some response is needed, and the new Working Group is planning to consider what, if any, response should be made. One of the premises of the MIT Faculty Open Access Policy was that it would make it possible for “MIT” to be at the table for discussions, rather than leaving each MIT faculty author responsible for negotiating their author rights alone. We hope the Working Group will offer an efficient means of arriving at principled positions to take to Elsevier and other publishers. Elsevier has reacted to the boycott by withdrawing their support from the Research Works Act; we hope that they will reconsider their attitude to open access more generally.

The commercial journals provide an important role in ensuring quality control and we expect The Libraries will go on subscribing to them. But we need to make the articles available to those who don't have access to a major university library.

Many individual faculty members already post their articles on their own Websites. What the Policy does is to bring some order to this process: the copyright status is made clear, then the library collects the pieces, gives them stable URLs that will persist even if the faculty member moves or retires, and makes sure that they are visible to Google Scholar, and so on. The results of this speak for themselves: the collection of papers gathered under the MIT Faculty Open Access Policy sees 26,000 downloads per month, originating from all around the world.

The Working Group would welcome your thoughts on a response to Elsevier, or other matters that we should take up on behalf of the faculty, in relation to the Open Access Policy. Please feel free to contact me or other members of the group.

Membership of the Open Access Working Group

Scott Aaronson (EECS)
Hal Abelson (EECS)
Janet Conrad (ex officio, as Chair of the FCLS) (Physics)
Sasha Costanza-Chock (Writing and Humanistic Studies)
Kai von Fintel (Linguistics)
Eric von Hippel (Sloan)
Richard Holton (Chair) (Philosophy)
John Lienhard (Mechanical Engineering)
Anne Whiston Spirn (Urban Studies & Planning)
George Stephanopoulos (Chemical Engineering)

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