If a faculty member says the same things librarians say

February 12, 2008

People listen, at last. In which I read between the lines of this NYT article on the Harvard arts & sciences faculty’s vote on open access, institutional repository publishing of completed articles.

The idea:

Faculty members are scheduled to vote on a measure that would permit Harvard to distribute their scholarship online, instead of signing exclusive agreements with scholarly journals that often have tiny readerships and high subscription costs…. Under the proposal Harvard would deposit finished papers in an open-access repository run by the library that would instantly make them available on the Internet. Authors would still retain their copyright and could publish anywhere they pleased — including at a high-priced journal, if the journal would have them.

Reading this is kind of an open access librarian’s dream come true. A lot of them (I won’t quite count myself among this crowd yet b/c I’m not an actual librarian) have been working overtime to alert anyone who will listen to the fact that the current publishing model requires scholars to turn their contributions to human knowledge over to people whose raison d’etre is to make a buck. You get tenure, and your article begins to disappear. (Of course, good articles will be cited and anthologized and possibly live on past its journal publication, but the vast majority of articles eventually end up trapped in some publisher’s copyright vault.) Of course, nobody listens to librarians, but that’s why this vote has two pieces of good news 1) faculty are doing it and 2) the faculty are at Harvard. You know, once the uber-cool kids start doing it, the other kids will catch on.

The publishing industry, as well as some scholarly groups, have opposed some forms of open access, contending that free distribution of scholarly articles would ultimately eat away at journals’ value and wreck the existing business model.

YES. Exactly. It’s not a business model at this point, it’s a parasite. It deserves to be wrecked. But of course, the publishers want to capitalize on the fear that lurks at the heart of all faculty facing tenure, who really don’t need the rules of the game to change right when they have to play:

Such a development would in turn damage the quality of research, they argue, by allowing articles that have not gone through a rigorous process of peer review to be broadcast on the Internet as easily as a video clip of Britney Spears’s latest hairdo. It would also cut into subsidies that some journals provide for educational training and professional meetings, they say.

That simply does not have to be true. It’s utterly misleading to say that self-archiving articles is or has to be the equivalent of putting a goofy video of your cat on YouTube. If scholars agree to support open access publishing, slightly modified peer review procedures will follow suit. Scholars and their departments already make no money off their journal publishing–most of the intellectual labor is volunteer slave labor anyway. There are multiple open access, peer-review journals already working. If departments need to begin counting self-archived publications in the tenure process, they’ll find a way to hash it out. It will eventually be impossible to avoid seeing that this is necessary, either b/c library budgets for humanities publications will become so slashed as to no longer support third party humanities publishing–

Supporters of open access say that the current system creates a different set of problems for academics. Expensive journals cut into a library’s budget for scholarly books and monographs, which hurts academic publishers, which hurts the coming generation of scholars who must publish to gain tenure.

–or b/c one of these days government funding is going to depend on making the newly-minted knowledge publicly available, as it already does for many scientific researchers. Now “eventually” could still be a long time, but one hopes, you know?

I hope Harvard prof’s do the right thing, although if they don’t I’ll at least partially understand why. Change is scary. But just having a vote is a start.

UPDATE: They voted yes! Maybe those hummingbirds are really going to meet.

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