The Harvard Open Access Policy – could it kill peer-reviewed journals?

2008 February 23
by Cornelius

The question smells of hyperbole, but it’s an idea that’s rather persistant for me. But let’s start at the beginning.

If you’re active in the Open Access community, you’ve probably read about nothing else in the last week: the Harvard Open Access resolution. In a nutshell, everything that’s published by members of the faculty will be made available on the Net for free, unless the author asks for an exemption. While some scholars might do this, it means that the bulk of what is published by researchers at Harvard will be Open Access from now on.

From Everybody’s Libraries:

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.

In a sense, the question of how Open Access can be facilitated has always been discussed by the wrong people. No level of activism could ever solve the key problem: that the majority of researchers do not truly care about how their work is distributed – and why should they? Harvard’s decision has the potential to make what seemed a complicated situation rather simple:

  • to get a job at a prestigious university, a scholar must sign an agreement to publish OA
  • when the scholar has an article ready for publication, he forwards it to the librarian who manages the institution’s repository (or to an admin who takes care of that)
  • anything that ends up in the repository is globally available via Google Scholar and similar services
  • keyword searches combined with a knowledge of the disciplinary landscape (i.e. I know that X, Y and Z have published things relevant to my research before – what about their other work?) are how researchers find relevant sources

What does this mean for traditional peer-review and the future of scientific journals?

I think that, quite plausibly, this could be the beginning of the end for both of these institutions.

Think about it. Right now, the idea of quality control via commentary and evaluation of a piece of research is married with making it available. An article is only published after having been reviewed, because that is how the print process works. But once digital availability is guaranteed regardless of quality, this no longer makes any sense: evaluation and discussion of a paper and it’s availability are two separate issues. Journal publishers will no longer have to fuss around with technical issues if publication, storage and archiving are handled through their institution’s repository. Those functions will be entirely where should have been in the first place: with the libraries. Repositories will replace journals as the ‘place’ where articles are stored – the exciting question is what will replace them as the place where they are discussed and evaluated. It’s hard not to see the immense potential for open peer review and moderated discussions. And once papers truly live on the Net (i.e. are hypertext and freely accessible) it is only logical that they will be linked and crossreferenced in the same way that blogs are.

I know that there are skeptics who believe that this will have a negative impact on the quality of published research. But that mistakes the Internet for a browsable medium, for a resource that you can ever look at in its entirety. It no longer makes any sense that only what has been deemed worthy should be principally available. What is truly significant scientifically will be recognized by peers and separated from what is of lesser relevance – as it has been the case. But no longer will availability and quality be two ends of the same equation.

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