Print publications have been the currency of academia since time immemorial, but the cheap, instant distribution network of the Internet has thrown the publishing world into turmoil. In an environment where research is done at an unprecedented rate, new models for publishing academic works are being explored.
In most traditional journals, the submitting author cedes his copyright, giving the publisher the right to print and sell the material. Recently, a number of journals have sprung up offering free access to anyone with an Internet connection. These “open access” publications undergo the same process of peer review as traditional journals, but they are primarily distributed digitally. Funded by grants, advertising, or publication fees, these journals strive to bring the products of scholarly labor to a broader audience.
Major academic publishers like Elsevier and Blackwell argue the traditional model is necessary to ensure the quality of academic publications. In a statement to the British House of Commons, which held an inquiry into open-access publishing, Blackwell writes: “The author-pays [for submission] model could encourage high rates of acceptance in peer-reviewed journals, as only accepted papers will generate revenues for journals and societies/publishers. On the other hand, the subscription-based model favours rejection.”
Yet the traditional model also depends on the volume of publication. The more articles a journal accepts, the more material it has to sell to libraries.
Richard Nash, an open-access advocate who spent much of the last decade running independent publisher Soft Skull Press, is critical of the notion that open access means lower quality. “The problem of the 20th century was one of supply,” says Nash. But in the 21st century, “supply has increased enormously ... the demand couldn’t possibly keep up.” This increase in supply means there’s no shortage of articles from which author fee-based open journals can choose.
The old method of publication made sense when major academic presses bore the tremendous costs of reviewing, editing, and distributing print journals. But it must be rethought in a world where digital communication pushes the cost of distribution ever lower. Why should the institutions that facilitate research be forced to buy it back from publishers for use by students, faculty, and researchers? Buying back academic works is not cheap.
And as digital scholarship becomes ubiquitous, the justification for such high access fees is evaporating. Publishers add value to academic works through peer review, but this service does not need to be tied to costly subscriptions. Open-access journals are growing—some are even well established—yet traditional journals remain the gold standard of academic publication. If, however, the universities responsible for producing research were to embrace open models, they would spur the growth of open-access publication.
As a major center of research, Columbia should be in the vanguard of this movement. Our library system has an annual budget of more than $20 million—one of the largest in the country—yet still struggles to maintain subscriptions to increasingly expensive periodicals. With the average price of periodicals up 200 percent in the past two decades, this “serials crisis” is threatening libraries across the world.
In the face of these rising prices, libraries are forced to cut back on their acquisitions of new materials. English professor Jenny Davidson notes, “The rising cost of scientific publications has resulted in libraries buying fewer humanities books.” And as libraries cut back on these publications, publishers “raise the price of the humanities books, since they are selling fewer copies.” The current publishing paradigm, then, is failing at its essential mission—rather than increasing access, it’s restricting it. The paradigm needs to be changed.
In early 2008, the National Institutes of Health announced that “final peer-reviewed manuscripts arising from NIH funds must be submitted to PubMed Central”—an NIH hosted open-access archive of biomedical and life sciences publications. As the NIH sponsors more than a quarter of all biomedical research done in the United States, the move has had a significant impact on scientific, technological, and medical publications, which include the ten most expensive academic journal subscriptions.
But a bill brought before Congress by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.)—the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act—aims to reverse this policy, which Conyers claims will damage the commercial market in academic publishing.
At this crucial point, Columbia must join other American universities and stand up for its academic interests by supporting open access.
Last year, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences took the bold step of unanimously adopting a resolution that requires all faculty publications to be placed in an open university repository. This March, the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology passed a similar resolution. Under these resolutions, the universities receive noncommercial licenses, meaning they cannot draw profit from articles, but researchers can opt out in order to publish in journals that require exclusive rights.
At Columbia there have been a number of efforts to make University-affiliated research available to the general public. In acknowledgement of the changing publishing landscape, the University Senate released a statement in 2005 urging the University community to “advance new models for scholarly publishing that will promote open access, helping to reshape the marketplace in which scholarly ideas circulate... [while] remaining alert to efforts by publishers to impose barriers on access to the fruits of scholarly research.”
Since then, Columbia University Libraries has strived to draw attention to the advantages of open access. The Libraries’ Scholarly Communication Program has been hosting a lecture series titled “Research without Borders” about the influence of open-access policies on research, information science, and libraries, and has been working with on-campus journals to discuss publishing possibilities for student journals.
Kenny Crews, director of the Libraries’ Copyright Advisory Office, believes that the libraries have “a core mission of facilitating access to information. In that spirit, we need to foster the creation of easily accessible resources.”
One such resource is Columbia’s Academic Commons, a repository hosted by the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. This repository could change the way Columbia’s scholars work, but Columbia’s lack of a comprehensive open-access policy means the commons must solicit submissions from individual faculty members, limiting its scope. Doctoral dissertations— which represent a substantial amount of research—are currently hosted through the ProQuest database, rendering a profusion of University-funded scholarship inaccessible to non-subscribers.
Rebecca Kennison, the director of CDRS, writes in an e-mail that Columbia could clarify its support for open-access publication by earmarking funds “explicitly to support publication, as some of our peer institutions have done.” Because open-access journals often require publication fees, University funding would help support researchers who want to publish open access. Under a model offered by Davidson, the University could provide grants “to support publishing costs for a given number of researchers per year.” A competitive grant program would add prestige to open-access publication, and affirm that the University values making its research available.
After the strong precedents set by Harvard and MIT, a serious commitment from Columbia would further the growth of open access. Indeed, if the trend in academic publication continues toward greater openness, institutions without such policies may be seen as antagonistic to the academic community.
Open access is not merely a practical or economic issue—it’s rooted in the core principles of the academic community. At Harvard, the faculty acknowledges that because “the goal of university research is the creation, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge. ... It is an essential part of our duties ... to distribute the fruits of our scholarship as widely as possible.”
Saskia Sassen, a prominent urban sociologist at Columbia and a member of the Committee on Global Thought, sees open access as the logical next step for the intellectual community: “Open access is the format of the future. In a way the public library, or a university’s library in its origin was the equivalent of open access today.” As the horizons of community have expanded, she writes, the limits on information have fallen away. “Today,” she says, “the community can be a... space that can cut across the world. And open access to online material is its ‘library’.”
The benefits of this “library” lie not only in its ability to disseminate information more widely but also in its ability to promote a global academic dialogue necessary to produce new research. In sociology especially, “this engagement is critical because the process of making knowledge—the research questions, the objects of study, interpretation—[is] deeply imbricated with the particularities of different political and economic systems,” Sassen says. “[Open access] is one way of engaging the researchers in my field across the world.”
Jonah Bossewitch, a doctoral student at the Columbia Journalism School and a staff member of the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, takes the argument one step further. According to Bossewitch, sharing research is almost more important than the work itself: Without being distributed, it can’t be called scholarship.
Bossewitch envisions extending open access to the raw materials from which researchers draw their conclusions. Currently, the academic community must trust the peer-review process to verify results. But, as he points out, “How can anyone trust the results of research done using data not visible to the public, or the results of a computer simulation without being able to view the program code that generates the results?” This broad lack of accountability has the potential to seriously undermine the credibility of research.
Columbia Libraries recognizes the challenge expanding access will pose in the coming years, and is working on a number of projects—like the creation of a viable long-term data archive—to make provisions for these demands. “It makes sense for the university to be involved in this endeavor, which will protect its own intellectual property investment, since, unlike publications, data belong to the university,” writes Kennison.
But while the libraries do their best to prepare, Kennison notes, real change must come from researchers themselves: “This issue should optimally be driven by the producers of the scholarship ... it’s critical that this be seen as important to the entire university community and not merely to the libraries.”
For the time being, however, scholars face significant obstacles to publishing open access. Chris Anderson, a future faculty member at the College of Staten Island, recently completed his doctoral thesis at the Columbia Journalism School. Anderson says he’s received mixed advice about whether to place the dissertation online. While he knows that online hosting will allow his work to be “read and cited exponentially more,” senior colleagues counsel that it will hurt his chances to publish in respected traditional journals. And when it’s time for Anderson to stand before a tenure committee, publication in these journals will be a primary factor in determining his academic future.
The Internet is thoroughly changing the publishing landscape, as it has changed so many others. Traditional publications still play a major role in academia and Columbia need not unnecessarily alienate these journals. But as Columbia moves forward into Academia 2.0, it must—as a preeminent producer of knowledge and information—accept that it has the power to help usher in an age of greater accountability and creativity in research. The University has the opportunity to be a pioneer in expanding access to materials traditionally restricted to the cloistered world of academics. Open access is not altruism. It is participating in the evolving academic culture, where access to information is not just convention—it’s indispensable.