University News

Eying peers, U. considers open access to research

Contributing Writer
Sunday, October 16, 2011

Last month, Princeton became the latest in a series of prestigious universities to adopt an open-access policy, allowing free public access to research completed at the university. The University Library Advisory Board, the Research Advisory Board and a group of deans have been considering adopting a similar policy at Brown.

But drawbacks to the program have made the University hesitant, said University Librarian Harriette Hemmasi. Open access to research can cause conflicts with journal publishers.

When professors publish their work in a journal, they often waive the copyrights to their studies, preventing publication elsewhere. To comply with an open-access policy, a researcher might have to forgo publishing in the journal or break his or her contract with the publisher to make the work publicly available.

In response, universities with open-access policies allow some professors to opt out of the open-access repository. Some journals have begun accepting this new trend — 16 major publishers openly support MIT’s open-access policy.

But not all publishers cooperate, posing a problem for many researchers, said Robert Pelcovits, professor of physics. “Until there’s a major culture shift, which is probably going to take years, you have to assume that people also want to publish in traditional journals,” Pelcovits said, “especially people looking to get tenure, looking to get promoted to full professor — even people just looking for grant support.”

The open-access policy would encourage professors to publish in the repository but would not force them to do so, Hemmasi said. “A policy is not like a law,” she said. The policy would improve a professor’s bargaining chips when negotiating with publishers, she said, allowing researchers to use the policy as an excuse to retain the rights to their works.

The policy “might give the faculty member more backing to say to the publisher, ‘I want this, and my university expects me to keep the copyright,'” Hemmasi said.

Lack of peer review poses another major problem with open-access journals, said Harold Cook, professor of history, who said this makes him hesitant to support such a policy at Brown.

Others simply do not think open access is necessary. Mangala Patil ’13, a neuroscience concentrator, said because the University already pays the subscription fees for a number of journals, students do not need open access to view scientific research.

The Library pays about $4 million in subscription fees, but due to rising journal costs, it has cut around 2,000 scientific journals from its budget in the past couple of years, Hemmasi said.

Pelcovits said open access is already very common in his field. His physics research, which has also been published in traditional scientific journals, is already available freely on his website. Computer science, medical science and some of the life sciences are also becoming increasingly open-access friendly, Hemmasi said. The National Institutes of Health requires any of its funded research be freely available to the public.

Administrators at universities where open-access policies have already been adopted are enthusiastic about the program.

Andrew Appel, the chairman of the committee that enacted the open-access policy at Princeton, and Ellen Duranceau, the program manager for scholarly publishing and licensing at MIT, said that open access has been highly successful at their universities and encouraged other schools to consider adopting similar policies.

Open access is based on “the general principle that universities are here for the purpose of doing scholarship and disseminating it to the world, and that there are many people out there in the world who aren’t at rich universities that can afford to get all their articles from behind a paywall,” Appel said.

“Brown has to proceed carefully, rather than simply adopting the principal and saying ‘yes, we believe in open access,'” Cook said. “We all have to think about how this is going to work for us.”

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