Medication for Every Nation

In Uncategorized on January 13, 2010 at 9:06 am

Changing University Access Policies

Jenny Chen, Staff Writer

Since the advent of the internet, the open access model of publication distribution has emerged as a serious contender in the battle over how the next generation of scientists will share their findings.

The definition of open access publishing that is most often used is known as the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing. It states that authors and copyright holders will deposit their work into open online repositories and grant universal access rights to their work, as well as the right to copy, republish, redistribute, and create derivative works as long as the authorship is properly attributed.1

While the debate has raged on, proponents of the open access model have long called on universities to be the first to commit to the model.

In response, on February 12, 2008, Harvard became the first university in the United States to mandate the open access policy in its Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Since then, the Harvard Law School, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education have adopted similar policies.

Leading the crusade for more accessible scientific dialogue is Dr. Stuart Shieber, a Harvard professor of computer science. “The goal here is twofold,” says Shieber. “First of all, to make sure that there is the broadest possible dissemination of the work of the faculty and research at Harvard, and secondly, to help scientists everywhere to research as broadly as possible.”

Critics of Harvard University’s open access policy cite that there is no true mandate on Harvard-affiliated authors. The university’s policy stipulates that faculty members and researches at Harvard must grant the rights to their publications to Harvard and deposit their papers into open depositories. However, authors may petition for the rights to a particularly paper by writing to the Dean.2

However, Professor Shieber points out that Harvard’s open access policy is the first rights retention policy at a major academic institution in the United States that uses an “opt-out” system rather than an “opt-in” one, which has been shown in various decision-making studies to be far more effective at retaining participants.3

Proponents claim that the need for open access publications in universities stems from the soaring subscription costs that consume the dwindling budgets of even the largest academic libraries.4 In light of the recent recession, Harvard College Library has been selective on its subscription renewals, forced to cancel print subscriptions to a variety of publications.5

If these prices have become problematic for a university as well endowed as Harvard, it is not difficult to imagine that they could bar access to new literature for researchers in universities of less affluent nations. “You just can’t do research if you can’t read the literature,” Professor Shieber laments.

The history of open access can be traced by to early days of the internet and the emergence of the first preprint service online in 1991 called arXiv. Significant attention was not drawn to the issue until later in 1998 when the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition was founded – a group that advocates strongly for alternative communication strategies between academic researchers.5

Soon after, online efforts to generate open access communities resulted in the development of new open access projects. Dr. David Lipman, the director of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) was there when the NCBI began experimenting with database integrations, which resulted in Pubmed – a citation and abstract archiving database. Soon after, Pubmed Central came about as a digital archive of abstracts and full-length papers available free on the internet – a precursor to the modern online open access journal.

Dr. Lipman stresses, however, that “Pubmed Central is not open access. Readers often confuse open access with public access. Open access means content that can, except for commercial distribution, be used in any way.” In contrast, public access journals like Pubmed Central allow researchers to read the work while they cannot necessarily redistribute

it or reproduce it for other purposes.6

“However, what we have done is shown that this kind of [system] can be done cost effectively,” says Dr. Lipman. Forerunners like Pubmed Central “are part of the equation, but only a part. The other part is the scientists and the universities themselves,” he stresses.

As a part of this initial push, Nobel Prize winner, former NIH director and current President of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Dr. Harold Varmus co-founded the Public Library of Science (PLoS) – the largest open access journal in the world.

Dr. Varmus agrees with Dr. Lipman that there are many who criticize the financial viability of the open access business plan. “Many people say that the business model won’t work,” Dr. Varmus says. “PLoS and BioMedCentral [an open access publisher in the United Kingdom] have proved that it does work. PLoS is now breaking even.”7

In addition to criticisms regarding the financial sensibilities of the open access model, opponents have argued that the model will actually inhibit the dissemination of information, as it often requires authors to pay the publishing costs.

While Professor Shieber of Harvard concedes that that “sometimes there’s a fee in an open access journal,” he also notes that, “in general there’s no fee to post to, for example, the arXiv. So there’s no impediment to making articles available.”

What is more compelling is that open access publications charge a median publication fee of zero dollars, points out Professor Shieber: “More than half of the journals don’t charge author fees. Only about 25% charge author side fees. In contrast, more than half of closed journals charge author side fees. What the subscription journals say is that if you can’t afford

the fees, we will waive the fees. But so do the open access journals.”

In fact, in Harvard’s implementation of the open access compact, the fund constructed to pay open access publishing fees only covers journals that waive this fee to those that cannot afford to pay, he says.

There are various other problems that stand in the way of immediately implementing the open access model of publication. However, from Dr. Harold Varmus’ perspective, there looms a larger obstacle than these criticisms.

“The biggest obstacle right now is an obstacle that faces any kind of new journal and that obstacle is deeply embedded at Harvard and every other institution. And that is that people in the sciences continually use a false metric in analyzing the success of a researcher and that false value is dependent on the success candidates have had in publishing in ‘high impact journals.’”

That is inherently different from using questions like “what has this person done” or “how important is their impact on science,” Dr. Varmus emphasizes.

In terms of the implications of open access publishing for global health issues, Professor Shieber recognizes that we do not even need to leave the first world country to understand that research is currently inaccessible to those unaffiliated with large, well-endowed academic institutions.

“Speaking even in the first world country, most of the people within the United States are not within the scope of a major research library,” Professor Shieber reminds us. “Patients who need to read studies about the effectiveness about certain medical treatments that they are considering cannot get the information they need unless they’re attached to an institution like Harvard.”

In short, the open access publishing movement hopes to expand communication of scientific research to all those who need it, whether it be researchers at a neighboring East Coast institution, doctors in third world countries or patients on the West Coast.

In this movement, “universities should have and can have a leading role,” says Dr. Lipman.

With optimism, Professor Shieber responds that Harvard appears ready to play a leading role.  “At Harvard, we want to broaden the open access policy to more faculties. We would like to make sure that certain types of student writings are available, especially dissertations and theses. We are active in helping other universities with thinking about open access and working towards their own solutions.”

“There is no one thing that will solve the problem,” says Professor Shieber. “We have to be responsive to how things change over time.” And Harvard can help lead the way.


1 Suber, Peter. “Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing.” Earlham College Earlham College, 20 June 2003. Web. 1 Oct. 2009 <http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/bethesda.htm&gt;.

2 “Harvard Open-Access Policies.” Harvard University Library Harvard University, 2008. Web. 1 Oct. 2009 <http://osc.hul.harvard.edu/OpenAccess/policytexts.php&gt;.

3 Shieber, Stuart. Personal INTERVIEW. 7th October 2009.
4 Albert, Karen. “Open access: implications for scholarly publishing and medical libraries.” Journal of the Medical Library Association 94.3 (2006): 253-62. Web.PubMed Central. 1 Oct. 2009 <http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1525322#i1536-5050-094-03-0253-b1&gt;.

5 “Changes in Programs and Services: Journal Subscriptions.” Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences: FAS Planning Open access: implications for scholarly publishing and medical libraries. Harvard University, 11 May 2009. Web. 1 Oct. 2009 <https://planning.fas.harvard.edu/c/index.html&gt;.

6 Lipman, David. Personal INTERVIEW. 5th October 2009.

7 Varmus, Harold. Personal INTERVIEW. 6th October 2009.


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