Open Access, Harvard Delight Edition

An extraordinary and delightful communiqué from Harvard on journal pricing has surfaced (early reactions here and here and here). It was actually issued almost a week back, but the Twitter hive mind (or my corner of it) appears only now to have noticed (h/t to JamieSW for that). The contents are pretty extraordinary, even too good to be true. The preamble is brutal about the current state of the journal system, observing that Harvard spent almost $3.75 million last year on bundled journal provision from some publishers (10% of all collection costs and 20% of all periodical costs for 2010); that “profit margins of 35% and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles”; that “[t]he Library has never received anything close to full reimbursement for these expenditures from overhead collected by the University on grant and research funds”; and that “[i]t is untenable for contracts with at least two major providers to continue on the basis identical with past agreements. Costs are now prohibitive” (I’m guessing one provider at least is Elsevier).

Then some options-cum-recommendations for Faculty are laid out:

1. Make sure that all of your own papers are accessible by submitting them to DASH in accordance with the faculty-initiated open-access policies.

2. Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access.

3. If on the editorial board of a journal involved, determine if it can be published as open access material, or independently from publishers that practice pricing described above. If not, consider resigning.

4. Contact professional organizations to raise these issues.

5. Encourage professional associations to take control of scholarly literature in their field or shift the management of their e-journals to library-friendly organizations.

6. Encourage colleagues to consider and to discuss these or other options.

7. Sign contracts that unbundle subscriptions and concentrate on higher-use journals.

8. Move journals to a sustainable pay per use system.

9. Insist on subscription contracts in which the terms can be made public.

Note in particular point 3. Harvard is asking its academics to seriously consider resigning from major journals if substantive good-faith moves are not made towards open access or “sustainable subscription costs” (read: a major reversal of current practice). As previously suggested, only serious insurgencies within major centres of academic prestige will undo the private stranglehold on knowledge-in-common. On those grounds, I’m tempted to giddy excitement. The question, of course, is which other major institutions (and which serious academic figures) will have the solidarity and good sense to follow this example. As a rallying point, social sciences and social theory need some version of The Cost Of Knowledge manifesto that spans the entire issue of journals and knowledge production. At the very least, we now have a new rhetorical device: open access is good enough for Harvard: why isn’t it good enough for you?

3 thoughts on “Open Access, Harvard Delight Edition

  1. I can understand your giddyness Pablo: that’s a clear and concise statement of many of the steps required to convert the current system into OA. One element that I’m not seeing, however, is a similarly clear instruction to Harvard’s hiring and promotion committees asking them to use these points as guidelines when making decisions on tenure or new appointments. This omission is especially important in the social sciences where no high-impact PLoS-like OA alternative exists. For someone researching in biomedicine there is a workable alternative already in place (albeit one that will cost them USD1200-3000 to take advantage of). But if Harvard were hiring in IR, are they going to turn down the candidate with the slate of publications in IO, ISQ, JCR, etc in favour of the one with a track record of publishing in OA IR titles? Of course not, and that’s why I imagine compliance with these guidelines will be lower among Harvard’s social scientists, at least until other parts of the system become as radical. So personally I’m inclined to be somewhat less giddy and give Harvard a ‘B-‘ so far as our end of the spectrum is concerned. True, the boldness of this statement will resonate in some disciplines, and in the medium term it will exert some degree of influence on governments, universities and funding bodies elsewhere. But if they want to give OA a true shot in the arm they’ve got to walk the walk of hiring and promoting with a clear OA bias. And they’re giving no indication as to how they would help transition-manage funding-poor disciplines like IR, ie the kind of university-as-publisher model that you have discussed on this blog (beyond the DASH repository, which is Harvard-only). If anyone could do that latter then it’s $31.7bn endowed Harvard. The real take-home message for social scientists is ‘go forth and lobby your learned association to make their journals OA’ – which means delegations at ISA and BISA next year trying to wean them off not insignificant revenue that they currently get from the closed-access system.


    • Thanks Anon. Am in full agreement that the hiring matters hugely (and it is the idea of this alone that will continue to compel those of us lower down the food chain to submit to big name journals no matter our feelings on open access). That said, I think the Harvard line is both a bit stronger than you suggest, and will give rise to an interesting paradox if people go with it. Its stronger in the sense that if Harvard scholars (and others) “move prestige” to OA journals by publishing in them; pressure their own journals to go OA (or resign!); use professional orgs to “take control” of the field; and sign OA-friendly contracts, then this in itself would put serious pressure on publishers and quickly change the publishing profile of major journals (I’m assuming here that other institutions follow Harvard’s lead).

      Hence the intriguing paradox: if ‘conventional’ closed access publishing remains the only way to get into elite institutions, but if once inside those towers scholars focus overwhelmingly on open access outlets (and if their libraries stop paying for closed access), then all the ‘best’ (read: high profile/reputation) work will be in open access, and closed access will come to be seen as a uncomfortable but necessary step to the larger stage, not the only game in town. There wouldn’t be an instant transformation, but if prestige is genuinely transferred in the way the Harvard letter implies, I can’t see the status of closed-access journals being maintained for long at hiring/firing stage. Although I do, like you, wonder how Harvard itself is joining the dots here (e.g. if there’s internal hiring advice in the work that would cement this).

      Which isn’t to say that the battle is won, both for reasons you give, and because I’m not sure others will follow Harvard’s lead, but as far as these things go, I’d be a slightly more generous marker.


  2. Good description pablo. Now a days number of publishing companies not following these instructions. They are publishing with out a peer review about an article and finally they are collecting much money to publish those on their site. To publish an article every author need to follow those steps you mentioned.


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