Yesterday, Harvard University passed a motion (see proposal here) that will require its faculty members to publish their scholarly articles online. On the face of things, this marks a big victory for the open access movement, which is all about making information free and accessible to all. In reality, however, the real winner may eventually be Harvard's library budget (and the future of scholarship itself).
One of the figures behind the opening of Harvard's scholarship is Robert Darnton, an eminent historian who now oversees Harvard's libraries. And, in a piece called The Case for Open Access, Darnton underscores how digital publishing can relieve some important financial pressures on the academy. Under the current publishing model, academics write articles for scholarly journals and then the journals get sold back to the university libraries at exorbitant prices, with some costing more than $20,000 per year. And here the real problem begins: "in order to purchase the journals, libraries have had to reduce their acquisitions of monographs; the reduced demand among libraries for monographs has forced university presses to cut back on the publication of them; and the near impossibility of publishing their dissertations has jeopardized the careers of a whole generation of scholars in many fields." Digital publishing solves this spiraling problem in a straightforward way. The cost of publishing directly to the web is negligible. There's no pulp to buy, no publisher's overhead to pay; no corporation (e.g., Reed Elsevier, the owner of many scholarly journals) looking to pad its profits and get thanked by Wall Street. The cost savings are everywhere.
The traditional publishers will be quick to point out a flaw in the digital publishing model - namely, that it generally means working outside of a peer-review system that ensures the overall integrity of research. But my sense is that there's no reason that digital publishing and peer review can't go together. It's not hard to imagine ways in which conventional forms of peer review could be preserved. But digital publishing also makes possible new forms of peer review that didn't exist before. Publishing to the web will almost necessarily increase the overall readership of articles, which will encourage more fact checking and critical commentary in turn. And, because we're publishing on the web, these scholarly articles can become living documents that get better over time. It's a new way of doing things. It may take a generation to get all the kinks worked out and habits changed. But we will get there.
As a final aside, if you're interested in the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, then you'll want to check this new site sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation. It aggregates blogs that regularly focus on all things OER, offering you a great starting point for reading in this area.