Harvard Opens Scholarship, Freeing Up Knowledge and Budgets

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.

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