April 21, 2018

At SPARC Forum, News of the University of California's Open Access Near Miss

By Norman Oder


  • UC’s OA plan bogged down in complicated opt-outs
  • Harvard’s key: “best interest of the faculty”
  • Harvard Med School may be next

We all know that the Harvard University Faculty of Arts & Sciences (FAS) passed a pioneering Open Access (OA) mandate this February, but a lot of us didn’t know that the University of California (UC) almost got there first. UC’s near miss was discussed by representatives at a packed SPARC Forum at the American Library Association annual conference yesterday in Anaheim. “I’m thrilled and envious about Harvard,” moderator John Ober of the California Digital Library told the audience, noting that UC’s draft policy (details) never passed. “We hit a long fly ball to the warning track, but Harvard hit a home run. 

(Check the LJ 2008 ALA Annual Conference page for more live coverage.)

Harvard computer science professor Stuart Shieber, now director of Harvard’s new Office for Scholarly Communication, first explained some background for Harvard’s policy. While a spur was “the unsustainability of journal price increases,” he said he talked about costs “always with great trepidation,” because, at heart, the issue is not costs but “the underlying systemic problems [that] have led to a reduction in access.” While commercial journals cost six times the price per page compared to OA journals, he said, there’s no proof commercial journals are six times better; in fact, the cost per citation is 16 times higher for commercial journals. “There must be some underlying market dysfunction,” he said. 

Catherine Candee, executive director, Strategic Publishing and Broadcast Initiatives, from the office of the UC’s president, said that OA was “one of the best tools we’ve got” but getting to build “a sustainable publishing and communication system,” but getting there isn’t easy. She said UC’s OA push began with several spurs. Some difficult negotiations in 2004 with STM publisher Elsevier helped faculty “wake up to the fact we were spending an arm and a leg.” A faculty survey from scholarly communication office led to the conclusion that the tenure and promotion system impedes changes in faculty behavior, but most faculty see the problems as affecting others, not themselves. Also, UC faculty in the arts and humanities want university support for publishing books, journals, and monographs. 

So the UC Senate Committee on Scholarly Communication formed, aiming to develop an OA policy. In 2006, the Academic Senate endorsed a proposal for a Scholarly Work Copyright Policy, which was essentially OA. In January 2007, she said, the provost requested Senate and administrative review of policy, involving all ten campuses. However, by July 2007, concerns over implementation overwhelmed support for the policy’s goals and intent, she said, and the policy was sent back to the provost.

Now UC faculty members, librarians, and administrators are consulting over a new version, she said. “There was a lot of inspiration from Harvard’s action,” she said. “If only we’d done something so elegantly simple…. There continues to be discussion on the local level, local committees trying to get their Senates to take it off, but system-wide, the discussion is really postponed ‘til the fall.”

Keep it simple
UC should have kept the policy simple, Ober said, given that there were three different opt-out scenarios: “We were trying in some senses to encourage compliance by making it very difficult to opt out, which was probably the wrong way to go.” Candee noted that planners must “be aware of unique needs of disciplines,” explaining that some faculty members thought that the National Institutes of Health mandate might cover the entire faculty, even though it only covers the hard sciences.

She suggested that, along with OA, several other avenues should be considered, including negotiations with publishers for universal permissions, alternative publishing services, open textbooks/courses, and a review of the tenure and promotion system that enables the status quo. A recent UC report lays out some possibilities.

Columbia University librarian Jim Neal asked Shieber what faculty work product is included in Harvard’s policy, because, “our debate at Columbia has provoked interesting challenges on what would be covered.” Shieber said the policy refers to scholarly articles, and explanatory materials refer to journal articles and articles in conference proceedings. “We wanted to make sure that core cases, the journal articles, are covered,” he said. “You can’t handle every case in a policy of this sort, so we kept it relatively simple and said it’s important that it be interpreted in best interest of faculty.”

So far, that’s worked. Harvard Law School followed in the footsteps of the FAS and yesterday a representative of Harvard Medical School said, “I think we’re going to be the next school to go for OA."

And how many people so far are opting out. “We don’t even know yet,” Shieber said.

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