Open Access Harvard

On 12 February of this year the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences made what may turn out to be a momentous decision regarding the publication of scholarship. They unanimously voted to offer their own future scholarly articles (no mention is made of books) to Harvard University for open-access distribution (in pdf or another “appropriate format”). The copyright of those articles is to be given to Harvard for this purpose, provided that Harvard does not seek to make a profit on the articles. The implementation of this policy is not discussed in the docket (copied below) beyond the fact that the Provost’s office is in charge and that the Provost’s office “may make the article available to the public in an open-access repository.”
I have innumerable thoughts on this, some of which are not fully honed and will be withheld here until I can express them appropriately. However, here are some initial jabs:

1. This is an incredibly positive move by Harvard. They have been wrestling with these issues for some time behind the scenes, not least in their partnership with Google. They essentially sold (if that’s the appropriate word) the digital rights, or at least a single digital license, to Google so that the latter could compile books.google.com (in addition to deals with other libraries, as has been well documented). Since then, they’ve been discussing other avenues of digitization. Harvard’s casting about for other opportunities was somewhat opaque to me at first until I remembered that Google is a business that is trying to make money off of knowledge (really ads, but potentially off the knowledge itself in some way in the future). One of the most fundamental tenets of the university credo is that knowledge should be free. It certainly seems that Harvard is unconvinced that Google is the way forward, despite their partnership, and is pursuing other means. (I have no inside knowledge of this, but it is a fact that Harvard is exploring multiple avenues of digital distribution.)

2. If you think about the long, long term implications of this, it essentially means that companies like Google will not be making money off of scholarly knowledge in the future. Imagine if Harvard had made this decision in some form in 1700, what would Google be able to scan and market? Relatively little, at least among Harvard faculty publications, since it would be available already. Now, imagine that every university in the world had adopted this policy in 1700, Google would have almost nothing to scan. So, by adopting a forward thinking policy Harvard is encouraging all universities to recognize both the value of knowledge and the viable means of distribution currently available.

3. Publishers cannot be happy with this. While it won’t wreck their business in the near term, something has to give, and Harvard has shifted its weight in the direction of their demise. This is especially true for the publishers of electronic journals — rather, the enormous collections, such as JSTOR — which charge astronomical rates for college and university subscriptions. Technically JSTOR and their ilk are non-profit companies. However, they still charge huge amounts of money, presumably passing on what academic publishers charge them to digitize their material. Small colleges throughout the US are unable to keep up with the cost of these subsciptions. They have to make unnecessary choices between collections when in reality all of this should be available to their students and faculty, without fee. The current system is completely backwards, as if knowledge were something that only the privileged, ultra-endowed universities should enjoy. Obviously there is a certain amount of infrastructure involved in distribution, but it simply has to be less than what is being charged. Really, it reminds me of the current RIAA / music industry implosion, where the traditionalists are so used to making a certain profit that they can’t bear to acknowledge and employ lower-overhead distribution schemes. The frustrating aspect of all of this, to me at least, is that Google seems to be thinking like the traditionalists, or at least the traditionalist publishers have threatened Google so much that it’s unwilling to fulfill its original goal, which I understand to be the availability of all that they’ve scanned to anyone on the web. I’m not unaware of the copyright issues, but many people (like Harvard) are suggesting that we need to rethink copyright, at least for scholarly publications, and I think they’re right. With all its clout and money, Google should also be making the case that copyright needs to be rethought.

4. I’m interested in the implementation of this. As noted by Dorothea Salo, Harvard can make it easy or hard for the faculty to submit their work. We’re both hoping for the former! From her blog Caveat Lector:

If Harvard is smart, it will automate as much article-gathering as possible. The less faculty have to do, the less they even notice that this policy is in place, the more it will be able to accomplish. I look forward to finding out what the Harvard provost’s office has up its sleeve. 

5. The docket from the faculty meeting states (see below) that there is an escape clause if a faculty member can “explain the need” to be exempt from the program. It will be interesting to see how many people exercise this and how diligently the Provost polices the policy.

Here’s the original docket from the official pdf of the faculty meeting.
On behalf of the Provost’s Committee on Scholarly Publishing, Professor S. Shieber will move:The Faculty of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University is committed to disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible. In keeping with that commitment, the Faculty adopts the following policy: Each Faculty member grants to the President and Fellows of Harvard College permission to make available his or her scholarly articles and to exercise the copyright in those articles. In legal terms, the permission granted by each Faculty member is a nonexclusive, irrevocable, paid-up, worldwide license to exercise any and all rights under copyright relating to each of his or her scholarly articles, in any medium, and to authorize others to do the same, provided that the articles are not sold for a profit. The policy will apply to all scholarly articles written while the person is a member of the Faculty except for any articles completed before the adoption of this policy and any articles for which the Faculty member entered into an incompatible licensing or assignment agreement before the adoption of this policy. The Dean or the Dean’s designate will waive application of the policy for a particular article upon written request by a Faculty member explaining the need.To assist the University in distributing the articles, each Faculty member will provide an electronic copy of the final version of the article at no charge to the appropriate representative of the Provost’s Office in an appropriate format (such as PDF) specified by the Provost’s Office. The Provost’s Office may make the article available to the public in an open-access repository.The Office of the Dean will be responsible for interpreting this policy, resolving disputes concerning its interpretation and application, and recommending changes to the Faculty from time to time. The policy will be reviewed after three years and a report presented to the Faculty.

Other links worth reading:
Ars Technica
Harvard Gazette
Harvard Crimson
(Thanks to Prof. Greg Smith for his input on this post.)