Harvard vs. Yale: Open-Access Publishing Edition

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Harvard's library appears set to push open access harder than its Ivy League rival.

Earlier this month, a special council to the Harvard library system sent a note to the school's entire faculty encouraging a broad range of measures to support open access journals, which are free and freely available. "Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive," they wrote.

Perhaps the strongest recommendation was that faculty should "consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs." This would, in effect, "move prestige to open access," and away from the traditional, paid publications.

Earlier this week, Yale university student, Emmanuel Quartey, posted a video interview with the school's librarian, Susan Gibbons, in which he asked her about open-access publishing. Her response was far more ambivalent than the Harvard faculty council's. Though she noted that open-access journals are more accessible, she worried that asking younger faculty to publish in open-access (presumably less prestigious) journals could jeopardize their chances to attain tenure. In essence, prestige would stay put but tenure would move away from younger Yale professors. So, the library would continue to support both open and closed-access journals. You can read her full answer below or check out the video interview above.

Open access is a very complicated topic. On the one hand, from a faculty member or researcher's perspective, they go through all this work to make a discovery, to write about it. You'd want the broadest possible audience for your article or your book. You want people to read what it is you've discovered. So on the one hand, you want the greatest possible audience. On the other hand, if you think about the tenure process, how do you get tenure? You get tenure by, in part, publishing in the best journals. And until those journals are interested in an open access model, which really takes away their revenue stream, we have this tension going on. On the other hand, you want everyone to be able to read your research, but on the other hand, you need to go through the current steps that are necessary to reach tenure and achieve your promotion.

So the faculty have to make this decisions along the way to publish in an open access journal and give up perhaps some of the prestige that's associated with one of the more established journals. So, sometimes what you'll see is some of the junior faculty who are less inclined to publish in open access journals because they are focused on the career path and tenure track process. But once they get tenure, they feel like they have more freedom in participating in the open access movements going around.

So it's not just a scholarship issue. It's not just an issue between libraries and publishers. There is a whole other element to it that often people forget about: which is that the tenure process is tightly intertwined with the promotion process and publishing. Until that gets settled out, it isn't clear what is the best way to go. And you want a professor to be able to get tenure if possible. And you don't want to put something in the way that jeopardizes it. So from the library's perspective, we support both kinds of journals. We subscribe to those that still require payment but if there are open access journals, we'll make sure they are in the Orbis catalog as well. We don't have the mechanisms to preserve those open access journals that are out there on the web unless we downloaded every article, printed it, and bound the journal we don't have that archival copy, which is something that we're also very concerned about. There are a lot of issues at play here. I think too often people think of this in the dichotomy of pro-open access or against it. I think there are subtleties in the middle that need to be explored more.

Via Nicholas Bramble

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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