The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) at Harvard University voted Tuesday to adopt an open-access policy, providing a free repository for finished papers, according to a recent press release. This move will allow for greater dissemination of scholarly work conducted at Harvard, says Stuart Shieber, a professor at FAS. Shieber states that a combination of a restrictive publishing system and the “astronomical” cost of journals have led the Harvard professors to support such a venture. An official description of the proposal that was actually discussed by the FAS on Tuesday is here.
As my colleague from Nature Precedings, Hilary Spencer, points out in a recent Nature Network forum, this entire policy is very vague with regards to what is meant by the scholarly article or the “final version.” Is that the final, journal-produced PDF? The peer-reviewed, unpublished, non-copy-edited version? The non-peer-reviewed pre-print? According to an analysis written up on TheScientist.com, this mandate would require that published articles be submitted. However, go back and re-read the original proposal and tell me where it says that explicitly.
That brings us to the main point. Harvard is extremely vague about exactly what this proposal covers. A smart move, if you ask me, because now they can stress any position or interpretation that they want, based on the response they receive. If they feel too much pressure from younger faculty concerned that for-profit journals may not consider papers from Harvard because of a potential conflict with journal policies, they are free to say “Don’t worry, we just meant the pre-print.” If the public sentiment is in full support of their repository, they may feel emboldened to say “Of course this means published papers!!” But frankly, any legal hair-splitting that may have to be done regarding the exact wording of this proposal becomes moot because of the opt-out clause that is available to the faculty. Although “required” to make the research available immediately for the repository, researchers can acquire a waiver to maintain exclusive rights, allowing them the freedom to proceed as they wish with publication, without worrying about whether policies at their institution and their chosen journal are in legal synchrony.
So what do we really have here? Of course this is a victory for open access, because of Harvard’s clout. But it seems hollow to me. Harvard now gets the great PR, without the danger of backlash because of their vague wording and inclusion of an opt-out policy. If Harvard (or any other institution considering the same type of proposal; see this, this and this) really wants to promote the free and open worldwide dissemination of their research, the next policy should be a little more specific about their ground rules and intentions. If the intention is really to change the way that publications are handled and distributed, then providing multiple backdoor exits and loopholes is probably not the most efficient way to bring about said change.
P.S. For the record – Nature Publishing Group encourages authors to self-archive the submitted version of their manuscript 6 months after the publication date, a policy that complies with recently passed legislation from the NIH stipulating that work supported by NIH grants must be publicly self-archived within 12 months of publication.