Action Potential

Harvard open-access policy – can you please be more specific?

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 The peer-reviewed, unpublished, non-copy-edited version?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, 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.


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    Stevan Harnad said:

    Optimizing Harvard’s OA Mandate

    Here are a few small but crucial changes to the wording of Harvard’s OA Mandate. They will immunize the deposit requirement against any opt-outs from the copyright-retention requirement and will increase the probability that the mandate will succeed and that it will be taken up by other universities. (The clauses have been re-orderered and the italicized passages have been added. Other universities may also omit the two indented clauses preceded by asterisk ** if they wish):

    Proposed revision:

    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:

    [DEPOSIT MANDATE] To assist the University in providing Open Access to all scholarly articles published by its Faculty members, each Faculty member is required to provide, immediately upon acceptance for publication, an electronic copy of the final version of each 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. This can be done either by depositing it directly in Harvard’s Institutional Repository or by emailing it to the Provost’s Office to be deposited on the author’s behalf.

       **[COPYRIGHT RETENTION POLICY] Each Faculty member is also encouraged to grant 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.

       **[POLICY OPTOUT CLAUSE] The copyright retention and licence-granting 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.

    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.

    Stevan Harnad

    American Scientist Open Access Forum

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    Maxine said:

    It is also worth pointing out the Nature journals’ policy on preprints, which is to allow posting in preprint servers and so on, at any stage before or during the submission/consideration process.

    In the case of an institution such as Harvard, that wants the research it funds to be freely available, it can make its academics post preprints in the university repository as soon as the work is complete and the paper written. Whether this is compatible with other publishers’ editorial policies, I do not know.

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    Adrian Melott said:

    Does anyone other than me perceive the Harvard policy as a violation of the academic freedom of their faculty?