Scholarly publishing, a growing number of academics say, is broken. As authors and reviewers, academics work for free for commercial publishers, and online publication is far less expensive than paper-based printing and distribution. Yet, universities are saddled with rising and increasingly unaffordable costs for the journals that result. In response, open-access publication of scholarship and research, in which those materials are freely available to the general public without subscription fees or paywalls, is gaining ground.
Harvard’s Faculty Advisory Council caused a stir last spring when it said that, in the long run, even this endowment-rich school would be unable to afford rising subscription fees for academic journals, currently costing Harvard nearly $4 million a year. With publishing companies like Elsevier posting profit margins of around 35 percent, the Harvard statement suggests that universities are paying far more than the true costs of publishing. The council urged Harvard faculty to choose to share their work in open-access journals, both as a good idea in itself and to help “move prestige to open access.”
There are signs that this shift is already underway, and not only among specialists. Studies published in PLoS ONE, the largest open-access and peer-reviewed journal of the Public Library of Science, are now routinely cited in news reports in The New York Times, The Economist, and BBC News.
In recent years, another form of open-access to scholarly work known as an institutional repository (IR), has been established at a number of universities. An institutional repository is a free, searchable, online resource where scholars can self-archive their work with an emphasis on long-term accessibility. In addition to published articles, IRs often contain a range of other academic work: entire data sets, lectures and presentations, video and audio, event transcripts, scores for musical compositions and more.
At many universities, IRs have been up and running for several years. Harvard has DASH (Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard). The University of Kansas has ScholarWorks. The University of California has eScholarship. Some universities, such as Harvard, require that faculty participate in their institutional repositories (though a waiver can be requested). At others, participation is entirely optional.
Some of the better known open-access archives in academia are subject-specific repositories with scholarship from many institutions. These include SSRN (Social Science Research Network), PubMed Central for biomedical and life sciences research, and arXiv.org for mathematics, physics, and related fields. (Boston’s Simmons College maintains a list of subject-specific repositories.
Advocates for institutional repositories note that not every discipline has a well-established archive of its own. They add that a university’s IR can add to its academic heft, increasing the visibility and accessibility of its faculty’s work.
Last November 2012, CUNY’s University Faculty Senate (UFS) approved a resolution that supported the creation of an institutional repository at City University of New York, with faculty “encourage[d] but not require[d]” to participate. To move toward the new goal, the UFS then formed an Open Access Advisory Group, led by Polly Thistlethwaite, chief librarian at the Graduate Center. Other members include Curtis Kendrick, University Dean for Libraries and Information Resources, other university librarians, and supporters of open-access policies from across the university.
Faculty who prefer traditional scholarly journals to their open-access counterparts might have questions about whether submitting their work to an institutional repository would conflict with their publishers’ terms. But at an October 26, 2012 panel at the Graduate Center, part of Open Access Week at CUNY, Jill Cirasella, a reference and instruction librarian at Brooklyn College, told attendees they might be surprised at the breadth of the rights they already have for posting their publications on open-access repositories. Even Elsevier, a publishing giant that has been criticized for its hostility to open access, generally allows self-archiving of pre-publication versions of the work that appears in its journals.
Cirasella recommends an online tool called SHERPA/RoMEO as an easy-to-use, accurate summary of publishers’ rules as they apply to institutional repositories. “You probably have more rights than you realize,” Cirasella advises academics, noting that 87 percent of academic journals listed in SHERPA/RoMEO’s vast database allow for immediate open-access self-archiving. That number climbs to more than 90 percent when you allow for an embargo period after publication.
Advocates list a number of advantages they say accrue to university faculty with the creation of a university-wide IR. In addition to simply promoting greater visibility for faculty work, IRs can be set up to allow researchers to see digital analytics that help them better understand who is engaging with it, or what elements have drawn the most interest. A repository can ease compliance with the requirements of funders, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Wellcome Trust and an increasing number of government funding agencies that can require open-access distribution of research and scholarship that they support. An IR also gives faculty stable URLs for access to their research product, freeing them from having to maintain lists of their works on personal web pages.
Getting broad participation in open-access archives can be a challenge. PubMed Central struggled as a voluntary resource until Congress directed researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health to participate in it. While CUNY’s advisory group recognizes that building participation can be its own organizing challenge, Cirasella said that the ultimate objective is to make CUNY’s IR a sufficiently vibrant, easy-to-use resource that faculty find in their interest to participate in.
Currently, the advisory group is exploring the technical challenges of getting it up and running, including such details as to how CUNY’s IR might handle embargo periods and tagging. The group, says Cirasella, has concluded that, while building a software solution from scratch might be the best fit for CUNY’s somewhat unique structure, it would also be slow going. The group is investigating the merits and drawbacks of existing software packages like Digital Commons, EPrints and Fedora Commons. Because broader visibility is one of the main advantages of an IR, “it’s really, really important to our faculty and students that the repository plays well with Google and Google Scholar,” Cirasella said at the October 2012 panel.
Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-founder of the Public Library of Science, says that while there is much to like about institutional repositories, they are not an effective means for fundamentally changing the current model of subscription-based, for-profit, scholarly publications and its attendant high costs. Eisen predicts that as growth of open-access journals increasingly undermines the business models of for-profit publishers like Elsevier – currently the target of a scholars’ boycott for its pricing practices and support for anti-open-access legislation – publishers will become less willing to tolerate their authors’ self-archiving. The fact that institutional archives rely upon the “good will of subscription publishers,” Eisen warns, is their Achilles’ heal.
But universities, CUNY among them, seem to be growing more willing to put their weight behind open-access academics.
In its budget request for library services in 2013-14, CUNY’s library arm said that a push toward open access “offers the promise of eventually reducing the cost of high-quality information resources.” University officials advocate making slow and steady progress in its own institutional participation. “We want to do this right,” George Otte, University Director of Academic Technology for CUNY, wrote in a discussion of a CUNY institutional repository this fall.
According to Cirasella, if the university opts to adopt an off-the-shelf solution, CUNY’s institutional repository could be up and running within the next year.