Last week the faculty of UC San Francisco (my former employer) unanimously approved an open access policy, effective immediately. Several years ago, UCSF faculty voted down a similar proposal. Since then library staff, and UCSF faculty member Rich Schneider, have promoted the goals of open access publishing carefully and patiently. The reward was last week's vote.
I think this is a great development. Researchers at one of the nation's largest recipients of NIH funding have formally endorsed the value of maximal access to their work. And UCSF is one of the few US public institutions to develop an open access policy, which till now has been the province of private institutions like Harvard. That's especially important, because the public mission of the UC's remains intact (hopefully) even during these grim state budget times.
The proof will be in the pudding, as the policy is implemented. Will UCSF researchers really utilize an addendum to the copyright transfer agreement that supersedes the terms set by publishers? They've gone on record supporting this step, but who will enforce it and how? This remains to be seen, once the excitement of passing the policy fades.
In my head I hear my good friend Scott talking about how open access is just the start and not the end, that we should set our sights higher towards building truly integrated digital libraries that exceed the narrow bounds of papers. This is the point Scott made on Capitol Hill recently. Kent Anderson regularly strikes a similar note on the Scholarly Kitchen.
Point well taken. The paper is an antiquated delivery device, which takes no real advantage of the capabilities of the Web. But it is still very much the lifeblood of academia; it's how research is reported and promotions are decided. As long as this old-fashioned device has that much power then the best we can do is find ways to increase access to the scholarly literature.
Increasing such access does not mean shutting down publishers because the information yearns to be free. That rhetoric has faded, except among the staunchest open access partisans. As I learned in 2008, when I tried to move publication of Biomedical Digital Libraries from BioMed Central to other platforms, publishers add a great deal of value. In my case BioMed Central offered immediate citation in PubMed and archiving in PubMed Central, none of which I could replicate on my own.
And yet...business models that rely on restricted access to publicly funded research are not just. We have to find a middle way. I'm starting to starting to like the idea of treating scholarly work as a public good, subject to regulation that ensures very broad access but which still allows publishers to run a business. (Let's hope that business evolves to support publishing models that use the native capabilities of the Web.) This is like electricity or other utilities; access is regulated but private enterprise still exists. The same thing could and should happen with scholarly publishing, at least for any research that is publicly funded.