In the academic world, the conflict between research institutions and publishers about the latter’s reluctance to embrace open access strategies has been looming for years. While the Internet makes distribution of research much cheaper and easier, subscription fees for the most important journals kept rising. Already in 2009, the MIT Faculty had unanimously adopted a university-wide Open Access rule (“Universities as Copyright Regulators: Power and Example“). In 2012, we can finally observe open battles on the issue.

Reading Room at Harvard (Faolin42, CC-BY)

After earlier this year more than 10.000 researchers had joined the boycott of Elsevier (see also “Elsevier Withdraws Support for Research Works Act, Continues Fight Against Open Access“), last week Harvard University issued an official “Memorandum on Journal Pricing“. After criticizing the “untenable situation” that “many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive”, the memorandum suggests the following 9 points to faculty and students (F) and the Library (L):

  1. Make sure that all of your own papers are accessible by submitting them to DASH in accordance with the faculty-initiated open-access policies (F).
  2. Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access (F).
  3. If on the editorial board of a journal involved, determine if it can be published as open access material, or independently from publishers that practice pricing described above. If not, consider resigning (F).
  4. Contact professional organizations to raise these issues (F).
  5. Encourage professional associations to take control of scholarly literature in their field or shift the management of their e-journals to library-friendly organizations (F).
  6. Encourage colleagues to consider and to discuss these or other options (F).
  7. Sign contracts that unbundle subscriptions and concentrate on higher-use journals (L).
  8. Move journals to a sustainable pay per use system, (L).
  9. Insist on subscription contracts in which the terms can be made public (L).

Particularly points #2 and #3 target the most critical issues: prestige and reputation. Scientific publishing is a reputation game and prestige of an outlet is all that matters. This is why, so far, pleas for publishing open access went unheard. The most successful Open Access outlets such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS) had been founded by nobel laureates, who transferred their reputation to the new journals. To really change something, researchers have to take their reputation and run – away from restrictive publishers and towards Open Access outlets.

As a researcher, I can only hope that with Harvard so forcefully weighing in on Open Access, we can observe change on this front soon. As I see it, chances have never been better. Reputation matters not only in science but also in regulatory struggles. And if Harvard cannot afford journal prices any more, which university can? For more information on the issue, check out the Guardian article “Harvard University says it can’t afford journal publishers’ prices“.