The weak prescriptions in Harvard’s open-access letter and how I’d fix them

Much is being made of a recent letter from Harvard’s Faculty Advisory Council on the Library to the campus community announcing their conclusion that:

major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable

Judging from many of the responses, people seem to think this is some kind of major turning point in the push for universal open access. And the fact that even Harvard, with its billions dollar endowment, is feeling the sting of rising journal prices does seem to have struck a chord.

But librarians have been warning about the “serials crisis” for years (see, for example, this prescient 1998 report from the Association of Research Libraries, the Association of American Universities, and the Pew Higher Education Roundtable). I’ve seen dozens of letters to faculty from librarians urging them to abandon subscription journals. But they have little effect. I think this is at least in part due to the mismatch between the strength of their argument, and the weakness of their proposed solutions – a pattern repeated in the Harvard letter.

So I thought I would try to help by editing the provided list of things to consider demands:

Since the Library now must change its subscriptions and since faculty and graduate students are chief users, please consider immediately implement the following options open to faculty and students (F) and the Library (L), state other options you think viable, and communicate your views:

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). [NOTE: Harvard’s open access policy provides an opt-out provision for faculty – this is not acceptable]

2. Consider submitting Submit all of your 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 resign (F).

4. Contact professional organizations to raise these issues demand that they immediately support universal open access (F).

5. Encourage Demand that 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 Tell your colleagues to stop being wimps (F).

7. Sign contracts that unbundle subscriptions and concentrate on higher-use journals Do not sign any contracts to access subscription-only journals (L).

8. Immediately move all journals to a sustainable pay per use system, open access model (L).

9. Insist on subscription contracts in which the terms can be made public (L).

10. Require that all works produced by university faculty be distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution License, no matter where they are published. 

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  1. Posted April 25, 2012 at 2:11 am | Permalink

    Nice rewrite. I wonder how many of the Harvard Advisory Council actually agree with you on this, but felt obliged to phrase the document more circumspectly for political or strategic reasons.

    One quibble: in point 3, “If on the editorial board of a journal involved, determine if it can be published as open access material”, why did you delete that first recommendation? If an existing non-open journal can be converted to OA, isn’t that better than just resigning from the board?

    (Oh, and “Demand that professional associations to take control” isn’t grammatical.)

  2. Posted April 26, 2012 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    Open access journals are usually one-side open. They still take high costs at the input side. They still use peer review, which is often abused.
    I think that it is better to publish on two-sided open access sites such as and PubmedCentral
    A separate journal that comments on the quality of the papers on these sites can guide the readers and keep quality on a high level.

  3. fairscientist
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    although oa journals are far better and ethical than the ones published by commercial publishers, the model is not entirely flawless. in fact, getting an article published in plos biology/genetics has also become v difficult and is not that different than the process involved in nat genetics per se. i agree with hans van leunen that the process of peer review is equally abused in oa journals.

    mike, what would you do to make the process more transparent in oa journals? it will be good to know the steps that the oa journals (plos for example) are taking to make the process more transparent and fair.

    why can’t all plos series journals publish on-line the entire communication between the communicating author and editors including the entire unabridged reviewers’ comments, authors’ rebuttal and final acceptance/rejection? a similar approach is followed by embo (although a lot need to be desired as they don’t publish the entire transcript on what transpired between the editors and authors for the rejected manuscripts that have been through the peer-review process).

    thank you.

  4. Posted April 27, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    Mike, what are the current economics of open source vs closed. By that, I mean, have people looked carefully at who pays? I think a major issue in resistance to open source (aside from the problem of journal reputation) is that in most institutions, scientists pay directly for open source fees but indirectly for subscriptions. There is a hidden budget that the libraries carry whereas you directly click on your credit card/procurement/cost centre wen paying for open access (recognizing many subscription journals also require page charges). I assume that PLoS has done some work on this – which is why you’ve been encouraging institutional memberships to offset author costs. To highlight the issue, in Canada our indirects associated with grants are sub-20%. As libraries cut subscriptions, there is a shift of publication cost to grants. This is becoming more of an issue as the granting agencies are not compensating (it’s an allowable cost, but no grants get bumped up $10K a year to cover this). Of course, if they did compensate, it would lead to reduced $$ or # of grants overall. If this is a zero sum game (I hope), then there needs to be a recognition of where funds are coming from to pay for the current models and a concerted effort to shift those funds (at least in part) to the researchers. As an aside, every funded investigator on a publication should contribute to the open source fee as part of their authorship agreement – akin to their declaration of contribution to the work. This needs teeth to implement.

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