Questions for the ARL Public Access meeting
Editing and Peer Review

Measuring Progress Toward Open Access

In his Open Access News blog, Peter Suber comments on my post from last Friday, and says that he's puzzled by my last paragraph in which I say that the policy "achieves few (if any) of the initial goals of the movement."  He points out that the mandate is a major advance for the movement, and I don't disagree with that.  But I think my comment still stands.  Making an advance is not the same as achieving the goals.

Certainly people became involved with the open access movement for different reasons and, perhaps, having different priorities, so I'm not sure that it actually makes sense to talk about the "initial goals of the movement".  But when I referred to initial goals I was thinking about some of the early definitions that focused on immediate availability of the published version of the article, with no subscription barriers and the ability to reuse the material for any purpose -- these, it seems to me, are the principles inherent in the original BBB declarations.  In addition, many of the early OA advocates talked about a complete revolution in how scholarly publishing is funded and some openly called for a complete end to the subscription based system, claiming that publishers had a moral  responsibility to "free" their literature.  Many librarians viewed OA as a means of eliminating or reducing what many saw as unfair  pricing policies.   This was the rhetoric that freaked out so many of the publishers.

NIH was careful to call its proposal "public access" to distinguish it from "open access" as understood in the way that I've just described it.  The policy does not provide immediate access, it does not provide access to the final version, it does not automatically provide for reuse in any format, and it does not appear to have dramatically weakened the existing system of scholarly publishing.

As Suber says, it does indeed make a great number of articles freely available after an embargo period, but I wouldn't call that one of the initial goals of the movement.  (And, it is also important to note that of the 80,000 articles per year that will be affected, many of them would have been made freely available after six months or a year anyway because they are published in society journals that already have such policies in place.  I haven't seen an analysis that shows what portion of the 80,000 would not have become available under existing journal policies).

Suber suggests, in the January 2 issue of SOAN, that one of the next goals should be shrinking the embargo period.  However, proponents of the NIH policy pointed out frequently that publishers should not be concerned about the policy's impact on subscriptions because of the embargo.  They claimed that the argument of the publishers that the policy threatened the viability of their journals was just a smokescreen because there was no evidence that libraries would engage in wholesale cancellations as long as the embargo was in place.  If OA advocates now set their sights on eliminating the embargo, aren't they opening themselves up to the charge of arguing in bad faith?  Wouldn't that justify the publishers' concerns that OA advocates were not being honest, but were merely using the NIH policy as an important stepping-stone on the way towards immediate open access?

Making the NIH public access policy mandatory is indeed a huge achievement, and those people who have worked very hard to get there should be rightfully pleased with their success.  But what comes next?   And will the arguments that will be used to advocate for the next set of goals be consistent with the arguments that were used to defend and advocate for the NIH policy?


Stevan Harnad


Other gains in the past month, besides the NIH mandate: The European Research Council mandate announced and the unanimous European University Association (791 universities, 46 countries) university mandate recommendation.

Next step: US university mandates. Once Green OA mandates prevail globally, embargoes will soon die their natural and well-deserved deaths. We will then have universal Green OA. Then comes the Gold OA (publishing) era sought by some, as subscriptions dwindle and become unsustainable, and with it will come the re-use rights, sought by others.

So a bit more patience, and first things first. Stay tuned.

Your ever relaxed and unhurried archivangelist,

Stevan Harnad

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