Open Access: Where does it come from, what does it mean?

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Post 2 in a series dedicated to Open Access Week, which began yesterday, October 19. Today’s post explores some of the background and changing dynamics in the open-access movement.

A seminal event in the open-access movement was the crafting of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) which arose from a small meeting convened in Budapest by the Open Society Institute (OSI) on December 1-2, 2001. The goal of the meeting was to advance the international effort to make scientific and scholarly journal literature freely available on the internet.

What distinguishes BOAI from other similar initiatives is that it focuses specifically on peer-reviewed research literature and that free access to this literature should depend on author consent, not just in response to user needs or preferences. Furthermore, it is equally committed to open-access journals as well as to self-archiving in the form of pre-prints.

The focus here is on writings that scientists and scholars are freely giving away to academic journal publishers. If the material is freely given, then it should be freely accessible for public use as well.

This is not a new concept by any means. SPARC (The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), the primary international force behind the open-access movement, was developed by the ARL (Association of Research Libraries) back in 1998. Its membership now includes over 800 institutions from around the world.

Since that time, the proliferation of the internet has certainly propelled the advancement of open-access along with it. The impact of projects such as Google Books, began in 2004, has brought considerable attention to the question of free and open access to printed materials. By early 2007, Google had digitized one million books online. Earlier this month Google announced that it had exceeded 10 million. And not only books are included, since as of last year some popular magazines such as Life, Ebony, and Popular Mechanics have been added as well.

Undoubtedly this extent of open access availability from Google Books and other sites makes a strong impression, if not on scholars then certainly on students. Open Access Week after all stems from a student-led “national day of action” that occurred in 2007 that was followed last year by Open Access Day.

The proliferation and improvement of open source software has been another driving force during this same period. DSpace, the open source institutional repository software package created by MIT and HP is a case in point. First released in 2004, it now lists over 700 installations worldwide providing a relatively easy out-of-the-box solution for institutions to offer self-archiving capabilities to members of their communities.

In fact the UML Libraries will soon join that list of active DSpace sites by hosting our own institutional scholarly repository. We expect to have our installation up and running and publicly accessible by the beginning of this coming Spring semester in January 2010.

In terms of educating and influencing scholars themselves, probably the biggest development occurred last year in January 2008 when major legislation was signed into law by the U.S. government that requires that all article publications resulting from research funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) must be provided to the NIH for inclusion in their PubMed repository where it will be made publically accessible within 12 months of publication.

Finally, the very next month Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences unanimously adopted a Scholarly Publishing commitment that requires faculty members to give copies of their published articles to the university for deposit in an institutional repository, along with a non-exclusive license to distribute. Faculty members, however, have the ability to “opt out” of the policy, so it isn’t ironclad, but it is a stunning development nonetheless. The new policy made Harvard the first university in the United States to mandate open access to its faculty members’ research publications.

Since then, the Harvard Law School followed suite in May of last year followed by the Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government this year. In addition, in March of this year MIT faculty voted unanimously to approve a resolution that allows MIT to freely and publicly distribute research articles they write. The resolution makes MIT the first entire university to commit to making its faculty’s research papers publicly available.

It’s these last events that mandate participation that should truly force a tidal change. As federal stimulus money has flowed through the NIH this past year, more and more faculty researchers and institutions are forced to be aware of the public access issues and options.

Requirement is surely the key, for without that influence of force, compliance with open access is marginal and therefore ineffective. Prior to Congress’s enactment of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, NIH initiated a program requesting that NIH-funded investigators voluntarily submit an electronic version of a published article manuscript to the NIH. After nearly year, as a SPARC white paper explains, “the rate of compliance with its request for public access was below 4%.” (“Complying with the National Institutes of Health Public Access Policy.” Feb 2008. p3). As the NIHMS statistical graph below indicates, compliance with manuscript submissions rose consistently immediately following enactment of the law in January 2008.

Monthly Aggregate Submission Statistics

Open Access Week — Oct. 19 – 23, 2009

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Open Access bannerToday starts the beginning of Open Access Week. Last year began what is now an annual event with Open Access Day. The event’s expansion after its first year is testament to the growing enthusiasm and commitment to the movement for free and immediate online access to scholarly research.

This year over 200 sites worldwide — colleges, universities, research institutes, and advocacy organizations — will host events to promote awareness of and support for Open Access. For detailed information about Open Access and the planned events for this week, visit the web site.

What is Open Access? For starters you can check out this 3-minute animated Open Access 101 video developed by SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), the organizers of Open Access Week.

For a more detailed explanation, you can read the “Open Access Overview” by Peter Suber, Senior Researcher at SPARC and Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College. As the Overview states, “Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” Of course beyond that simple criteria exists many complicated questions about publishing costs, the peer-review process, and copyright controls. All of these issues are covered extensively by Suber in his Overview as well as regularly in his blog “Open Access News,” and SPARC newsletter.

Momentum is certainly building in the world of open-access, driven in large part by the combination of rising journal costs, but perhaps even more significantly by the motivation to provide unfettered access to scholarship and research. To better serve that social need, the U.S. government has enacted legislation, university libraries have established scholarly repositories, and faculty groups have mandated commitments to open access publishing.

I will add more specifics about these different initiatives and what we are doing here in the UML Libraries in support of open access in a set of daily writings on the topic that I will post this week.