Harvard Libraries join the fight for open access

A few months ago, I wrote about the problems with academic publishing:

These days, there's an entire industry of academic publishers that have become so fully integrated into the research system that many scientists don't realize that there's any distinction between doing science and publishing in journals. However, these journals cost an enormous amount of money (mostly public tax dollars), yet add little value to scientific research, while simultaneously slowing the pace of discovery and limiting the dissemination of knowledge.

Many individual scientists have taken personal action to combat this problem (the most effective of which is a boycott of Elsevier led by mathematician Timothy Gowers), but individual action is not enough to break through the institutional barriers that give the monopoly to these academic publishers. That's why I was thrilled to read today that my University has decided to put its considerable institutional weight behind the push for open access:

Exasperated by rising subscription costs charged by academic publishers, Harvard University has encouraged its faculty members to make their research freely available through open access journals and to resign from publications that keep articles behind paywalls.

A memo from Harvard Library to the university's 2,100 teaching and research staff called for action after warning it could no longer afford the price hikes imposed by many large journal publishers, which bill the library around $3.5m a year.

This could be a game changer. Harvard's name alone commands attention, and if a university with such an enormous endowment is labeling costs as unsustainable, other institutions are bound to take notice.

Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a US-based international library membership organisation, said other universities may follow Harvard's lead.

"Highlighting the role of the faculty is exactly what we need to do. Libraries have been trying to ring the alarm bell about this for a while, but it's the faculty members who are the producers and consumers of the articles. They have got the keys to making significant change in this market. Having Harvard call this out in front of the faculty is a very significant move."

Though open access journals aren't my desired end-point, I think they're a critical starting point in changing the system, and will help pave the way forward. I don't usually brag about going to Harvard, but I'm proud of my school today. Here's hoping others start to follow suit.