Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) faculty voted unanimously March 18 to make the school’s scholarly research available for free on the internet, joining other noted universities that hope to encourage more scholarship and expand researchers’ audiences.

MIT’s approval of open access was driven partly by the rising cost of scholarly journals. In recent years, even the richest American universities have cut back on journal subscriptions that can cost as much as $20,000 annually, open-access experts said.

The open-access movement aims to put peer-reviewed research and literature on the internet for free and remove most copyright restrictions. Advocates believe this will invigorate more research across academia. 

MIT joins about 30 universities and colleges–including Harvard, Stanford, and Boston universities–that have approved some form of open-access model, said Peter Suber, an open-access advocate and national expert. MIT will institute open access university-wide, joining Boston University as the only schools to take that approach. Other campuses have implemented open access one department at a time.

The open-access mandate is not the first time MIT has grabbed attention with academic openness. MIT’s OpenCourseWare project has made classroom lectures, syllabi, and assignments available for free on the internet–a move lauded by many in higher education.

Publishing companies and organizations, including the Association of American Publishers (AAP), have opposed many open-access policies and mandates. In a Dec. 22 letter to the Obama administration’s transition team, the AAP opposed the National Institutes of Health’s Public Access Policy, which would make NIH-funded research available to the public free of charge in a digital archive.

AAP officials argued that NIH’s open-access model "effectively allows the NIH to unfairly compete directly with private-sector journal publishers in the distribution of peer-reviewed scientific journal articles that are authored by NIH-funded researchers."

The letter continued: "The NIH mandate thus severely diminishes both the market and copyright protection for these copyrighted works, to which not-for-profit and commercial publishers have made significant value-added contributions, and makes the NIH a free, alternative source of access to these materials in competition with the journal publishers’ subscription or other distribution models."

Hal Abelson, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at MIT who formed an open-access committee last summer, said the audience for faculty researchers has shrunk in recent years as fewer people have access to pricey journals.

"It just seems obvious to me that the way you support the progress of scholarship is that you make your works available as widely as possible," said Abelson, an MIT faculty member since 1969.

As the publishing industry has consolidated over the past 20 years, Abelson said, access to critical research papers has been restricted.

"The whole publishing process moves in a direction where it captures things and closes them off," he said.

Although other universities’ faculties have voted in support of open-access policies, MIT’s unanimous faculty vote means the school will begin making research available immediately. The process might be cumbersome, Abelson said, but the MIT library has begun opening access to other researchers, students, and the general public.

"I was really happy," Abelson said about the unanimous vote, adding that the open-access mandate has an opt-out clause for faculty. "We don’t often get a unanimous vote on anything."

Suber, a longtime open-access advocate and author of the blog Open Access News, said making the peer-reviewed literature available on the web would not take money from researchers’ pockets, because they typically aren’t paid to publish their research.

"They write for impact, not for money," he said. "They have an interest in finding the largest possible audience. … There is also the natural desire to take advantage of new technology."

But John Tagler, executive director of the AAP’s professional and scholarly publishing division, said the claim that open access is free is misleading. Although readers do not have to pay for the scholarly articles online, Tagler said, publishers still must bear the costs of peer reviewing and publishing the works.

"Open access just means the economic model has shifted," he said. "The costs have to be borne somewhere."

The rising prices of research journals have been exacerbated by the current economic crisis, which has affected campus endowments and operating budgets. Charles B. Lowery, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, wrote in a 2008 article that faculty have been frustrated by the dwindling supply of research material as libraries are forced to cut back.

"I would observe that there is really only one problem as the camps face off–academic libraries cannot afford to purchase the information that they need to deliver in order to satisfy the appetite of our teaching and research mission," wrote Lowery, a professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies.

Lowery said shrinking library budgets have limited the number of journals schools can buy every semester. Between 1991 and 2005, the University of Maryland’s library budget dropped from 4.7 percent of the total university expenditures to 3.1 percent.

The open-access battle between researchers and publishers has become contentious, Lowery said, sometimes distracting academia from the goal of making research available to everyone for free.

"The discussion is often uncivil and litigious, and generalizations are rife on both sides," Lowery wrote. "I think that lost in the rhetoric of this struggle is the primary goal that the academy has for its intellectual output–the broadest possible distribution."

Suber said there are at least a dozen more American universities considering some form of open-access mandate for campus research, including the University of California.

Links:

MIT

Open Access News

AAP open letter