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    The University of California's Vote for Open Access Is a Step in the Right Direction

    Written by

    Lex Berko


    Image via Wikimedia Commons.

    In his 2008 “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” the late Aaron Swartz wrote:

    Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.

    He  called on students and others with access to paywalled materials to share by making copies and creating underground databases. “Sharing isn’t immoral,” he wrote, “it’s a moral imperative.”  

    Unfortunately, little has changed substantively in the five years since Swartz wrote his manifesto. There has been no overt revolution in the way we access academia. Access to academic journals is still a major hindrance for interested parties and the general public. A JSTOR password is still coveted and paywalls still block journalists, students, and even other researchers from accessing material that can tremendously expand our knowledge. 

    But that doesn’t mean things aren’t beginning to move toward openness. At the tail end of last month, the University of California confirmed an open access policy for future faculty publications to begin on November 1 of this year. After six years of both internal and external negotiations, all new academic papers will be placed in the University’s eScholarship archive, where they will be available to anyone who wishes to access them. UCSF has already been operating under a similar policy for the past year.

    This does not prohibit publications from printing faculty work. The policy simply adheres to the notion of open-access in that it offers a repository for journals free of charge to authors and is otherwise “agnostic with respect to where a Faculty member chooses to publish.”

    There is debate over whether or not this policy is actually significant. Does the opt-out option offered to faculty essentially make this policy ineffective? The institution acknowledges the potential lack of efficacy regarding this feature, but points out that opt-out models have higher levels of participation than opt-in and other alternatives. The University also adds that it can leverage its powerful output of over forty thousand journals a year in discussions with publishers better than an individual researcher might upon choosing to opt-out. This can assist those who are concerned about retaliation from journals to feel more confident in their decision to pursue an open access route for their scholarly findings.

    At this point, discussions like these are only speculation. Perhaps this will be a great stand against the monopolistic tendencies of publishers or perhaps it will be an open access dud.

    Whatever the outcome, one thing is increasingly clear: the dividing, packaging, and selling of knowledge ($32 an article!) is on the way out. Organizations like Creative Commons and the Alliance for Taxpayer Access are attempting to change the status quo. Even the United States government has recognized that the current situation is untenable by supporting public access to federally funded research.

    The issue is certainly more complicated than a binary of paywall versus open access suggests. As we pointed out two months ago, there are certain economic realities to publishing academic journals. Keeping a high editorial standard for a journal—crucial to the promotion and propagation of good science—is not cheap. Someone has to pay for it, whether it be readers or researchers. And while asking readers to shell out a pretty penny to read an article is problematic, so is asking researchers to pay exponentially more in order to have their research published.

    However, in designing a flexible policy that non-coercively pushes faculty towards an open access society, the University of California is indicating its dedication toward figuring out just how this conundrum can be solved. Even if this isn’t the ultimate answer to paywall woes, which it probably won’t be, it does show that it’s not just activists like Swartz that have been searching for alternatives to traditional methods of accessing knowledge. Now, the world’s biggest public research university is on the side of open access.