On Sept. 14, Cornell University, Dartmouth, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of California-Berkeley (UC Berkeley) announced their joint commitment to a compact for open access (OA) publication. The compact, which other universities are invited to sign, is located at www.oacompact.org. The compact for open access publishing equity supports equity of the business models by committing each university to "the timely establishment of durable mechanisms for underwriting reasonable publication charges for articles written by its faculty and published in fee-based open-access journals and for which other institutions would not be expected to provide funds."
The motivation for the compact can be found in the article "Equity for Open-Access Journal Publishing" published in the open access journal Public Library of Science Biology. According to Stuart M. Shieber, Harvard's James O. Welch Jr. and Virginia B. Welch professor of computer science and director of the university's Office for Scholarly Communication, is the author of the five-member compact. "I propose a simple, cost-effective remedy to this inequity that would put open-access publishing on a path to become a sustainable, efficient system, allowing the two journal publishing systems to compete on a more level playing field. The issue is important, first, because academic institutions shouldn't perpetuate barriers to an open-access business model on principle and, second, because the subscription-fee business model has manifested systemic dysfunctionalities in practice. After describing the problem with the subscription-fee model, I turn to the proposal for providing equity for open-access journal publishing-the open-access compact."
In the press release announcing the compact, Thomas C. Leonard, university librarian at UC Berkeley, notes that "Publishers and researchers know that it has never been easier to share the best work they produce with the world. But they also know that their traditional business model is creating new walls around discoveries. Universities can really help take down these walls, and the open-access compact is a highly significant tool for the job."
"Supporting OA journals is an investment in a superior system of scholarly communication," says Peter Suber of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) in Washington, DC, and a Fellow of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center and Harvard University's Office for Scholarly Communication. "Before this compact, a number of funding agencies and universities were willing to pay OA journal processing fees on behalf of their grantees and faculty. It's significant that five major universities recognize the need to join the effort, extend fee subsidies to a wider range of publishing scholars, enlist other institutions, and start to catch up with their long practice of supporting traditional-or non-OA-journals."
While the economic downturn might signal the rationale behind this movement, this interest in redefining the publishing process is a natural and logical extension of the interest that these five institutions have historically shown to examining the scholarly communication process and seeking alternatives. While only one, MIT, has established an institutionwide commitment to institutional repositories, the rest, such as Stanford's HighWire Press as just one example, demonstrate this interest to finding more effective ways to disseminate research.
"Two of the five universities (Harvard and MIT) who have signed COPE [Compact for Open Access Publishing Equity] are to be applauded," observes Stevan Harnad, longtime OA advocate, "for putting their total refereed research output where their mouth is by mandating that it must all be made OA (through Green OA self-archiving) today."
As noted by Shieber in the PLoS article, "Journals with a hybrid open-access model or a delayed open-access model would not be eligible. Hybrid and delayed open-access journals already receive revenue through subscription charges, even for the articles that they make freely available. Publishers of hybrid journals sometimes maintain that they will prorate their subscription prices based on the proportion of articles not available open access." As he observes, "Springer says of its ‘Open Choice' hybrid program, ‘Springer plans to continue to evaluate its journal subscription prices on a yearly basis, based on a number of factors, including the amount of subscription-model content being published.'"
However, according to Shieber, "Even an institution that covered hybrid fees for all articles emanating from it would, at best, see a tiny compensating reduction in subscription fee. Consequently, the hybrid approach is subject to a ‘tragedy of the commons'; if all institutions participated fully, all would see subscription fees disappear, but no single institution sees any observable direct benefit by participation. It seems inappropriate to support a transitional business model with such an inherent flaw in its design."
But, Harnad notes, "The reason universities are cash-strapped and can only afford to buy Gold OA for a tiny fraction of their total refereed research output is that their cash is currently committed to journal subscriptions that are providing whatever access they can afford for their own users today."
The compact, however, is short on details. The compact only refers to a "contact us" for details on what it takes to become a participating signatory university. Moreover, "a signatory university will need to make choices about how exactly to implement the compact, how funds will be provided, under what conditions, and with what limitations," according to the compact FAQ. Further, "Compact institutions will require some time to put in place mechanisms to fund open access publication charges. Some may choose to place other conditions on what constitutes timely establishment, for instance, a critical mass of co-signers, prior establishment of an open-access policy at the institution, or other governing conditions."
Summing up the compact, MIT provost L. Rafael Reif observes, "The dissemination of research findings to the public is not merely the right of research universities: it is their obligation. Open-access publishing promises to put more research in more hands and in more places around the world. This is a good enough reason for universities to embrace the guiding principles of this compact."