Enthusiasm for open access on the Harvard campus

As has been
elsewhere, the student-organized event
in the New Millennium: A Forum on Publishing in the
, which took place at Harvard University on November 9th, brought together a diverse panel of speakers to discuss the
changing world of biomedical research publishing.  Thanks to a fortunate coincidence of scheduling, I was in Boston and able to attend – although only just – it was standing-room only in the
auditorium, confirming the importance attached to this topic by students and faculty.

Much of the afternoon’s
discussion revolved around open access and associated issues. The benefits of open access were clearly laid out in an
opening keynote by Harold Varmus,
Nobel Laureate and former Director of the NIH.
campus-level perspective on open access was then provided by Stuart Shieber, Professor of Computing at Harvard and Isaac Kohane, Director
of Harvard Medical School’s
Library – both strong open access advocates.

Something which came across
clearly at this forum, and in related discussions with administrators and
faculty at Harvard and its neighbour MIT, is that open access is no longer
simply a matter for discussion. The question has become how best to achieve it, and concrete steps are being taken.


As one example, Kohane mentioned that, in the light by the low rate of compliance by authors with NIH’s
currently voluntary
Public Access
, Harvard
Medical School would be actively helping the process along by assisting faculty with the upload of  manuscript versions of their published articles to
NIH’s open access archive, PubMed
. On another front, as reported in the
Harvard Crimson, Stuart Shieber has put forward a motion to the Faculty
Council of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences calling for a faculty-wide
mandatory policy of open access. Over at MIT,
similar moves are


More broadly, there is increasing recognition that moves towards open access will require a fundamental shift in
how the communication of research findings is paid for. If full and immediate open access is to become
the norm,  then publishers’ subscription revenues will have to
be replaced with other revenue streams. The cost of the research publication process may best  be seen as an integral part of the cost of carrying out, and then disseminating, the research, rather than being a ‘content acquisition’ cost payable by the library. At Harvard, there is talk of
creating an Office of Research Communication that could help plan for and manage such a transition.


As previously noted on this blog, the UK Research Councils late last year issued a
guidance note on the payment of publication
, which paved the
way for institutions such as Nottingham University to set up central open access funds,
paid for using a share of indirect cost funding (payments received by universities from research funders to cover infrastructural expenditure etc).


Central funding of publication
costs has an important role to play in facilitating the growth of open
access publishing. If subscriptions are centrally supported (through
library budgets), yet open access publication costs are not, authors may be put
off by financial obstacles to open access publication, even when open access
journals offer a demonstrably more efficient and better value service.  BioMed
Central’s experience confirms that institutions which put in place a central
payment schemes (
such as BioMed
Central membership
) see an increased rate of growth in the uptake of open access
publishing, as compared to when authors are expected to pay publication charges
directly from their own grant funds.


To date, the National Institutes
of Health, the largest funder of biological and medical research in the United
States, has not yet issued any guidance regarding the applicability of indirect research funding for the
central payment of research communication costs such as publication fees.
Explicit confirmation from NIH, and other major US funders, that indirect costs can be used in this way could help to accelerate the growth of open access at
Harvard, MIT and other US campuses, by facilitating  the creation of central open access funds. We see this as an important next step in the overall shift towards a sustainable and scaleable open access publishing model.


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