When Free Access to Research Is Mandated by Law

My hope for 2008 is that Stevan Harnad will prove prophetic once again, this time by declaring this the year of the mandate, or as he puts it with his notable precision, “the year of institutional Green OA self-archiving mandates.” For those colorblind to Harnadian distinctions, the mandates in question have been enacted by research funding agencies (21 to date) and a few institutions and require researchers receiving funding from those agencies (or working at those institutions) to deposit an electronic copy of their published work in an online archive so that it is freely available typically 12 months after it was originally published.

Coming into 2008, archiving mandates are in place for both the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the U. S. National Institute of Health. Given that the NIH has an annual budget of $28 billion leading to 80,000 articles annually, this particular mandate has all the makings (and weight surely) of a tipping point (with credit going to Heather Joseph, Director of SPARC, who led the fight in Washington on the NIH policy, as well as other strong archiving advocates, such as Peter Suber and Stevan Harnad).

The archiving mandate may seem to strike the perfect balance among three of the critical factors at issue in scholarly communication at this point. The posting of the articles leads to greater openness in science; it doesn’t violate the academic freedom of researchers (who are free to publish anywhere); and it protects the business side of scholarly publishing. Or does it? Well, the American Association of Publishers says the NIH manadate threatens their interests, even though it is designed to protect the value of journal subscriptions, both by delaying the availability of the copy for typically 12 months after publication and by allowing the posting of only the “electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts,” as the NIH policy puts, it, rather the publisher’s official final version.

While I’d love to add further points to Peter Suber’s already effective rebuttal of the publisher’s position, as well as consider not always salutary implications of archiving for establishing two-tiered access to scholarship, let me save all of that for a future blog post. It is going to be the year of the mandate, after all. What’s needed at this point, far more urgently than critical musings, are some ideas for kindling a little more faculty interest and enthusiasm on university campuses for archiving scholarly work, whether it is mandated by a funding agency or not.

The mandates have proven necessary because of a certain indifference and lack of awareness among faculty members of the scholarly benefits of open access as it can “help advance science and improve human health” as the NIH mandate puts it. It falls, then, to those who can see the value and good of greater access to help their colleagues realize that archiving is more than just another bit of bureaucratic bumph thrown in their path, slowing down their scholarly productivity.

Here, then, are a couple of ideas for faculty or students, for concerned lawyers, teachers and members of the public, that build on this mandate idea in making more of the good work produced by a given university available to readers everywhere.

The first step is to ask whether the university has an archive available for posting this work, such as TSpace at University of Toronto, or the new cIRcle at UBC (both using free software DSpace). If there appears to be no archive or institutional repository, just send this column along to the librarian and ask whether thought is being given to joining the close to a thousand institutions that currently provide repositories for the posting and indexing of scholarly work.

The next step is to help the institution make sure that, whether researchers face an archiving mandate or not, people know why they should archive. The archive, as well as any emails sent out about the archive, should have links to a webpage that does its best to inform and encourage faculty and students by presenting the basic case for increasing access to research in this way. That page could look something like this and do feel free to use these examples:

    Reasons to Archive Journal Articles

    (a) Archiving advances the very spirit of openness and exchange that is basic to scholarship, as it demonstrably increases the readership and citation of work that is made freely available, according to a continuing series of studies;

    (b) Archiving contributes to current efforts (e.g., INASP) to ensure that scholars worldwide have access to more of the research which their institutions would otherwise not be able to afford;

    (c) Archiving is currently permitted (whether there are mandates in place or not) by the majority of journal publishers (including such major players as Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and Sage) with the publishers’ archiving policies now part of a convenient database that can be readily searched and consulted;

    (d) Archiving can be further ensured and the author’s intellectual property rights further asserted, through alternative licensing agreements that researchers are now using with publishers when their articles are accepted;

    (e) Archiving is now being mandated, out of a recognition for what it contributes to the circulation of knowledge, by a number of funding agencies and institutions;

    (f) Archiving is part of a larger movement to increase access to knowledge that also includes alternative forms of open access publishing for journals and conference papers, involving dedicated open access publishers (e.g. BMC), university libraries (e.g. UBC ) or groups using open source software (e.g. DpubS), while at the same time, this new spirit of openness is contributing to open data (e.g., Dataverse Network) and open notebook science (e.g. Useful Chem) initiatives.

There’s certainly more that can be done to make the case for archiving among faculty and students, just as there are still difficult questions to face in how scholarly communication is to be reshaped within this new medium in ways that maximize access and exchange. This is but a starting point in seeing in the year of the open access mandate –- sorry, the “year of the institutional Green OA self-archiving mandate” -– and in making the most of what this scholarly work can do for the greater public good.


  1. Open Source Softwares for Creating Open Access Repositories

    Just want to point out that DSpace is not the only free Open Access Institutional Repository-creating software! There is also Southampton’s EPrints, the very first of the free OA softwares, and also the one from which MIT’s DSpace itself was derived (by the same Southampton University PhD, Rob Tansley). Likewise used worldwide, EPrints is (in my opinion) the free OA software that is the most powerful and best adapted for the continuously evolving developments of OA (lately not just mandates, but also research impact metrics).

    Stevan Harnad

  2. Thanks for the link to UsefulChem. The table of contents of all experiments is now available at:

  3. Excellent article John, your quality summary of the open access issue and the benefits associated with it will help in spreading awareness and advocating freedom and open-access – both at my institution (University of Regina) and across North American institutions.

    I might advise stating point (A) a little stronger. Even though you do mention the increased citation rate of open-access articles, perhaps including an example from one of the studies (such as the percent increase in citation rate for open access articles as opposed to a non-open equivalent) will help grab the attention of the open-access-agnostic and pique their interest.

  4. Jean-Claude Guédon

    Excellent summary of the whole situation, John. Like you, I believe we are approaching a tipping point. Now, what is needed is a series of incentives that will reinforce the mandate and will help wrestle the capacity to define quality or even excellence through repositories. OA journals that do not ask upfront payments from someone, be it an author or, more commonly a proxy for the author(s), actually behave like subject repositories with a peer-review system and the capacity to monitor their impact. The equation can be turned around ans lead to repositories building to the level where they too apply some degree of peer-review and metrics measurements. This will require better networking among groups of repositories, but this is not beyond reach. Then, the gold and the green road will not only converge, but will also reinforce each other.