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Let’s not get too excited about the new UC open access policy

Michael Eisen, Professor of molecular and cell biology | August 3, 2013

It was announced today that systemwide Academic Senate representing the 10 campuses of the University of California system had passed an “open access” policy.

The policy will work like this. Before assigning copyright to publishers, all UC faculty will grant the university a non-exclusive license to make the works freely available, provide the university with a copy of the work, and select a creative commons license under which is will be made freely available in UC’s eScholarship archive.

A lot of work went into passing this, and its backers – especially UCLA’s Chris Kielty – are to be commended for the cat herding process required to get it though UC’s faculty governance process.

I’m already seeing lots of people celebrating this step as a great advance for open access. But color me skeptical. This policy has a major, major hole – an optional faculty opt-out. This is there because enough faculty wanted the right to publish their works in ways that were incompatible with the policy that the policy would not have passed without the provision.

Unfortunately, this means that the policy is completely toothless. It provides a ready means for people to make their works available – which is great. And having the default be open is great. But nobody is compelled to do it in any meaningful way – therefore it is little more than a voluntary system.

More importantly, the opt-out provides journals with a way of ensuring that works published in their journals are not subject to the policy. At UCSF and MIT and other places, many large publishers, especially in biomedicine, are requiring that authors at institutions with policies like the UC policy opt-out of the system as a condition of publishing. At MIT, these publishers include AAAS, Nature, PNAS, Elsevier and many others.

We can expect more and more publishers to demand opt-outs as the number of institutions with open/public access policies grows. In the early days of such “green” open access, publishers were pretty open about allowing authors to post manuscript versions of their papers in university archives. They were open because there was no cost to them. Nobody was going to cancel a subscription because they could get a tiny fraction of the articles in a journal for free somewhere on the internet.

However, as more universities – especially big ones like UC – move towards institutional archiving policies, an increasing fraction of the papers published in subscription journals could end up in archives – which WOULD threaten their business models. So, of course (and as I and others predicted a decade ago), subscription publishers are now doing their best to prevent these articles from becoming available.

So long as the incentives in academia push people to publish in journals of high prestige, authors are going to do whatever the journal wants with respect to voluntary policies at their universities. And so, we’re really back to where we were before. Faculty can make their work freely available if they want to – and now have an extra way to do it. But if they don’t want to, they don’t have to.

The only way this is going to change is if universities create mandatory open access policies – with no opt-outs or exceptions. But this would likely require actions from university administrators who have, for decades, completely ignored this issue.

So don’t get me wrong. I’m happy the faculty senate at UC did something, and I think the eScholarship repository will likely become an important source of scholarly papers in many fields, and the use of CC licenses is great. And maybe the opt out will be eliminated as the policy is reviewed (I doubt it). But, because of the opt out, this is a largely symbolic gesture – a minor event in the history of open access, not the watershed event that some people are making it out to be.

[Originally posted on my personal blog –]

Comments to “Let’s not get too excited about the new UC open access policy

  1. Hello Sir,
    I like your knowledge based blogs and You say “the incentives in academia push people to publish in journals of high prestige” is very intelligent thought in modern and advance world.
    Thanks for your Blogs.

  2. I agree with Michael – UC is not a major milestone. It has no teeth – unlike funder policies which seem to work (although we have no metrics for compliance) and certainly have jolted the legacy publishers (e.g. into offering CC-BY options which they hate). And I gather the policy took 6 years (?!)

  3. I left some comments on your blog, but the discussion seems to be a bit livelier here.

    Let me first say that (as you know) I’m a huge admirer of your work for increased access. Few have done more than you. It’s always encouraging to see your activism on the scene. I do however disagree with some of your premises.

    I’m an occasional consumer of the popular history books by recently tenured academics that you cited, in an earlier post, as an obstacle to enforced deposition.

    These popular books are a marvel of outreach, actually, and historians deserve respect and great credit for them. They’re fascinating, and they allow novices like me to become engaged with scholarly history. If you are not yourself a consumer of such books, as I suspect from the way you mostly discuss them as abstract entities mentioned in the official communications of the American Historical Association, then I do recommend you check them out. (If you’re all over the history section of Pegasus Books then I do apologize for the incorrect inference.)

    Possibly my favorite is The Forbidden Best-sellers of Pre-revolutionary France by Robert Darnton. The idea of forbidden best-sellers seems oddly apposite to this discussion.

    How is this not an academic freedom issue? Why should historians not view the process of commercializing their research, in printed form, the same way scientists and engineers view the process of commercializing their research via startups?

    You say “the incentives in academia push people to publish in journals of high prestige”. The incentives presumably meaning hiring committees, tenure committees, the Chinese Academy of Sciences offering cash bonuses for papers in the “most prestigious” journals, and so on. But all of those things are just trailing indicators of what academics are already doing. Academics all want their research to reach the biggest audience, make the largest splash, and make them as famous as possible.

    There is an element of denial and confirmation bias in the pro-OA voices claiming that academics only go to prestigious journals because of tenure committees. When readers start going to preprint archives for the hottest new papers instead of Science, Nature and Cell (as already happens to a large extent in physics, and will do inevitably in biology) then the metrics and incentives will follow.

    I’m far more interested in the vibrant ecosystem of startups that has sprung up over the last year or two, innovating & disrupting the fundamental process of peer review, than I am in top-down edicts saying “MEMO: All Departments must now use one of several recommended publishers”. Especially when those recommended publishers are awkward hybrids of 19th-century vanity presses with 20th-century peer review. We can do better, and not by enforcing uniformity through top-down fiat.

    • Ian-

      First of all, as you know, I do not support claiming intellectual property of any sort – patents, software copyright, etc… – on work carried out at the university. I believe the same standards should apply to any work produced as part of one’s academic endeavors.

      Second, unlike with copyright in their written work, which is owned by faculty/authors, patents, software copyrights and other related intellectual property generated at UC is owned by the university, not by the researchers who generated it. So your comparison is flawed.

      Finally, and most significantly, the opt out provision is not there to protect the very small number of authors who have a commercial interest in the works they produce as faculty. I was at many of the discussions of the policy, and by far the biggest reason it exists is to protect the right of faculty to publish in whatever journal they want to.

      I think the university has every right – and every reason – to demand that all work – ALL WORK – produced by its faculty be freely available. If you want to carve out a narrow exemption for authors of novels and works of popular non-fiction, I won’t object too strenuously, though I still think it’s a mistake.

      • I do indeed regard popular works as a special case. Those publishers add a lot more than peer review and a PubMed ID. But I think this is a fissure that threatens the entire structure of OA dogmatism. Where does “popular” end and “scholarly” begin?

        You say “ALL WORK [must] be freely available”. This is a grand pledge from the university to the world. But what about the university’s other pledges, e.g. to the people of California? Don’t they deserve a free education? How do we rank these pledges? Must the university disavow all profit incentives from tuition and research? Which is more important? Shouldn’t we break down these high-minded concepts a little, into more individually tractable ones?

        As a side note, I think disavowing the idea of intellectual property in an academic setting is as naive now as it was back when Howard Florey ceded IP control of penicillin production to big pharma. Others will patent if you don’t. Patent portfolios can be defensive weapons, as well as offensive weapons or rent-collection devices.

  4. The waiver rates are low at places like MIT and Harvard in part because compliance rates are dismal. I did a quick survey of papers published by faculty in Harvard’s MCB and found only ~1/10 papers in the system – and only 17 papers total from 2012.

    To truly “shift the default” deposition (even with a waiver) has to be compulsory, and there has to be some incentive for authors to shift their publishing practices or to put pressure on publishers to shift their policies. This policy does neither, and it is inevitable that, without further action, journals will insist on waivers, and most authors will comply willingly.

  5. Simple Way To Make UC OA Mandate Work

    Aside from the default copyright-reservation mandate with opt-out, always add an immediate-deposit clause without opt-out.

    The deposit need not be immediately made OA, but it needs to be deposited in the institutional repository immediately upon acceptance for publication. While access to the deposit is embargoed, the repository can implement the eprint-request Button with which users can request and authors can provide the sprint with one click each.

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