Open access, copyright wars and the Trojan horse

On our recent trip to Turkey, I happened to be wearing a SPARC open access t-shirt on the day we visited the site of ancient Troy, and my wife took a picture of me holding a model of the Trojan horse with the t-shirt.  How one views the Trojan horse, of course, is a matter of perspective.  To the Trojans it was a nasty trick, but to the Greeks it was a new way to gain access that had previously been denied.

I bring this up because of the coincidence with the forum on the Georgia State copyright case that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, also while we were in Turkey.  A number of the participants, myself included, suggest that the open access movement is the way to respond to aggressive copyright enforcement in the scholarly publishing industry.  It is worth considering the various ways in which open access is a Trojan horse solution for scholarly communications — the movement that launched a thousand journals and burnt the topless towers of Elsevier, so to speak.

Last week the Duke University Libraries announced the launch of its first library-sponsored open access journals on the Open Journal System platform.  Both of these small journals — one a long-standing publication and the other a new, international collaboration — are edited by Duke faculty members and are fully peer-reviewed.  The OJS system automates many of the administrative tasks of the journals, adding greater efficiency to the volunteer editorial labor that has always been the core of scholarly journal production.  For authors who publish in these journals, the two great difficulties in scholarly communication — copyright management and access to the greatest number of readers — are solved; authors retain their copyrights and are free to do with their articles whatever they believe serves their needs and interests best, while potential readers have unfettered access.  The Libraries bear the small cost of administering the technology as a service to Duke and to the wider community of scholars.

These journals add to a series of efforts toward open access made by the Duke Libraries and the Duke faculty.  In 2010 the faculty adopted an Open Access policy to facilitate greater “reach for their research” and to provide access to those who cannot, for various reasons, rely on the traditional model of restricted, subscription-based access.  The Libraries have been developing the DukeSpace repository in order to make the vision expressed by the faculty in that policy into a reality.  Last fall, Duke also implemented a COPE Fund (Compact for Open access Publishing Equity) designed to help authors pay article processing fees if they decide that publishing in an “author-pays” open access journal is the best choice for them.  The COPE fund is a joint project underwritten by the Libraries and the Provost’s Office; it has seen steady, but not overwhelming, requests for assistance from faculty authors.

We are proud of these initiatives at Duke, but we recognize that none of them are unique.  Many institutions are adopting some or all of the same strategies.  The point is that these efforts really do remove the conflicts about which so much has been written in the past few days (much of it by me).  Insofar as I have have suggested nightmare scenarios, open access avoids them all.  If scholarly authors insist on retaining their copyrights, even when they publish in traditional journals, the problem of having that copyright enforced against the scholars’ own interests simply does not arise.  If they retain rights to post in an open access repository, the access problems, whether they involve electronic reserves, faculty posting in a course management system, or inter-library loan, simply do not arise.  And if more scholarly articles are just published directly as open access works, either in free open access journals like the ones the Duke Libraries have just launched, or in an author-pays journal with the support of a COPE fund, these problems once again simply do not arise.

Is open access a Trojan horse?  Not really.  The Trojan horse was meant to deceive, while the open access movement has always been honest and up-front about its goals.  But it is still true that traditional publishers have proved, through a series of actions designed to increase their own revenues at the expense of higher education, to be poor stewards of the copyrights and the scholarship that we have long entrusted to them.  The metaphor of a war has, unfortunately, begun to surface in the debate.  But there are also articles like this one, in which a researcher points in a more irenic direction, suggesting that open access is the future of scholarly publishing. The variety of open access mechanisms that are being initiated now, and the yet-unknown ones that will be tried in the future, offer an opportunity to cut short the war and put the management of scholarship into the hands that can best serve the overall interests of research and teaching, those of the scholarly authors themselves.

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