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A 'public option' for scholarship

Campus extends commitment to 'open access' publishing, forming five-school compact to help researchers make their work more widely available... for free

| 02 October 2009

Open access graphic(Hulda Nelson image)

In January 2008, with library collection funds flat and scholarly-journal costs soaring, the campus launched the Berkeley Research Impact Initiative (BRII), a pilot program to subsidize scholars who choose to make their work available online at no cost to readers.

Now, as even Ivy League institutions find themselves on shaky financial ground, four elite private universities have joined Berkeley in a commitment to so-called "open access" journals. Declaring that "the economic downturn underscores the significance of open-access publications," Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Berkeley have formed a five-member compact aimed at providing "barrier-free access to information" — from DNA-sequencing data to medical research to sociological studies — to academics and the general public alike.

The traditional business model for academic publishing — that is, for-profit journals owned by publishing giants like Elsevier and Springer, which lock their content behind often-hefty subscription rates and download fees — "is creating new walls around discoveries," explains University Librarian Tom Leonard. "Universities can really help take down these walls, and the open-access compact is a highly significant tool for the job."

With Beth Burnside, then the campus's vice chancellor for research, Leonard launched the BRII, offering to subsidize the fees charged to researchers by such open-access publishers as the for-profit BioMed Central and the nonprofit Public Library of Science (PLoS), founded by a group of scientists that includes Berkeley evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen. The program also covered up to half the amount charged by so-called hybrids, pay-for-access journals that give authors the option of making their work freely available immediately upon publication.

Shifting costs to producers

Under the new compact, all five universities promise to underwrite "reasonable publication charges" for faculty-written articles in open-access journals when such fees — essentially, a shift of publication costs from consumers of information to producers — are not covered by the funder of the research grant or contract. (In its first 18 months, the BRII ended up subsidizing just 16 percent of open-access articles by Berkeley authors published by BioMed Central and 25 percent of those by PLoS, whose contents can legally be copied and redistributed under Creative Commons licensing protocols.)

Berkeley will fulfill its compact pledge by extending the BRII for another year. Beth Weil, head librarian for the campus's Marian Koshland Bioscience and Natural Resources Library, says Berkeley's program covers a broader range of journals than, say, Harvard's new fund — an effort, she explains, "to encourage our authors and editors to experiment with open access and new business models."

She cites as examples two journals edited by Berkeley faculty: Environmental Research Letters, an open-access journal now in its third year of publication under energy expert Dan Kammen, and the venerable Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,, or PNAS, headed by Randy Schekman, a professor of cell and developmental biology. A paid-subscription "society" journal, PNAS, now offers an "open access option" to authors who prefer to have their articles posted online immediately at no charge to users.

University Librarian Tom LeonardUniversity Librarian Tom Leonard (Peg Skorpinski)

Over the 18 months of the pilot program, the BRII allocated just over $70,000 to defray the publishing costs of 52 articles by Berkeley researchers, of which 27 appeared in conventional open-access journals and 25 in so-called hybrids like PNAS. The median reimbursement amount was $1,500 for open-access journals and $1,280 for hybrids. Roughly one-third of the beneficiaries were full or associate professors; most came from the junior research ranks, such as assistant professors, postdocs, and grad students.

The campus's ongoing commitment to open access, says Weil — who serves on the PLoS board of directors — means the new compact is "more of a game-changer for open access than it is for Berkeley." But given the financial pressures facing academic-research libraries nowadays, she adds, the need to find ways of making scholarly work freely available online is greater than ever before.

Galloping inflation

While the Berkeley library's collections budget has been spared from cuts the past few years, its operating budget this year was chopped 18 percent, or nearly $1.7 million, according to Associate University Librarian Chuck Eckman. Now, beset with galloping inflation in journal prices, the library plans to trim its collections budget by $1.3 million over the next two years.

The library spends about $6.3 million annually on journals alone, reports Eckman, who notes that a year's worth of open-access subsidies represents just 1 percent of that total. The numbers, he adds, suggest that "now is the time to rethink fund flows in creative ways that might remove barriers to access."

Peter Suber, a fellow at Harvard's Office for Scholarly Communication who writes about open access for the Washington, D.C.-based Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), was among those who applauded the compact, calling universities' support for open-access journals "an investment in a superior system of scholarly communication."

"Before this compact, a number of funding agencies and universities were willing to pay [open-access] journal processing fees on behalf of their grantees and faculty," he said. "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."