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A brief history of open access at Harvard

Published onJul 28, 2020
A brief history of open access at Harvard

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This is the first of two related posts. The second will describe our current thinking about open access. (Watch for it around Open Access Week, 2020.) We’re looking forward and want to start by showing where we’ve come from. 

For now, this brief history focuses mostly on Harvard’s thinking about subscription journal prices and Harvard’s open access (OA) policies. There are many other OA initiatives at Harvard we might add later, for example on courseware, data, digitization, open-source software, and publishing, as well as our partnerships with larger, multi-institutional initiatives. 

  • Harvard Library has long been concerned about the unsustainable prices of subscription journals. 

    • We cancelled the Elsevier big deal in 2004 and released a public statement about it. “The combined costs of Elsevier subscriptions far outrun even its closest competitors, while prudent cancellation decisions lead only to steeper fees. Like so many other institutions, Harvard's collections have become hostage to this situation. Declining the bundled agreement and intentionally reducing our outlay for Elsevier titles will ultimately give us the ability to respond to the marketplace unfettered by such artificial constraints.”

    • In 2010, Harvard submitted a response to a White House request for information. “Harvard not immune to the access crisis that motivates much of the campaign for public-access policies. In fact, the Harvard library system has gone through a series of serials reviews with substantial cancellations, and further cancellations will undoubtedly occur in the future.”

    • In 2012, Harvard submitted a response to a second White House request for information. “Even Harvard University, whose library is the largest academic library in the world, is not immune to the access crisis motivating much of the campaign for public-access policies. In fact, the Harvard library system has had to make a painful series of budget-driven journal cancellations, and we are deciding on a set of further cancellations at this very moment.”

    • Also in 2012, Stuart Shieber, Professor of Computer Science and then-Director of Harvard’s Office for Scholarly Communication, testified before the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. “The Harvard library system is the largest academic library in the world, and the fifth largest library of any sort. In attempting to provide access to research results to our faculty and students, the university subscribes to tens of thousands of serials at a cost of about 9 million dollars per year. Nonetheless, we too have been buffeted by the tremendous growth in journal costs over the last decades, with Harvard's serials expenditures growing by a factor of 3 between 1986 and 2004. Such geometric increases in expenditures could not be sustained indefinitely. Over the years since 2004 our journal expenditure increases have been curtailed through an aggressive effort at deduplication, elimination of print subscriptions, and a painful series of journal cancellations. As a researcher, I know that Harvard does not subscribe to all of the journals that I would like access to for my own research, and if Harvard, with its scale, cannot provide optimal subscription access, other universities without our resources are in an even more restricted position.”

    • Also in 2012, the Harvard Library Faculty Advisory Committee issued a public statement on the journal pricing crisis and OA. “Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive....Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices. These journals therefore claim an ever-increasing share of our overall collection budget. Even though scholarly output continues to grow and publishing can be expensive, profit margins of 35% and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles....[M]ajor periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. Doing so would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised....Costs are now prohibitive....”

  • All Harvard faculty members are covered by school-level OA policies. Harvard decentralization made it impossible to adopt a single, university-wide OA policy. Instead, nine Harvard schools adopted separate OA policies in separate votes over six years (2008-2014). They are equivalent in substance, and were all adopted by faculty votes. Here they are in chronological order, linking to the policies rather than the schools:

  • Harvard was the first US university to adopt an OA policy. It was the first in the world to adopt an OA policy by faculty vote rather than administrative edict. It was the first in the world where the faculty vote was unanimous (there have been about 60 others since then). It was the first university in the world to adopt a “rights-retention” OA policy, ensuring that authors and the institution held the nonexclusive rights needed to authorize OA. And it was the first in the world to include an opt-out or waiver option to preserve academic freedom. Today about 70 university OA policies around the world (in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia) are based on the Harvard model. 

  • To host the OA works covered the OA policies, Harvard launched its OA repository, Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (DASH) in 2009.

  • Harvard established the Office for Scholarly Communication (OSC) in 2009 to implement the OA policies and take the lead on other policies and practices to foster OA and scholarly communication. OSC is part of Harvard Library.

  • About the same time, OSC launched a Faculty Advisory Committee as a sounding board for its ideas.

  • OSC launched the Harvard Open-Access Publishing Equity (HOPE) Fund in September 2009. The HOPE Fund pays article processing charges (APCs) for Harvard affiliates who choose to publish in APC-based OA journals.

    • At the same time, OSC launched the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity (COPE), a program to foster best practices in university funds like the HOPE Fund.

  • Peter Suber has engaged in pro bono consulting on OA, first at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society (since 2009) and then at Harvard Library (since 2013). These consultations are with universities, libraries, funders, societies, publishers, governments, tool-builders, start-ups, and researchers. 

  • Peter Suber and Stuart Shieber released the first version of their book-length guide to good practices for university OA policies in 2012. They update it regularly.

  • OSC began providing OA through DASH to approved electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) in 2012, starting with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Most Harvard schools now take part. Some schools and departments also make undergraduate honors theses OA in DASH, or make it an option.

  • OSC launched its copyright advising program in November 2013, with Kyle Courtney as the first Copyright Advisor. The program advises OSC itself, Harvard Library, other libraries and units across the university, and individual researchers. It organizes events every year for Fair Use Week and Public Domain Day.

    • It launched the Copyright First Responders program, which has now spread to universities in Alaska, Arizona, California, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Oregon, Washington, and Rhode Island.

    • In December 2015, it launched the State Copyright Resource Center, showing the position of each of the 50 states (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) on the copyrightability of its public laws and government documents.

    • Kyle Courtney is also the co-author (with David Hansen) of the influential September 2018 white paper on controlled digital lending by libraries

  • The school-level OA policies only apply to faculty. In order to cover non-faculty researchers, some Harvard research centers have adopted center-level policies as well:

  • OSC launched the Distributed DASH Deposit (D3) program in early 2016. The goal is to recruit help from around the university – from librarians, faculty assistants, and department administrators – to deposit scholarly articles by Harvard authors in DASH, vet them for copyright compliance, and curate their metadata. We modified our repository software and workflow tools to support the distributed deposit model and ‘parallel processing’ represented by D3.

  • The OSC used grant funds to commission and edit two book-length pieces of research, published by Harvard Library in August 2016. One was on methods for flipping subscription journals to OA by David Solomon, Mikael Laakso, and Bo-Christer Björk (announcement). The other was on digitizing orphan works for OA by David Hansen (announcement).

  • To cover all Harvard-affiliated researchers not already covered by an OA policy – especially students, librarians, and administrators – the OSC adopted the voluntary Individual Open-Access License, June 7, 2018. 

  • We’ve taken several steps to advance research on COVID-19, and are considering new steps.

    • We’re fast-tracking Harvard’s COVID-related research into DASH. The first paper we fast-tracked (March 10, 2020) got 10.5k downloads in two days. In June 2020, the COVID-related papers in DASH were downloaded more than 207k times, causing DASH to break 1 million downloads that month, its biggest month ever.  This program is meeting real demand, and we are proud to be part of the solution.

    • Harvard Dataverse created a special COVID-19 Data Collection.

    • Kyle Courtney and the Copyright First Responders wrote fair-use guidance for professors moving their courses online, March 25, 2020.

    • Harvard University committed to the Technology Access Framework During the COVID-19 Crisis, April 2020.

Peter Suber is the Director of the Harvard Library Office for Scholarly Communication and Director of the Harvard Open Access Project.

Martha Whitehead is the Vice President for the Harvard Library and University Librarian.


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