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Does the UC Open Access Policy miss the mark? Depends on which mark.

Institutional open access policies often get a bad rap. Critics point to their lack of “teeth”; their poor compliance rates; their failure, thus far, to effect substantial change within the economically unsustainable and locked down scholarly publishing environment. Motivated by the desire to free all scholarship from publisher access restrictions and the equally ambitious goal of empowering all authors to retain rights to their scholarly publications, these policies struggle mightily under the weight of expectations.

But maybe we are expecting too much — or not enough.

While 100% policy compliance sounds admirable — and is always the implicit point of comparison for any lesser compliance rate (always in percentages!) — it is a narrow and arbitrary definition of success that relies entirely and exclusively on the metrics of policy participation to gauge effect. Let’s take a moment to consider some other measures of success, particularly in the setting of the University of California’s open access policy.

Hello World!

map-with-captionSo far, there have been over 27,000 scholarly articles deposited in eScholarship (UC’s open access repository and publishing platform) since the adoption of UCSF’s Academic Senate Open Access Policy in May 2012, followed by the UC systemwide policy (all 10 campuses) one year later. And these articles have since been accessed and read globally — indeed in all corners of the world: international cities, remote outposts and all points in between.

The work of collecting these articles has grown gradually, from a low-key phase of manual deposit (faculty filling in web forms), to a promising three-campus-piloted mechanism for automatically harvesting publication records and prompting faculty to deposit their manuscripts, to a full-blown expansion of this publication management system to all Senate faculty on the ten UC campuses, as of January 2016. We have only just begun to collect publications at full throttle, but already we see a significant uptick in policy participation thanks to this automated system.

Articles deposited in eScholarship - cumulative

The growth of this corpus of open publications reflects the expanding infrastructure to support this policy and the increasing awareness among faculty that the policy protects their interests as authors and researchers who seek to extend the reach of their work. The most popular articles deposited in eScholarship during the pilot phase of this implementation effort have already enjoyed the attention of hundreds — even thousands — of readers. In other words, there have been many points of access to material that remains otherwise gated behind publisher paywalls. We should expect THIS.

Making a difference — abroad and at home

Perhaps the most compelling arguments for open access policies, however, have nothing at all to do with the numbers but, instead, are driven by the anecdotal stories we hear of how open research makes a difference to people around the world. We encourage readers to share their circumstances and the significance of accessing open versions of UC-authored scholarly research in eScholarship. Here are a few responses, from international readers, that draw attention to the challenges faced by private researchers without university affiliations, scientists working in industry, and scholars at institutions with limited licensing budgets:

“I am a private consultant in forest ecology and I need access to research articles in the field — however, access can be expensive and value is difficult to ascertain without first reading the article. This is particularly frustrating given that research is usually funded by public monies! Closure of libraries in federal research labs here in Canada has made journal access more difficult for me. Happily, the ways of affordably accessing research articles is increasing … glad that UC faculty are doing this — lots of good research and it should be as widely available as possible!”
— Kevin Brown, 3/25/15

“As a professional archaeologist researching outside of academic employment and sometimes from Peru, my access to Latin American Antiquity online has been sporadic. I appreciate the facility provided by the U of C Berkeley to be able to reach this article directly, and the information is important to my current writing.”
— Ann H. Peters, 7/31/14

“I am absolutely convinced that the knowledge, the new scientific results cannot be restricted by paywalls especially in the case of public financed studies. On the other hand there is no justice as scientists pay for both publication fees and for subscriptions. All over the world the financing of scientific research (90%) comes from the public and these should be freely available……Congrats to Univ. of California!”
— Gabor Szebeni, researcher, Avidin biotechnology, Hungary, 7/28/15

“This semester, I am working on ‘Discourse Analysis of Written Language and Language Awareness’  (with a focus on English, its history and its varieties). We engage in looking at texts and genres, usually related to education topics. This article is a superb model — for analysis as an example of educational endeavor  — and, in the opening acknowledgment  of the copyright conditions it affords the readers an example of best practice, something with which we need to deal with from the outset of any course. Thank you.”
— Valerie S Jakar, Shanan Academic Teachers’ College, Haifa, Israel.

“It benefits me because my institution does not have access to the database where [this article] was hosted. Mak[ing] it free made its important information available to me.”
— Professor, Universidad del Mar, Mexico, 1/22/16

“It is very useful for me, as a researcher in a local institute of China, [with a] lack of academic library budgets.”
— Qizhang Long, 3/10/15

It turns out that we don’t have to leave the United States, however, to encounter the same stories of limited budgets, limited access, and a keen desire to be informed. Many of our “local” anecdotes paint a picture of a country struggling to provide adequate access to research for those who reside within cash-strapped universities — or outside academia altogether.

“I work at a public, state university where funding cuts are constantly causing journal subscription tightening and many of the major science journals have been cut because subscriptions are so expensive. Even though we can access them through interlibrary loan, I am used to doing research in short periods of time, so I really appreciate this faster access. Thank you so much!”
— Anonymous, 3/21/16

“Thank you for keeping information accessible and free!  I am a freelance science writer and have a hard time accessing a great deal of material due to the costs often associated with downloading articles.  This is a very bad precedent for our country: now not only do you have to have a computer to learn about scientific advances; you have to spend a great deal as well. Anyway, thank you for helping to make it possible for all of us to keep learning.”
— Gwendolyn Waring, 12/11/14

“Open access is vitally important to progress.  Entirely too many journals are only available to academics or employees of large companies.  In both cases a relatively wealthy institution pays the costs of access.   Freely available research results are important to technical progress and I appreciate UC for making their research results openly available. I hope that spreads to other universities.”
— Anonymous independent researcher, machine learning, 2/12/16

“It is frustrating to be teased by abstracts only to find you have to pay for the entire article if you want to read it in depth. I understand the commercial reasons why. Yet, how inspiring to know information of this caliber can be read for the almost-forgotten purpose of benefitting the whole.”
— Anonymous doctoral student, 4/8/16

“It is EVERYTHING to me to have access through the University of California System to academic articles. I have received access to at least six articles that I need to complete my capstone project for my M. Ed. I have listed only the most recent article — but thank you, thank you for your work in making this knowledge available to all free of charge. I could not have afforded to purchase the articles.”
— Therese Gibson, 11/1/15

“I live on a low income, and I’m so frustrated discovering an article that relates to my search interest, only to find that there’s a fee? Which of course, I cannot afford …”
— David Lucier, 1/30/16

Every one of the over 27,000 articles we have collected thus far under the auspices of UC’s open access policy represents an opportunity to spread knowledge beyond the artificially restrictive publishing marketplace that has both stressed academic library budgets and created a global population of have-nots who — by virtue of their place of employment, the financial limitations of their country/institution, or their own limited funds — struggle to gain access to fundamental (and often publicly funded) research. Clearly open access policies alone cannot solve this problem, but they can, and they often do, prompt frank conversations about fundamental issues like access and knowledge and funding and obligation among readers, researchers, librarians and publishers. We should expect THIS.

And don’t forget — authors now have rights!

Finally, in our preoccupation with low compliance rates for open access policies, we often forget to highlight the transformative rights declarations of these policies, which are purely independent of compliance and apply to all authors. Regardless of whether or not they deposit their articles in their local repository, authors at institutions with opt-out, rights-retention policies are no longer beholden to publishing agreements that vary from publisher to publisher, are hard to keep track of, and may leave authors with few — or no — rights in their own work. This is a big deal.

UC’s Academic Senate Open Access Policy declares that “each faculty member” grants the University “a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide license to exercise any and all rights under copyright relating to each of his or her scholarly articles, in any medium, and to authorize others to do the same.” By automatically granting a broad set of rights to the University, who then holds on to those rights for authors to use later, the policy constructs a worldview in which authors need not (and should not) completely relinquish their stake in their intellectual labor in order to publish — and in which publishers can no longer exclusively control the destiny of a publication. The only exception is among authors who opt out of the policy in order to work with a publisher who requires a policy waiver. But those are rare — and growing rarer. We should expect THIS.

No policy is an island

We err when we burden open access policies with sole responsibility for curing the ills of the scholarly publishing marketplace. And we err again when we judge the effectiveness of these policies solely by the rate with which the faculty deposit their articles in institutional open access repositories. If our goal is to increase access to scholarly research — and well it should be, given the stories we hear — we need to recognize that there are many paths to that end.

Open access policies with robust article deposit rates get a lot of research out there to be read — and the more research we can open up, the better. That’s why we are working so hard to grow the corpus of open publications at UC. But all open access policies, regardless of their compliance rates, create an opportunity to collect stories that give a voice to those communities of readers who don’t yet have access. And these stories, in turn, help naturalize the idea of openness by increasing awareness among authors who may not realize the missed opportunities they have (and the rights they possess) to reach new communities of readers.

Naturalizing the open scholarly communications environment is a gradual process, but this work has helped ease the way for other important interventions in this space, like SCOAP3 or the Open Library of the Humanities or federal funder mandates or OA2020. It has been eight years since the Harvard faculty adopted the first institutional open access policy in the United States, and many other policies have followed. Almost a decade into this institutional policy work, open access has become an expectation rather than an experiment. We should celebrate THIS.

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UC Senate OA Policy Explained