Our professors do the research. They write the papers and proofread them. They even do the peer review. Then they sign the copyright over to publishers, who don’t pay them a dime—they’re paid by grants and salary, our taxes, and tuition.
Harvard then pays again for the journals—many of them over $10,000 each—and most of us feel personally the bite each term when we buy our sourcebooks. Many of these cost upwards of $100 not because they’re on paper rather than online (printing costs pennies a page), but because of the fees charged by publishers like Elsevier (1,387 journals ranging across academia) and Wiley (348 journals), some higher than $1 per page.
That’s three ways we pay for the same research, writing, proofreading, and peer review. Even Harvard has found the cost too high, and has cut down on its subscriptions.
This same issue of access to scholarship hits even harder on people outside of our well-funded elite universities. Most universities cannot begin to afford the journal prices for which even Harvard strains to pay. Individuals seeking to navigate with their loved ones the bewildering complexity of treatments for serious disease are shut out from the sources their doctors read, and those looking to learn about public-policy issues like global warming are denied access to critical research. Most urgently, for researchers and policymakers in the developing world, access to knowledge can mean life or death for millions suffering from AIDS and other diseases.
Change is slow, however, because this situation perpetuates itself. Young researchers shooting for tenure must publish their best work in the most prestigious journals, and a journal’s prestige depends in turn on the research it publishes. The resulting chicken-and-egg problem for any new journal creates a powerful barrier to entry that enables publishers of established journals like Theoretical Computer Science or Gene to charge oligopoly prices out of all proportion to the work they actually perform.
If this situation sounds ridiculous to you, you’re not alone. Leading academics in fields as diverse as biology, computer science, and law have spoken out and taken action for “open access” which includes novel publishing models that do not set up barriers to access, models where neither Wiley nor Elsevier nor even the American Chemical Society restricts the dissemination of academic research.
In 2003, Donald Knuth, a laureate of computer science’s highest honor, the Turing Award, wrote a long letter to his colleagues on the editorial board of Elsevier’s Journal of Algorithms in protest of climbing prices and restrictions on access. After consultation, they followed a dozen other journals’ editors before them by resigning en masse and forming a new open-access journal with a friendlier publisher. Similarly, the Open Access Law Program has 34 law journals (and counting), pledged to making the legal scholarship they publish freely available.
Other researchers, in fields from philosophy to biology, have gone further still, setting up new peer-reviewed journals founded on open access. Among these are top journals in some fields, including the Journal of Machine Learning Research founded at MIT and flagship journals PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine of the Public Library of Science led by Nobel laureate and former National Institute of Health director Harold Varmus. A handful (like the PLoS journals) are funded from their authors’ research grants; the rest operate on minimal university or foundation subsidies or even on no budget at all—after all, at any journal the real work is done by unpaid authors, editors, and reviewers.
Many physicists and mathematicians now go furthest of all, resolving the access question on their own: Even before submitting to a journal, they make all of their work freely available at the repository www.arxiv.org, providing inestimable benefits to the rapid communication of one result and advancement to the next. Similarly, computer scientists almost universally put their papers on their personal, school-based websites. Peer review is as important as ever—nobody gets credit for work that doesn’t pass that scrutiny—but as these scientists have discovered, it doesn’t have to get in the way of open access.
Students can make several big contributions to this movement. Members of Congress need to hear from their constituents in support of the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), a bipartisan bill to make taxpayer-funded published research—most scientific work in the U.S.—freely available. Students can explain to their professors why they should publish in open access journals when available, and better yet why the University should establish a freely-available repository for all Harvard researchers’ work. Best of all, seniors can set an example now by making their theses available to the world at www.hcs.harvard.edu/thesis. Each of us can show politicians, faculty members, and present and future colleagues that we value open access to academic research. It’s up to us to say it: Knowledge is for everyone.
Gregory N. Price ’06-’07 is a mathematics concentrator in Mather House. Elizabeth M. Stark is a third-year at Harvard Law School. The authors are the founding members of Harvard College Free Culture.