I very occasionally hear expressed a concern about the Harvard open-access policy that it violates some aspect of academic freedom. The argument seems to be that by granting a prior license to Harvard, faculty may be forced to forgo publication in certain venues.  Our rights as scholars to determine the disposition of particular articles would thus be assailed by the policy.

A requirement to publish or refrain from publishing in particular venues would certainly infringe on academic freedom. But the Harvard policy leaves choice of whether and where to publish fully in the hands of authors. The policy allows for the license to be waived for any article at the sole discretion of the author. (Obtaining a waiver involves filling out a web form at the OSC web site with some metadata about the article. The process takes about 20 seconds.) This “opt-out” provision makes the policy consistent with libertarian principles. The policy manifests “libertarian paternalism” in the sense of Sunstein and Thaler.

Of course, one could attempt to argue that even that 20-second web form serves as an impediment to one’s free choice of where to publish. Presumably, the seconds required to fill out copyright transfer forms for closed-access journals, the costs of having to negotiate use rights for one’s own articles published in closed-access journals, and the like should also be considered impediments to free choice of publishing venue, although I haven’t heard these concerns raised before.

Frankly, a more substantial argument can be made that the traditional scholarly publishing mechanism infringes academic freedom. The status quo in scholarly publishing requires authors to assign copyright to publishers as part of the publication process. With this control, publishers can and do limit access to the scholar’s writing.  Scholars are therefore not free to disseminate their academic work in the broadest way. A claim that authors can choose not to publish through scholarly journals is disingenuous; publishing is necessary for their career advancement. The status quo thus arguably presents a direct and substantial limitation in practice on scholars’ academic freedom: it infringes on the author’s freedom to distribute copies of one’s articles to interested readers. I am not claiming here that this is an undue limitation on freedom — there are countervailing arguments for the need for closed access — but a limitation on freedom it surely is, much more so than the Harvard open-access policy.

Indeed, the Harvard policy attempts to further scholars’ academic freedom to disseminate their work by providing a mechanism by which the unified voice of the community of scholars expresses its priority that scholarship should be openly accessible.  Insofar as an individual’s actions are limited by the policy (through the 20-second web form impediment), it is countervailed by the potential expansion of academic freedom for all members of the scholarly community that we are members of and rely on.

In the same way, we as scholars are not free to refuse to participate in the shared responsibilities of academic governance, of peer review of our literatures and colleagues, of education, advising, and mentoring of our students.  Our responsibility to widely disseminate our writings is even codified in the explicit University policies under which we were hired: “when entering into agreements for the publication and distribution of copyrighted materials individuals will make arrangements that best serve the public interest.” The policy makes clear that we as a community feel that the best service of the community involves open access to the scholarly literature.

Comments are closed.