Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Open-Access Publishing

The publishing business is certainly changing. The advent of new portable reading devices, such as the Amazon Kindle, permits convenient downloading of books. But perhaps the distribution of knowledge is experiencing its greatest makeover on college campuses. It is no surprise that the economy has produced multiple financial challenges to colleges, placing enhanced pressure on their budgets. But while college budgets are restricted, the cost of acquiring professional academic journals has been increasing.

College instructors who work in a publish or perish environment, or who require access to academic and scientific literature for research purposes, face a hardship when their university is unable to pay the cost of all requested academic journals. One solution that has been discussed generally in the recent past relates to open-access publication of academic and scientific literature. One website provides a link to open-access journals in the field of education. The site is here. There are other open-access sources.

Last week, Harvard faculty voted to allow free open-access distribution of their scholarly work. Indeed, Harvard, Dartmouth, Cornell, MIT and UC Berkeley are participating in a program to make scholarly articles of their faculty freely available through open-access publishing.

There has been discussion of open-access for a while. The Budapest Open Access Initiative, the Bethesda Statement on Open-Access Publishing, and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, have expressed principles for distribution of scientific and academic thought free from the constraints of copyright and publishing agreements.

Government now sees the value of open-access. The National Institute of Health requires peer-reviewed journal manuscripts funded through NIH grants to be submitted for public access distribution through a digital archive. Indeed, the recently introduced Senate bill S. 1373 requires government agencies to develop public access policies -- peer-reviewed papers developed from publically funded research are to be compiled into a publically available database.

Authors of academic literature have long quarreled with copyright's restrictions on free distribution of scientific literature. Some authors argue that they are pleased to allow free distribution of their academic writings, pointing out that it is the distributors and publishers of academic journals who restrict free distribution of important thought. A discussion of these views is contained in Princeton University Press v. Michigan Document Services, Inc. As pointed out by the dissent in Princeton, "The fair use doctrine, which requires unlimited public access to published works in educational settings, is one of the essential checks on the otherwise exclusive property rights given to copyright holders under the Copyright Act." Id. This was the losing view, of course, as the decision did not permit free copying of copyrighted academic writing.

The enhanced development of an open-access initiative, structured by free distribution mechanics under development by these renown universities, perhaps suggests a new future for all of publishing. Certainly the focus of open-access to date is on free distribution of academic and scientific thought filtered by peer-review. While development of this process is influenced by the presently tight publication budgets of college campuses, this new form of distribution may serve as a model for other forms of book distribution not tied to the academic or to government funding.

There is no good reason why Internet-based free distribution can't be developed for authors who seek a voice and a public presence unrestricted by the cost and restrictions of paper publication. It will certainly be interesting to see how the ongoing scholarly open-access movement might develop enhanced distribution options for all forms of text-based thought. Perhaps the copyright pendulum will swing back a bit from the side of distributors and publishers toward the side of authors.

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