How MIT Can Honor Aaron Swartz
Fight to make academic journals open to everyone.
I didn’t come up with this plan by myself. I’ve filched many of these ideas from open-access advocates, especially Michael Eisen, a biologist at UC Berkeley who’s been a leading crusader on the issue. Eisen lays the blame for the sorry state of scholarly publishing at the feet of university presidents, whom he calls “feckless” on the issue of open access. Over the past five years, many other participants in the academic publishing world have offered plans for reforming the industry. In 2008, the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest funder of medical research, adopted a “public access policy” that requires all papers funded by the agency to be made freely available a year after publication. Faculties at major universities have also come out in favor of open access, with groups at MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and several UC schools adopting guidelines that encourage faculty to contribute their work to open journals. And yet most journals are still closed.
“The problem is that university administrators have not made the cognitive leap—they haven’t joined the issue, and they’re really to blame for the problem,” Eisen says. MIT’s faculty open-access policy is a case in point. Like many other schools’ guidelines, it includes an “opt-out,” meaning that if a faculty member wants to submit his work to a closed journal, he can get the policy waived. Many journals—including some of the most prestigious—require authors to opt out of their school’s open-access policies. And many faculty members do just that in order to get published. Since 2009, when MIT’s open-access guidelines went into effect, only a third of its faculty’s articles have been made available online. The rest—about 14,000 papers—are stuck behind a pay wall. Eisen argues that this will continue until university presidents take a strong stand in favor of open access, especially by adopting open-access policies without an opt-out.
Skeptics of open-access rules raise a couple of major objections to such policies. First, there is some cost to producing academic journals—and if they’re completely open, their revenues will plummet, and many will go belly up. Things would be especially dire for journals published by nonprofit organizations like academic societies. Every year, the American Historical Association spends about $500,000 to produce the American Historical Review, a much-cited history journal. It sets its subscription fees low enough to cover that cost. Since the 1990s, the association has experimented a few times with lifting its pay wall—and each time it saw a steep decline in subscriptions, Robert Townsend, the AHA’s deputy director, told me.
One of the ways that open-access journals in the sciences support themselves is by asking researchers to pay a fee when submitting their work. (For instance, the Public Library of Science, which publishes several open journals, asks for as much as $2,900 from authors; PLOS waives the fee for authors who can’t pay, however.) Townsend argues that such a plan wouldn’t work well in the humanities, where researchers labor under much tighter budgets than in the sciences. “A typical research grant from the [National Endowment for the Humanities] is about $500 or $1,000, enough to pay for one trip into the field and nothing more,” Townsend says.
Eisen concedes that asking researchers to pay for publication isn’t the best way to move toward open access. That’s just the only funding mechanism possible right now. And it shows why universities like MIT—which are the main source of revenue for journals—have to lead the fight. If schools developed a new, more efficient way to pay for journals—to pay for the cost of peer review and editing but not for marketing and profits—then universities will save money while ensuring access. It would be a win for everyone, except for-profit journals.
After Swartz’s death, Eisen published a blog post titled, “How Academia Betrayed and Continues To Betray Aaron Swartz.” In that essay, he argued that “the real way to honor Aaron Swartz is to combat this pervasive institutional fecklessness and do everything in our power to make sure no papers ever end up behind pay walls again.” I asked him if he’d heard from any university officials in response.
He hasn’t. “I wish I’d seen any evidence that this was a wake-up call for somebody to say, ‘How ridiculous was it that this stuff wasn’t freely available in the first place?’ But I haven’t,” Eisen says. “I’ve seen lots of anger from people who are already on this side, but I haven’t seen a single thing from universities recognizing that in some deep way they were responsible.”
It’s your move, MIT.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.