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Faculty voted unanimously this week to approve a resolution that allows MIT to freely and publicly distribute research articles they write. MIT plans to create a repository to make these articles available online.

The resolution, effective immediately after it was passed on Wednesday, makes MIT the first university to commit to making its faculty’s research papers publicly available. Though the School of Education at Stanford and several departments at Harvard have already adopted these policies, MIT is the first entire university to make this pledge.

The open-access rule will only apply to articles published since Wednesday. Researchers who wish to opt-out do so by sending a letter notifying the Office of the Provost.

The ad hoc committee’s explanatory document states that the ability to opt out may be especially important for junior faculty “who do not want to jeopardize their ability to work with certain publishers.”

“Initially opt out will get used a fair amount,” said Harold Abelson, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a member of the ad hoc faculty committee that proposed the resolution.

Making knowledge cheaper

The open access resolution hopes to address two problems with publishing in scientific journals: first, publishers often force faculty members to give up rights to their own articles; second, the same publishers charge exorbitant subscription fees to MIT for access to these articles.

Abelson said that part of the rationale behind the new policy is to leverage MIT’s power as an institution in negotiating with publishing companies to freely distribute their articles.

A document produced by the ad hoc faculty committee that proposed the resolution stated: “[T]he goal of disseminating research is best served by using the unified action of the faculty to enable individual faculty to distribute their scholarly writings freely,” which “is especially apposite in the face of increasing efforts by some commercial publishers to further close access to the scholarly literature they control.”

Faculty and Libraries staff says that problems in the publishing industry have worsened over the past two decades.

Director of MIT Libraries, Ann J. Wolpert, said “[O]ver the last 15 years, much of scholarly publication has migrated from small societies and associations who had close relationships with researchers in their specific disciplines to a situation where those journals are owned by large international conglomerates — publicly owned in many cases — where the motivation for publishing is to return a margin to shareholders.”

This trend, said Wolpert, has created a situation in which “the way faculty teach and conduct research is greatly at odds with the business models of publishers … Publishers seek to maximize profits by exercising maximal control over [authors’] work, while authors seek to advance research and education.”

As publishers have tried to exert more control over articles, they have raised subscription rates at a rate that far outstrips inflation: in 2007, MIT Libraries spent about three-and-a-half times as much on journal subscriptions than it did in 1986, according to statistics supplied by Ellen Finnie Duranceau, a scholarly licensing and publishing consultant for MIT Libraries.

The resolution, Wolpert said, “is an attempt to get a better balance in the system.”

Implementation details

The Provost’s Office, with the Faculty Committee on the Library System and the Libraries, will be in charge of implementing the policy. They will build and manage the repository for open access articles online.

MIT will not have to spend money on creating the online repository: it will build on DSpace, the platform developed at MIT for collecting PhD dissertations online. Currently there are no plans to hire staff to support the effort to collect and disseminate articles. Current Libraries staff will assist faculty in negotiating contracts with publishers in light of the new policy.

Wolpert said she expects that workflows for submitting and publishing articles online will be implemented no later than June, but could be put in place earlier.

Duranceau, who will be working with faculty to arrange contracts with publishers, said that the extent to which MIT’s new policy will force a change in practices vary from firm to firm. “A lot of publishers do allow finalized peer-reviewed manuscripts to be posted in repositories,” said Duranceau. Other publishers allow articles to be freely distributed after a specified amount of time.

Are we there yet?

Faculty and staff behind the policy describe the resolution as a first step toward a more satisfying relationship between academics and journals.

“It’s going to take a while to work things out,” said Abelson. It will take more universities placing pressure on publishing companies to force them to reform, said Abelson, because “Even though MIT, Harvard, and Stanford are big places in terms of the amount of published papers, in the world of research, they represent a small fraction of published papers.”

And, faculty may still opt out of the open access agreement since in some cases it remains unfeasible to negotiate with publishers on these terms.