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Interview: Stuart Shieber

Harvard University Library Notes, September 2009

Stuart M. Shieber '81 directs Harvard's Office for Scholarly Communication (OSC). Shieber received an AB in applied mathematics summa cum laude from Harvard College in 1981 and a PhD in computer science from Stanford in 1989. Having joined the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1989, Shieber was named John L. Loeb Associate Professor of Natural Sciences in 1993, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science in 1996, Harvard College Professor in 2001, and James O. Welch, Jr., and Virginia B. Welch Professor of Computer Science in 2002. He was the founding director of the Center for Research on Computation and Society and is a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He was interviewed for Library Notes on September 1.

LN
DASH—Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard—is online and available to the general public. What are the most important attributes of DASH and whom will it serve?

SS
At the OSC, we are very excited that DASH is finally open to the public. The role of the DASH repository is twofold: to serve as infrastructure for Harvard to preserve and disseminate as broadly as possible the record of our scholarship, and to provide the mechanism by which the Harvard open-access policies are realized. So it serves both the Harvard community and the wider public.

DASH is about access to Harvard scholarly articles, and access is one of the most important aspects of the scholarly communication milieu, but not the only one, of course; there's much more to be done.

LN
With the DASH beta in full service, scholarly communication at Harvard is really moving forward. What's the next step?

SS
Scholarly publishing is going through a transformation as a result of systemic problems in the underlying business models, which have led to a spiral of hyperinflating costs, journal cancellations, and reducing access to the scholarly literature. With the economic downturn, this access problem will only be exacerbated. DASH is an attempt to solve the symptom of reduced access, at least to our own articles. But we need to turn our attention to the underlying problem, to find sustainable alternatives to the dysfunctional subscription-based business model that has supported journal publishing in the past.

Over the decades, academia has established a substantial infrastructure to support scholarly publication based on that business model—publishers to manage logistics and production, subscription agents to handle order processing, library budgets to pay for the subscriptions, overhead from grants to fund those library budgets, and so forth. We need to start establishing the infrastructure to support alternative models, and to get the mechanisms of scholarly communication on a sound, sustainable footing.

LN
This hyperinflation has been termed "a crisis in scholarly communication." Is that accurate?

SS
Yes, it is. The problem has been dramatically exacerbated by the current economic downturn. Research libraries, including Harvard's, are beginning to entertain wholesale elimination of subscription access to entire groups of serials, as their budgets take large cuts. Such elimination of access is bad for the scholarly enterprise, and the threat of unsustainability of journals is especially worrisome given the invaluable services that they provide to scholars: logistical management of the peer review process, production services such as copyediting and typesetting, distribution and preservation, and filtering and imprimatur based on a journal's “brand.”

LN
What's the solution that you propose?

SS
Open-access scholarly journals have arisen as an alternative to traditional subscription scholarly journals. Open-access journals make their articles available freely to anyone, while providing the same services common to all scholarly journals. Since open-access journals don't charge subscription or other access fees, they have to cover their operating expenses through other sources, including subventions, in-kind support, or, in a sizable minority of cases, processing fees paid by or on behalf of authors for submission to or publication in the journal.

We need to put our money where our mouth is and commit to a financial foundation for open-access journal publishing to put it on a level playing field with subscription-based journal publishing.

LN
How can we do that?

SS
Universities and funding agencies can provide equitable support for the processing-fee business model for open-access journals by subsidizing processing fees as well. We've worked with a set of other universities to develop an "open-access compact" that commits universities to establishing just such mechanisms. This month, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, and the University of California, Berkeley signed on as initial signatories of the compact, and we hope that other universities will join in this important commitment to sustainable, open journal publishing. A web site providing more information about the compact is at http://www.oacompact.org.

The Office for Scholarly Communication is managing Harvard's participation in the compact through a new fund, the Harvard Open-Access Publication Equity (HOPE) Fund, which will reimburse eligible authors for open-access processing fees.

LN
Can you give examples of processing fees today?

SS
The majority of open-access journals charge no processing fees at all. For those that do charge fees, the average fee is under a hundred dollars, though some are considerably higher. At the high end, the flagship journal of the open-access publisher Public Library of Science charges a processing fee of $2,850. Still, this is quite small compared to the average revenue per article of major journal publishers, and many closed-access journals also charge processing fees in the thousands of dollars per article on top of the subscription revenue they receive.

Right now, the number of open-access journals that Harvard researchers are publishing in is very small, and article fees can often be covered by grant funds, so we expect that the HOPE fund will require minimal outlays in the short term.

Nonetheless, it is vitally important to establish a precedent that says "We will commit to underwriting open-access processing fees and remove a disincentive to open-access publishing." As more universities sign on to this kind of commitment, and establish open-access funds in economically sustainable ways, we hope that the open-access business model can develop as a viable alternative to the subscription-fee model that is currently so problematic. Perhaps over time, the fees will grow as journals move from charging subscriptions to processing fees, and access limitations are dropped.

LN
You talked about funds being economically sustainable. What guarantees that this approach to journal funding will be sustainable?

SS
We don't want to replicate the same problems in the processing-fee market that we've seen in the subscription-fee market. In the design of the Harvard open-access fund, we've put in place mechanisms to regulate expenditures on processing fees, as described at the HOPE web site (http://osc.hul.harvard.edu/HOPE). As the academic community gains experience with this new model for funding journals, we will continue to adjust these mechanisms to provide reasonable support to journals while maintaining sustainability through market mechanisms.

LN
Assuming that the compact will add participants, is it reasonable to expect open-access publishing to increase?

SS
It's always hard to predict the future. If publishers see major reductions in journal subscriptions, moving to open-access publishing may look increasingly attractive to them, especially if universities are willing to support the move, as we should be. What we do know is that the status quo is not sustainable. Creative thinking and positive action are required to move towards a better status post.

 

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