The entire University of California system just went Open Access
The entire University of California system just went Open Access

As someone working out of a Science and Technology Studies (STS) Department, I was proud to see that Dr. Chris Kelty (Author of Two Bits) had just won a major battle for open access. Kelty is an excellent example of the kind of scholar that reflexively applies the findings of his scholarship to the everyday concerns of his job. As an Associate Professor of Information Studies at UCLA, he studies open source communities and concepts of responsibility in scientific research. As the chair of the UC University Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication (UCOLASC), he just spearheaded one of the largest windfalls for open access publishing.

On July 24, 2013 the University of California Senate approved a state-wide Open Access Policy that will, according to the press release, make all “future research articles authored by faculty at all 10 campuses of UC… available to the public at no charge.”  This is a huge step forward for the Open Access movement because, as the press release goes on to say, 

The policy covers more than 8,000 UC faculty at all 10 campuses of the University of California, and as many as 40,000 publications a year. It follows more than 175 other universities who have adopted similar so-called “green” open access policies. By granting a license to the University of California prior to any contractual arrangement with publishers, faculty members can now make their research widely and publicly available, re-use it for various purposes, or modify it for future research publications.

UC is the largest public research university in the world and its faculty members receive roughly 8% of all research funding in the U.S. With this policy UC Faculty make a commitment to the public accessibility of research, especially, but not only, research paid for with public funding by the people of California and the United States.

While the numbers are impressive (seriously, the UC system produces, every year, somewhere between 2-3% of all peer-reviewed articles in the world) I think the tactic is even more note-worthy. Pledges to boycott for-profit journals (e.g. The Cost of Knowledge) are essential —they organize people across pre-existing and disconnected institutions— but they put a lot of pressure on individuals. It doesn’t seem fair to ask early career scholars to limit their publishing opportunities in the same way as tenured senior faculty, especially when the latter group got to where they are because of a lifetime of publishing in for-profit journals. You could try to organize tenure committees to weight open access journals higher than closed ones, but there’s no good way of coordinating across departments in the same field, except through professional organizations, which usually run the for-profit journal you’re looking to devalue. Good luck with that.

Perhaps the more important question is, do sheer numbers matter at all? If nine out of ten journals were  open tomorrow, but everyone was still striving to publish in the one prestigious, privately-owned journal, should we call that progress? I’m not totally convinced such a scenario would even be possible, but as a thought experiment it highlights one important fact: the OA movement isn’t necessarily about any one journal, or even the publishing industry- its about competing notions of what publishing rigorous inquiry is supposed to accomplish and what role it plays in society. I’m definitely not saying “only supporters of OA are concerned with the free and open exchange of ideas.” Rather, I think OA supporters have a much different view on the means and ends of knowledge production. I don’t think its a coincidence that Kelty, who wrote one of the definitive texts on open source communities, is also deeply concerned with the very basis by which his text (and everyone’s texts) are written, shared, and read.

Just like organic produce and sweatshop-free clothes, open access journals can be more expensive and less compatible with your everyday life, than the conventional, corporate, standard. Its one of the brilliant inventions of late-Capitalism: ethical decisions are sold at a premium. That is why, as I’ve already stated, I think the tactic, more than the impact factor (pun intended), is more newsworthy here. These policy changes make it much easier (if not effortless) for younger professionals to make the right decision. And while today’s tenure committees may still look for those top-tier journals owned by Elsevier, tomorrow’s committees (who led the charge for OA) might not. Then there’s the pure and simple fact that with the freeing up of access to journal content, new organization forms outside of traditional academic positions are possible. Organizations that do not need millions of dollars to buy access to their own published research.

The exact process by which UC faculty comply with this new OA policy is worth a look, although it isn’t particularly unique. over a hundred other individual universities have similar OA policies in place. It works by effectively flipping the status quo from “seek out open access” to “opt out” of open access. There are some that think the opt-out is too easy (see the last bullet point below) but  I think it strikes a nice balance between an individual scholar’s control over her work, and the gentle tyranny of bureaucratic standards that are so effective at changing day-to-day life. Again, I don’t think this is about getting individual articles out into the public per se, so much as it is a very big and loud statement about how scholarship should be done.

You can read about the specifics of the policy in their FAQ.

There are lots of great discussions going on about this decision and OA in general as of late, here are some links: