EDITORIALS

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April 6, 2009

Opening the books

MIT faculty voted unanimously last month to create an open-access repository—that is, a free online database that compiles all scholarly articles authored by MIT professors. The ideals of academic pursuits, as well as the practical constraints of journal costs, dictate that the University should follow suit..

For years, scholarly articles have been the exclusive purview of dusty bookstacks and subscription-only websites. Access to articles, therefore, generally requires an affiliation with a university that in turn shells out increasingly high subscription fees to academic journals. The tide is turning, however: MIT faculty voted unanimously last month to create an open-access repository—that is, a free online database that compiles all scholarly articles authored by MIT professors. The ideals of academic pursuits, as well as the practical constraints of journal costs, dictate that the University should follow suit.

The notion of letting anyone—not just those currently inhabiting the ivory tower—peruse cutting edge research is in keeping with the University’s mission and its motto. While open access probably won’t make the average person more likely to trade People magazine for a particle physics paper, it will provide more resources to the professionals who serve them—doctors and journalists, for example. This would also be in the University’s best interest, as greater access inevitably means more exposure for the University’s brand name and faculty members. Research indicates that open access articles are more likely to be used and cited than those limited to subscribers.

Additionally, if the open access movement means the end of exorbitantly priced journals, then all the better. In recent years, the fees for such publications have been increasing at rates outpacing that of inflation. By providing many of the same articles, but without charge, universities will force academic publishers to adapt their business model to remain competitive.

The current trend in pricing continues because commercial academic publishers have a monopoly on breaking research, which academics must access in order to stay current on developments in their disciplines. While no institution can reasonably afford to subscribe to every journal, costs have become so prohibitive that some universities have cancelled their subscriptions to high-priced journals. Meanwhile, many universities in developing countries don’t subscribe to journals at all. Allowing publishers to maintain a stranglehold on the market for published research hurts all academics, excluding them from fully participating in the dialogue of their field.

The University is at the forefront of scholarly dialogue, which gives it the potential to be a major player in changing the medium of that dialogue for the better. With the rise of online media, it is clear that the academic publishing industry is headed for change. The University should seize the moment and add its weight to the open access movement.

The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and two additional Editorial Board members.