Open-access publishing a moral issue, some faculty say

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BYU is taking a cautious approach to a publishing issue that some faculty believe is a moral decision.

Normally, faculty submit research to a journal, which does some editing and sends it to faculty at other institutions for peer-review. If it passes, the research is published in the journal and the researcher’s reputation increases. Then, the journal makes money by selling subscriptions to individuals and institutions for access to the research.

Open-access publishing is an alternative publishing approach aimed at making research open for public access and sharing. Research is still edited and peer-reviewed, but there is no subscription or access fee. Open-access journals are new enough that they’re still exploring alternative ways to cover costs.

Some faculty believe the public has a right to access scholarly research for free. Photo illustration.

Major universities (BYU included) spend millions of dollars annually on access to academic journals and databases, according to Robert Murdoch, a library administrator.

BYU’s biggest journal supplier is Elsevier, which is the largest publisher of scholarly journals in the world. Elsevier made 1.16 billion dollars in profit in 2012 (a margin of 36 percent) according to The Economist.

Murdoch said that journal subscription costs tend to rise more rapidly than the general economic inflation rate but that BYU has been able to hold that rate down by signing multi-year subscription agreements with publishers.

But some faculty say such victories do not address the real problem of academic research remaining hidden behind pay walls.

“To me it is a moral issue,” Gideon Burton said, an assistant professor in the English department. “In the digital age, there is no excuse for hiding your candle under a bushel.”

Burton said that one reason open-access publishing is not very popular yet is that people are not familiar with it or the economics of the traditional publishing model.

“I think that over time it will catch on,” Burton said.

Harold B. Lee Library administrator Jeff Belliston is one who personally benefited from access to scholarly journals after his daughter was diagnosed with upper airway resistance syndrome.

A pediatric sleep specialist recommended treatment with a CPAP machine, but his insurance company refused to pay for it because CPAP machines are usually used to treat a different problem, sleep apnea.

Belliston accessed medical journals through BYU to find articles showing that CPAP was helpful in treating other things too.

“I was able to successfully appeal that denial by the insurance company,” Belliston said. “And I believe strongly that the success of that appeal was due to my ability to provide literature.”

Belliston is currently researching how much it would cost the university if all departments published in open-access journals (or purchased open-access rights for publications in traditional journals.)

BYU doesn’t restrict the public from accessing journals through BYU computers, but David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology, believes that taxpayers are still being treated unfairly. They already fund academic research through government grants, and then they pay for local libraries and universities to access that research.

“It’s just wrong,” Wiley said. “When you buy one, you should get at least one — the one you pay for.”

A screenshot of ScholarsArchive, an open-access institutional repository managed by the Harold B. Lee Library.

Wiley applauded ScholarsArchive, a Harold B. Library initiative to create an open-access institutional repository of faculty scholarship. But it has limited participation. Wiley said that the administration’s attitude toward open access still seems pretty cautious.

Most BYU faculty are expected to publish regularly. Family Life Professor Alan Hawkins wrote on the subject in the “Thoughts on Scholarship” section of BYU’s Faculty Center website:

“Publishing our work in high-quality outlets and presenting at first-rate conferences is the primary way faculty become known, respected, and appreciated. Accordingly, the university expects its faculty to publish and present, and properly makes this a significant factor in faculty evaluations.”

Alan Harker, associate academic vice president, helps set policy in this area. He said BYU is most concerned that departments have the freedom to publish in the journals they think are best.

“What we’re interested in is being supportive of quality,” Harker said. He expressed concern that proper and prestigious open-access infrastructure is not yet in place in all disciplines.

“Each discipline is in charge of the quality control of the contributions of their disciplines,” Harker said. “Where (an open-access option) is evaluated by the discipline and they choose to do that, we support them.”

Harker acknowledged the moral objections about making scholarship available to people who cannot afford it and taxpayers getting access to research they paid for.

“I don’t have any argument against those ideals,” Harker said. “(But) I still think that we as an academic institution have to proceed toward those ideals on the basis of decisions made by individual academic disciplines.”

Harker said he’s not sure how the open-access model will evolve in the next five to ten years.

“It’s not unlike the music industry trying to hang on in the face of the Internet, or the movie industry trying to hang on in the face of YouTube,” Harker said. “Things are going to change, and it will be interesting to see how.”