IT Infrastructure

Stanford to Offer Scholarly Articles on Education for Free

By Debra Viadero — July 18, 2008 4 min read
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Faculty members at Stanford University’s school of education have voted to make scholarly articles available to the public for free, a policy change that the university says makes Stanford’s education school the first such school in the nation to join the growing “open access” movement in academia.

“We think it’s a huge gain in terms of public access, professional access, policymaker access, and lawmaker access,” said John M. Willinsky, the education professor who proposed the idea to his colleagues at the California university. “This is a body of work that is now available to schools that hasn’t been available before.”

Only 15 percent of the 1,600 education journals published around the world provide free access to their content, according to Mr. Willinsky. The rest require readers and libraries to pay to read the journals, which often carry pricey subscription fees.

In recent years, though, a growing number of universities and publishers have begun to put more of that academic content online so that the public can read it for free.

With its unanimous vote on June 10, Stanford’s education school faculty joins a still relatively small club of academic institutions. According to Mr. Willinsky, schools or departments at only about 30 other universities across the globe require scholars to make their work publicly available, and most of those institutions are located outside the United States.

“We think this will become commonplace before too long,” said Mr. Willinsky, who has been active for years in efforts to create software and other tools to support the “open access” movement.

Pressure on Publishers

Some publishers of academic journals, however, have raised concerns about the movement, which they fear could undermine their operations.

One problem, according to the New York City-based American Association of University Presses, which represents 130 nonprofit academic publishers, is that current debates on the issue often don’t take into account the substantial costs involved in copy-editing, designing, producing, and distributing the journals, even for those journals that publish primarily online.

If the contents of those journals were freely available, they reason, librarians and other subscribers would have little incentive to continue to buy their journals. Those sales underwrite an estimated 90 percent of journals’ production costs, and profits are often plowed back into publishing research monographs, which tend to draw even smaller audiences than the regular journals.

The university presses’ association, in a 2007 statement on the issue , said declining sales could force universities to look for other ways to cover costs or get out of the publishing business altogether.

“My own view, in a way, is entirely pragmatic,” said Sanford G. Thatcher, the director of the Penn State University Press and the group’s current president, writing in an e-mail to Mr. Willinsky a few days after the Stanford faculty vote. “If our parent universities would fund all our costs up front for publishing what we do, I am as much in favor of open access as anyone else. But the reality is that they have shown no such inclination.”

Under Stanford’s new policy, only the author’s final, peer-reviewed copy of the article would be posted online—in some cases, potentially months before the printed version becomes available.

“It comes into effect when the author signs the publication agreement, which is as soon as the paper is accepted by the publisher,” Mr. Willinsky said.

Opt-Out Policy

By early fall, the education school plans to have a Web site in place where the articles will be posted and archived in a searchable database. With approximately 50 scholars on Stanford’s education school faculty, the site could accumulate as many as 100 articles a year, by Mr. Willinsky’s estimate.

Publishers, however, would retain the rights to the published version of the articles, which are essentially edited, more-polished versions of the author’s final copy.

Mr. Willinsky said the policy also includes a waiver so that nontenured faculty, who face the most pressure to “publish or perish,” could ask to opt out of posting their articles online if a potential publisher insists on exclusive publishing rights.

Stanford’s new policy was preceded earlier this year by a similar change at Harvard University, where the faculties of the school of arts and sciences and the law school also voted to share their academic work with the public.

“I think it’s important for Harvard and Stanford to do this, to use our weight to take the stand and give publishers pause before saying, ‘We’re not accepting any articles from Harvard or Stanford,’ ” Mr. Willinsky said.

The “open access” movement originated at an international conference held in Bulgaria in 2002. Until recently, though, the movement has largely focused on research in fields such medicine and technology, rather than the social sciences.

Pressure to share research findings with the public is also coming from a 2006 federal law, known as the Federal Research Public Access Act, which requires 11 federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education, to make the studies they finance more widely available.

A version of this article appeared in the July 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Stanford to Offer Scholarly Articles on Education for Free

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