Monday, December 03, 2012

The OA Interviews: Harvard’s Stuart Shieber

Stuart Shieber is the Welch Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University, Faculty Co-Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Director of Harvard’s Office for Scholarly Communication (OSC),  and chief architect of the Harvard Open Access (OA) Policy — a 2008 initiative that has seen Harvard become a major force in the OA movement.

When in 1989 Stuart Shieber became a Harvard faculty member he was, for reasons he never fully understood, appointed to a series of library committees. Whatever the reason for his appointment, it was to prove an educational experience: As he sat through the various committee meetings, Shieber began to see the world through the lens of the library, a perspective that led him to the inevitable conclusion that there was something amiss in the world of scholarly communication.
Stuart Shieber

As he puts it, “[I]t became increasingly clear to me that some of the problems that libraries faced in dealing with providing access to the scholarly literature were not library problems per se, but rather, problems in how the scholarly communication systems are set up.”

This is worth noting because when researchers face difficulties accessing scholarly journals they tend to assume that something has gone awry in the library, not that there is a fundamental flaw in the way research is communicated.

It was only in sitting through all those library committee meetings that Shieber came to realise the research community had a serious problem on its hands, a problem moreover that could only be expected to get worse unless action was taken. And it was clear to Shieber that researchers themselves would need to play their part in resolving the problem.

Stated simply, the problem is this: When researchers publish their papers, they routinely sign over the commercial exploitation rights in them to the publisher. The publisher then packages a bunch of papers together and sells them back to the research community in the form of a journal subscription. While publishers undoubtedly add some value to the end product, researchers do most of the work — not just in authoring the papers in the first place, but also in peer reviewing their colleagues’ papers (without charge). Yet, as any librarian will tell you, subscription charges are inexcusably high, and getting higher each year.

In short, publishers are overcharging for scholarly journals. And since it is they who pay the bills, it was librarians who first sounded the alarm. However, since the costs do not come from their budgets, and journals are made available in institutions on a free-at-the-point-of-use basis, most researchers have been unaware of the seriousness of the problem. For their part, publishers have consistently denied that they are overcharging.

Why are journals so expensive? They are expensive for a number of reasons, but mainly because there is a disconnect in the scholarly journal market: that is, the people who pay the journal subscriptions are not the people who use the journals. As we shall see, this means that there is no effective market mechanism to control prices.

And as the number of papers published continues to grow, and libraries face ever greater pressure on their budgets, so the struggle to provide faculty with access to all the papers they need has become ever more serious. This phenomenon is now generally referred to as the “serials crisis”.

As I hope will become apparent, it helps to see the serials crisis as a double-headed problem. As libraries are forced to cancel more and more journals each year, researchers face a growing accessibility problem. However, this accessibility problem is merely a symptom of the deeper problem — what one might call the affordability problem. The key challenge, of course, is to find a solution.

Open Access

Over the years various solutions to the serials crisis have been proposed. However, the one that has gained the greatest mindshare is Open Access (OA). And it is no surprise that librarians played a key role in the development of the OA movement — not least by co-founding the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) in 1998, and constantly promoting the merits of OA.

Essentially, advocates for OA argue that all published research can and should be made freely available on the Web, either by means of green OA, in which researchers continue to publish in subscription journals but then self-archive their papers in their institutional repository (usually after an embargo period so that publishers can recover their costs), or by means of gold OA, in which researchers (or more usually their funders) pay publishers an article-processing charge (APC) to ensure that their paper is made freely available on the Web at the time of publication. The latter can be achieved either by publishing in an OA journal (the entire contents of which are made freely available), or in a hybrid journal (a subscription journal in which individual papers can be made OA if the author pays an APC).

Concluding that Open Access offered a viable solution to the double-headed problem facing the research community, Shieber began to advocate for OA at Harvard ...


If you wish to read the interview with Stuart Shieber, please click on the link below.

I am publishing the interview under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose. 

To read the interview (as a PDF file) click HERE.