Open Access Week at the University of Michigan

I have been working with an excellent team of librarians here at Michigan to plan a week of events related to open access and the future of scholarship. We’re calling it Open Access Week. Clever, no?

It’s less than three weeks away, and as the schedule has come together I’m struck by how timely these events are, and how much we could conceivably do under the umbrella of discussing open access and the future of scholarship. When we started planning several months ago, I was concerned that a whole week might be too ambitious; I wasn’t sure how we would fill it. Now we’re starting to turn down proposals for events because there is so much going on already. The confluence of circumstances nationally has made this the perfect moment to discuss what’s wrong with existing modes of academic publishing, and to start getting aggressive about making change.

First we have the return of the dreadful Fair Copyright In Research Works Act, which is opposed by just about everyone except commercial publishers, including 33 Nobel Laureates in science. Then comes the word that together Elsevier and LexisNexis earned over $1.5 billion US in profit in 2008. For Elsevier that’s an adjusted operating margin — a profit — of 33%. While universities across the country are facing budget cuts of 20% or more, Elsevier brings in 33% profits, largely on the backs of university libraries. And economic news more broadly indicates that no library will escape unscathed. When Harvard starts laying off librarians and eliminating subscriptions, we’re all in trouble.

Now is the perfect time to get serious about adopting alternate modes of scholarly publishing, and Open Access models are serious alternatives. I’ll be the first to admit that we still haven’t figured out how to make OA work long term, or how to make it financially sustainable. We know it’s cheaper than Elsevier, but real costs remain. The more we experiment with new models, the better our chances that some of them will succeed. My hope is that our series of events during Open Access Week will help raise awareness among faculty and researchers here, and also build some energy for action and experimentation. I’d love to see an Open Access deposit mandate here at Michigan, or a commitment among faculty to edit and referee for OA journals. These ideas have been around for a long time, but this economic moment might be just what we need to push them forward. A recession is a terrible thing to waste.