UC San Francisco Adopts Open Access Policy

Yesterday UCSF announced it has adopted an open access policy by unanimous vote of the Academic Senate.  The policy requires faculty to deposit their articles in an open-access repository or publish them in an open-access journal, making them freely and immediately available to scientists worldwide. Why does a University want an open access policy and what good does it do?  Aren’t scientists in the business of publishing their findings early and often, so much so that we talk about “publish or perish”?

Most science is paid for by competitively awarded grants. The scientist gets the grant, does the science, and publishes the results for the scientific community and the world to see. Science moves forward through wide dissemination of results so they can be verified or disputed by others, and built upon.

The economic model for how science gets disseminated is decidedly strange however. In the United States, taxpayer dollars fund most biomedical science through the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies, or by philanthropic trusts. At a public university like UCSF, the research happens in state-sponsored facilities at least partly supported by the taxpayers. The scientist does the science and submits the results of their work to the “best” journal they think might publish it.  The journal sends the manuscript around to other scientists (themselves largely publicly supported) who peer-review the article on behalf of the journal for free. If the journal accepts the article, most journals require the author to either surrender their copyright or provide an exclusive license to the publisher as a condition of publication, effectively giving the journal ownership of the results. The journal then turns around and sells subscriptions back to those same institutions who do the science in the first place, subscriptions paid for – again! – with taxpayer dollars in the case of a state-sponsored university library. If a library can’t afford the subscription, too bad – their researchers don’t have access to that science.

UCSF’s Prof Richard Schneider

This odd arrangement persists because publishing one’s work in a prestigious journal is the coin of the realm for a research scientist; it is how one’s work, career, and ongoing employability are judged. No individual researcher can risk bucking the system, and no university library can function without subscribing to the influential journals. This gives the publishing companies tremendous pricing power that they’ve been increasingly willing to wield. At the University of California, the issue came to a head of sorts in 2010 when Nature Publishing Group proposed a 400% hike in subscription fees and UC responded by threatening a total boycott, an episode nicely discussed by molecular biologist Michael Eisen at UC Berkeley.

Today’s announcement may prove to be the University’s definitive response. It guarantees that scientists around the world will have access to the work done at UCSF for them to build upon. Lest you think this is a left-coast phenomenon, Harvard University, MIT, Columbia, Duke, and Emory all preceded UCSF in taking this leap.  Journals still have an important role in facilitating peer-review, but their ability to own and restrict the communication of scientific results is eroding.

At UCSF, the credit goes to the leadership of Prof Richard Schneider, Chair of the UCSF Committee on Library and Scholarly Communications. I joined the committee two years ago and became Vice-Chair last year, just as Rich’s years of effort were building to a climax. It’s been a privilege to watch Rich pursue today’s achievement with the mind of scientist and the motives of a civil rights leader. I predict Rich and University Librarian Karen Butter will make UCSF a model that the 9 other UC campuses will follow.