'Self-archiving should be mandatory'

Stevan Harnad of the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada and the University of Southampton, UK is considered by many to have been one of the founders of the open-access movement. He believes that self-archiving in institutional repositories is the answer to providing access.

How do you define open access?

SH: My definition is the same as that of the Budapest Open Access Initiative: that open access gives free online full-text access to the peer-reviewed research literature. This definition is missing two important words though, immediate and permanent.

Many people say that open access originated with my subversive proposal in 1994 but it was not a new idea. People had been putting their research articles online for everybody to see since the net was invented. It started with computer scientists in the 1980s using anonymous ftp archives and physicists have been archiving their materials on the web since the 1990s.

What is the best approach to open access?

SH: People have strong views on this with absolutely no data. There are two routes to open access, green and gold.

The green route is where authors publish in traditional journals and then self-archive. The gold route is to convert all the c. 24,000 journals in the world to open access publishing. I have evidence that the green route needs to come first.

About 15 per cent of authors have the good sense to self-archive anyway. The other 85 per cent need convincing. Research has shown that if employers or research funders require self-archiving then 95 per cent of researchers will do it and 81 per cent will do it willingly. The idea is much the same as the publish-or-perish requirement. For institutions that mandate self-archiving the percentage of authors that do so is getting close to 100 per cent.

The primary reason open access is needed is not the serials crisis or the needs of developing countries but but for the sake of research impact.

What is the status of open access today?

SH: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA has a policy to encourage researchers to archive in PubMed Central but does not make it mandatory and the uptake has only been about 5 per cent – less than the percentage that self-archive anyway. I have suggested three remedies to NIH's policy: it should be immediate, in the author's own institutional repository and it must be mandatory.

The UK Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology originally proposed something like the gold route but now I think that its recommendation to mandate self-archiving is exactly the right one. Unfortunately it is still facing the publisher lobby. The vast majority of publishers support the green route (self-archiving of authors' manuscripts in a non-commercial way) even if they are not gold publishers. However around 7 per cent of publishers are grey: they are worried that it might affect their business and do not allow any versions of articles from their journals to be posted in archives (see romeo.eprints.org/ publishers.html for a list of the positions of publisher and journal self-archiving policies).

With these grey publishers in mind, I have suggested weakening the recommendations slightly so that the author's final draft still has to be deposited in institutional repositories but access can be set either as open access or closed access. This means that the metadata is there for anybody who is searching but it removes any perceived copyright obstacle. Where open access is not permitted, the metadata will enable individual readers to contact the authors semi-automatically to request an e-print by email.

Should self-archiving be done in institutional or subject-based repositories?

SH: A publisher is perfectly within its rights to say that if a tival publisher else could offer all its complete content then that could ruin its business. A central subject repository is potentially such a free rider. Institutional repositories  archive only their own output, so they do not pose the same threat. Also, only a few disciplines have subject archives and subject repositories cannot mandate the deposition of articles in the way that a research institution can.

There are about 10,000 research universities in the world. There are only about 500 institutional repositories so far but this number is growing. The obstacle is not creating the institutional repositories themselves as they are cheap and simple to create. The obstacle is getting institutions to get a mandate to ensure that material is deposited in them.

Institutional repositories have two potential functions: self-archiving and digital preservation. The trouble is that there is a motivational and ergonomic clash between these two purposes. The latter has nothing to do with open access and is a red herring that confuses people.

When will open access take off?

SH: In the early 1990s I used to say that this could happen overnight but it has not done so yet so I'm not going to second guess human nature.

All sorts of technical innovations have made self-archiving easier but until the mandates come it won't take off. Researchers are the smartest people on the planet but not very practical. That is why we needed the mandate to publish or perish and why we now need self-archiving mandates.