In just a few months, the latest University of California research will be available online for free -- no subscription required.
The 10-campus UC system is the latest -- and by far the largest -- university in the world to open its publications to the public, fueling an international movement to make academic work more widely available. When it goes into effect Nov. 1, the policy will apply to 8,000 faculty members and the roughly 40,000 papers they produce each year on subjects such as planetary magnetic fields, modern Israeli fiction and a host of other topics.
"These are big numbers," said Christopher Kelty, a UCLA information studies professor who helped shape the policy passed late last month by the system's Academic Senate. "It should lend some gravitational force to this process."
The process -- aimed at breaking a decades-old system under which most academic research appeared only in pricey journals -- is moving quickly. More than 175 research institutions around the world have approved open access mandates, including Duke, Emory, Princeton, Wellesley and the University of Kansas, according to the Registry of Open Access Repositories. Some schools or departments, such as the Harvard Business School and the Stanford School of Education, also have done so.
In February, the Obama administration announced a new policy of making federally funded studies freely available to the public within a year of publication.
Open access advocates argue that academic research in the information age shouldn't have pay walls, especially when it taxpayer-funded public universities produce it. UC Berkeley undergraduates Tony Chen and Rodrigo Ochigame, founders of The Open Access Initiative, made that case to students and faculty in a mass email this spring, The Daily Californian campus newspaper reported. So did the authors of an open access bill pending in the Legislature, which would apply to state-funded research.
"Taxpayers pay for this research, and we the people, we own it," said Mike Gatto, D-Burbank, who co-authored the bill, AB609, with Republican Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert. "So it just makes sense to cut out the middlemen who charge taxpayers for something we already own."
It can cost $30 to access a single article in a journal, and subscriptions can be hundreds of dollars a year.
The bill cleared the Assembly, but Gatto said passing it will be a challenge.
"The publishers have fought it pretty hard," he said.
Of course, the bill's fate matters less now that faculty -- who do not profit from arrangements with academic journals and want their work to be as widely circulated as possible -- have taken the issue into their own hands.
UC's policy does allow researchers to opt out of the policy, and some worry that publishers will require them to do so. "We can expect more and more publishers to demand opt-outs as the number of institutions with open/public access policies grows," UC Berkeley biology professor Michael Eisen wrote in his blog.
But Kelty said the opt-out allowance is essential for academic freedom. At other universities with similar policies, he said, the opt-out rate has been less than 5 percent.
UC's policy, he said, "sends a powerful message that faculty want open access, and they want it on terms that benefit the public and the future of research."
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After Nov. 1, new research publications by UC faculty will be available for free at www.escholarship.org.