Princeton bans transfer of academic copyright

As you’ll have seen from the UKCoRR discussion list Princeton University in the US has taken the dramatic step of banning academics from handing over all copyright to publishers. I think this is an interesting development, and perhaps is the next step on from institutional mandates. While I can only applaud the bravery of the faculty of the institution and wish them every success, I do think that just like mandates that a note of caution must be sounded.

Mandates, if you listen to some proponents, are the cure-all of the open access world. Those of us in UKCoRR know the practical truth though, that while they are indeed powerful statements of commitment to open access from an institution’s SMT getting academics to comply with them can be a struggle. Mandates are the stick when contrasted with the carrot of open access benefits that most of us advocate to our academics. However, they are a toothless stick (if I may mix my metaphors) in most cases – I’ve yet to hear from any UK institution where an academic whom has ignored a institutional mandate has ended up in hot water over it.

They’re also a stick that we repository managers and administrators can’t wield – the image of the reaction I’d get from telling an academic to they HAVE to deposit or else…well it ends with me being unceremoniously tossed out of their office to derisory laughter. Mandates only really work for the vast majority of staff when they are applied and enforced – a role for far more senior staff to engage with.

And that’s where I wonder how the Princeton policy will be applied. Will we hear of an academic, whom wanting to publish in a prestigious journal that requires the standard rights transfer flaunting the policy getting into hot water, being suspended or sacked as a result? I seriously doubt it. No institution worth its research salt is going to want to damage it’s reputation in this way.

Although it seems in the case of Princeton that this policy has come from the faculty themselves, so perhaps each and everyone of them is indeed highly enlightened and switched onto the broad benefits of open access. If so, someone send me details of how to apply for a job there as it sounds like a place I want to work!

Years ago I remember Bill Hubbard quoting me a factoid that the UK HEI sector was worth more to the UK economy by billions of pounds that the UK academic publishing industry. I suspect the same may be true in the states, so perhaps this is the rousing of the sleeping giant, no longer willing to passively accede to the publishers’ dominion over them. Will Yale or Harvard or other Ivy League institutions follow suit? If they do, then perhaps this trickle of affirmative open access action will become a tidal wave that may spread to Europe.

What happens over the coming months will be interesting. Will publishers, in fear of offending one of the US’ most prestigious institutions bend to their will? I try to think of what would happen if Oxbridge went down the same route in the UK – I think some smaller publishers would change their policies, but the big multinationals? Doubt it, I really do.

At the end of the day as the article says, chances are the path to open access will continue to be complicated by publishers as they defend their established economic model. But at least that means for us repository types that the world we work in will continue to be a complex and engaging, if not a little frustrating, one.

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