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February 4, 2010



Disseminating research

Release of the University Senate library committee’s report on last spring’sMitchell plenary session, “Scholarly Publishing Today and Tomorrow,” refocuses attention on what keynote speaker David Shulenberger called a “crisis in the distribution of research.” Disintegration of the financial models for publishing and distributing academic research, systematic erosion of authors’ intellectual property rights and sheer information overload all are factors that Shulenberger said combine to create an “obligation” for universities to revisit their approaches to dissemination of scholarly research.

The University Library System’s D-scholarship repository, an open access digital archive of Pitt scholarship (at, is one response to the crisis; the library committee’s follow-up report outlines other recommendations. To gain perspective on these issues, our study group, composed of students enrolled in a Department of Communication graduate seminar last term, analyzed open-access policies, reviewed landmark articles central to the history of open-access and its broader implications, and consulted with key figures in the field via Skype.

In addition, our group gained practical experience with Pitt’s D-scholarship repository by attempting to complete 20 original submissions to the archive. In the process, we learned about issues involving the acquisition of author, journal and copyright holder permissions; the formatting and preparation of documents for submission; the preparation of video and audio media; the categorization of different types of documents on the D-scholarship web site, and the increase in visibility as a result of submission to D-scholarship. A full report on our team’s research will be released later in the term; this column highlights findings that are particularly relevant to the Senate library committee’s recent report.

Recommendation #1: Task force. We endorse the library committee’s call for the formation of a task force to “continue the conversation” on this issue. However, we feel that any such body should include students. As stakeholders with vested interests in the design of open-access repositories, students (particularly graduate students) should have a say in the creation and implementation of policies that they eventually will inherit.

Recommendation #2: Opt-out model. Noting that currently participation in the D-scholarship repository is voluntary, the library committee recommends “that the University open a discussion about moving toward a model of expected participation for faculty with an opt-out clause.” The current trickle of contributions to the D-scholarship repository (only 26 since its digital doors opened last fall), and the myriad difficulties we have encountered in attempting to submit material through an “opt-in” system, convince us that the impetus behind this recommendation is sound. However, we are leery of institutional pressure to “expect” participation in D-scholarship without providing requisite resources. Tasks such as standardizing permissions forms and preparing/formatting documents for submission require staff to effectively administer the program. We encountered many hurdles in our own submissions to D-scholarship. Because maintaining staff is costly, funding is paramount in considering any move toward “expected” open-access participation.

The most effective “opt-out” digital repositories —  at Harvard and MIT — were established through unified faculty action to establish a blanket, nonexclusive license reserving rights to post any Harvard or MIT faculty publication to the relevant institution’s open-access repository. A similar agreement at Pitt would make individual faculty negotiations with publishers unnecessary. When the process is easier and less administratively burdensome, it promotes compliance with mandatory open-access submission policies and reduces administrative costs. Discussion of University licensing therefore should accompany or even precede discussions about mandating or even “expecting” D-scholarship participation.

Recommendations #3 and #4: Education. Regarding the library committee’s call for University-wide education about authors’ rights and the implications of open-access for tenure and promotion, we think that it also would be necessary to educate scholars about the possible benefits and drawbacks of participating in open-access initiatives. Faculty and graduate students must be made aware of what is at stake by signing publishing agreements that allow participation in open access. For instance, open access could have a negative effect on journals that rely on subscriptions from end-users (and intermediary institutions representing end-users such as libraries). Free access to materials that otherwise would have to be paid for through subscription and reprint fees detracts directly from the revenue of such journals, which are common in the humanities and social sciences. However, there are potential remedies for this: Pitt could join the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity, a consortium of universities committed to reshaping the business model of scholarly publishing in ways that maximize academic rigor and open access.

We encourage others to join the conversation as Faculty Assembly and Senate Council move toward possible consideration of specific resolutions growing out of the library committee report.

Gordon Mitchell is associate professor, director of graduate studies and director of the William Pitt Debating Union in the communication department. Study group members included Lydia Hillary (lead student author), Candi Carter-Olson, Brita Dooghan, Matthew Gayetsky, George Gittinger, Allison Hahn, David Landes, Alexandra Seitz and Joseph Serv, all of Pitt, and Carolyn Commer, Carnegie Mellon.

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