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October 24, 2008

Open Access at the University of California

Posted by John Baez

This fall I became chair of the library committee at U. C. Riverside. I hate committees, but I’m passionate about free world-wide access to scholarly research: journals, books, course materials, and so on. So when the request to head this committee came in my email, I couldn’t honestly duck it.

As part of this job, I automatically became a member of UCOLASC — the University Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication. That’s a UC-wide committee that meets in Oakland a few times each year. I went to my first meeting on Friday. Much to my delight, the main item on the agenda was organizing the University of California’s push towards open access!

More about that push later. For now, here are a couple things I learned:

The University of California and Springer Verlag

The University of California has system-wide contracts with the ‘big three’ publishing houses:

  • Elsevier — we pay these guys $8.2 million each year. They sell us 34% of all the journals we get, and 27% of all the electronic content.
  • Wiley-Blackwell — we pay them $5 million each year.
  • Springer — we pay them $3 million each year.

Last year the Max Planck Society boldly canceled their subscriptions to 1200 Springer journals. As part of a successful attempt to lure them back, Springer worked out an experimental deal where Max Planck authors can make their papers in
open–access, free of charge. It’s good for the Max Planck Society since more people can read their papers for free. And it’s good for Springer, since only a few papers in each journal issue will be open-access: libraries can’t drop their subscriptions; they’re still stuck paying high prices.

The UC system has almost concluded its 2008 negotiations with Springer. We’ll pay the same journal prices for 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. And starting in November, UC authors should be able to freely make their papers open-access in Springer journals. But: UC authors need to choose to do this: it’s not automatic! When we submit papers electronically to Springer journals, and say we’re from the University of California, an announcement should pop up that lets us opt in to open access.

Some fine print: this doesn’t apply to Springer Lecture Notes, just journals. They put a cap of 2000 articles per year on this plan; they expect 1500 per year.

Open Access for NSF-Funded Research

In science, most of the really big money lies in medicine. Medical journals are really expensive. But now all research funded by the US National Institute of Health must be openly accessible, free of charge, at PubMed Central. It’s mandated by law!

How did this happen? A Republican congressman from Oklahoma with a sick relative pushed orward a bill in May 2005 which pushed voluntary open-access to NIH-funded research. But this only led to 7% of papers being made open-access. Harold Varmus, the Nobel laureate who headed the NIH, was not satisfied. So, he pushed for more… and eventually got it.

On December 23rd 2007, President Bush signed a bill mandating open access, over the objection of publishers. The policy became effective this spring. But there’s a 12-month ‘embargo’: open access to a given paper only starts a year after it’s been published in a journal. So, we haven’t really seen the policy kick in yet.

Still: all this is very promising, and very sensible. If taxpayers are funding scientific research, should they also have to pay to see the results?

So now: what about the National Science Foundation? Shouldn’t they be moving along the same road? Just think how great it would be if all NSF-funded science research were publicly available.

Alas, people at the NSF seem to think open access is unimportant. It’s not on their agenda — even though ‘dissemination of results’ is one of their grant criteria.

This has got to change. It may take legislation. But if you know someone at the NSF, please talk to them about this.

Posted at October 24, 2008 5:35 PM UTC

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Re: Open Access at the University of California

I have been following your advice and insisting on the right to keep my articles available on the arxiv when I’m signing copyright agreements. This has worked so far every time I’ve tried it eg with Elsevier. Is this known to fail with Springer? If every individual made their papers available online themselves, we wouldn’t have to rely on deals with the evil publishing houses.

Posted by: Eugenia Cheng on October 29, 2008 8:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Open Access at the University of California

I believe the Elsevier copyright transfer form explicitly allows you to put your stuff on the arXiv. Does anyone remember? For Springer, however, I think you really need to modify their copyright form to legally put your stuff on the arXiv.

I’ve done this several times — most recently for my contribution to the IMA proceedings, which turned out (to my surprise) to be published by Springer. Steve Lack did it too. It seemed to work.

For the Springer Lecture Notes in Computer Science, the copyright form reads:

The copyright to the contribution identified above is transferred to Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg New York (for U.S. government employees: to the extent transferable). The copyright transfer covers the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute the contribution, including reprints, translations, photographic reproductions, microform, electronic form (offline, online), or any other reproductions of similar nature.

The Author may publish his/her contribution on his/her personal Web page provided that he/she creates a link to the above mentioned volume of LNCS at the Springer-Verlag server or to the LNCS series Homepage (URL: and that together with this electronic version it is clearly pointed out, by prominently adding “© Springer-Verlag”, that the copyright for this contribution is held by Springer. From the Publisher’s point of view, it would be desirable that the full-text version be made available from the Author’s Web page only after a delay of 12 months following the publication of the book, whereas such a delay is not required for the abstract.

The last sentence is weird — since when does a contract say what would be desirable for one party? Can I stick in a sentence saying what I would like for my birthday?

I can’t find the analogous form for Springer Lecture Notes in Mathematics, but at least for one Springer journal the copyright form is even worse, not even allowing you to keep the paper on your own website.

So, yes:

When publishing in any journal, you should make changes in the copyright transfer form — if necessary — to keep the right to put your paper on the arXiv and your website… or whatever else you insist on!

A contract is a mutual agreement, and you have just as much right to write this contract as the publisher did. If the publisher doesn’t agree with what you write, it’s their job to let you know.

The business about making articles by UC authors open-access is certainly no substitute for doing this!

Posted by: John Baez on October 30, 2008 2:25 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Open Access at the University of California

The most recent copyright form I signed was with Springer (Applied Categorical Structures). But this was not a paper form, that one could amend by hand, it was an electronic form, and you basically just had to tick a box.

I wrote to Springer telling them the paper was on the arXiv and asking if there would be any problem and they wrote back saying that this was fine.

Posted by: Steve Lack on October 30, 2008 6:57 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Open Access at the University of California

Ah, I forgot that Applied Categorical Structures was Springer. For them I think I declined the electronic form, invented a new one, and emailed it to them saying “I assume that this is ok” or something.

Posted by: Eugenia Cheng on October 30, 2008 1:26 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Open Access at the University of California

Why don’t you just do what physicists do? Put everything on the arxiv, and completely ignore whatever the journals say. Everyone doing this is what caused Physical Review to stop objecting to the arxiv.

Posted by: matt on October 31, 2008 9:44 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Open Access at the University of California

I think that’s what most mathematicians do: ignore the contract that we have to sign to publish our work, and put our stuff on the arXiv anyway.

But personally I think it’s better to have a legal right to do what I’m doing. I don’t want anyone to have a contract, signed by me, promising not to do something I’ve done. So, I don’t sign the usual contracts until I’ve made sure they give me the right to put my stuff on the arXiv. If it requires modifying the contract, that’s what I do. The publishers never complain.

Posted by: John Baez on October 31, 2008 11:32 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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