November 21, 2013

GUEST COLUMN: Sharing the Fruits of Our Labor

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In the last year, Cornell faculty have published discoveries that could transform our ability to treat muscular dystrophy, power the state of New York without fossil fuels and grow crops without dangerous salmonella.But the key to taking these discoveries, beyond just intellectual curiosities, is getting this information in the right hands.

The problem is that unless you are at a large research university or are willing to pay the $35 for a typical article, you can’t access most of the work published in academic journals. Who are we to think it will be someone with an institution’s journal subscription that will build on our cutting edge research?  Crowdsourcing has certainly taught us otherwise.

33 universities in the U.S. — including Harvard, MIT and all ten campuses of the University of California — have created digital repositories that make scholarly work published by their faculty freely available to the rest of the world, regardless of funding source. We think Cornell should do the same.

Not only is it in our mission, but an institutional open-access policy is also a logical extension of existing efforts at Cornell. A pilot program funded by the Library and the Provost’s office, for example, will pay the fees (typically $1,500) to publish in open-access journals when other funding is not available. And physics professor Paul Ginsparg ’81 PhD created, an open-access, electronic pre-print server that is the go-to for sharing research findings in physics and math, hosting almost 900,000 articles.

Studies show that open-access publications are more viewed, downloaded and cited than their non-open counterparts.  Hosting publications in an institutional repository will not only increase the visibility and utility of Cornell research, but will also create a digital archive of this work. As print subscriptions go the way of the dodo, Cornell lacks a copy of much of the work created on its own campus.

So if an institutional open-access policy is a way to share, archive, and advance research at Cornell, what isn’t it? Most importantly, it’s not an assault on the peer-review system. Such policies don’t weigh-in on whether a person should publish in a traditional journal or one that is exclusively open-access.

Nor do such policies presume information is free. Universities with open-access policies allow lags between when journals publish an article and when it appears on the institution’s repository. This means universities, which want access to the latest research findings, still subscribe to journals. But you’d also be remiss to think publishing shouldn’t evolve, because it already is. In fact, many major publishers are in full cooperation with institutional open-access policies, allowing work to be deposited even without embargo periods.

Because publishing is such a critical component to a person’s academic career, open-access policies allow faculty to opt-out when needed. No questions asked. But it’s important to have a policy that lets researchers opt-out rather than just opt-in. Cornell’s existing digital repository, eCommons, houses electronic copies of dissertations and university archives but as an opt-in repository, hosts few research articles. Compliance with the National Institutes of Health open-access policy went from 4 percent when it was just recommended to 75 percent after being required.

Importantly, open-access policies apply only to publications faculty normally publish without the expectation of getting paid for. Universities also can’t turn around and profit from work deposited in their repositories. Legally, authors don’t transfer copyrights under such policies; they just grant the university the right to distribute the work and are free to transfer the copyright to publishers as they always do.

Open-access policies also only ask for the final version of published work. If the publisher agrees, authors can deposit the aesthetically pleasing version that is type-set by the journal. Regardless, the text is word-for-word the same as the journal’s version allowing articles to be cited in reference to the journal.

We personally feel that our individual research is important enough to be accessed by the widest audience, and we hope Cornell faculty advance an open-access policy through the faculty senate. In the meantime, we hope graduate students, postdocs, and faculty all take short-term opportunities to increase access to their work by putting it on pre-print servers and individual websites according to journal policies. This will allow those doctors treating muscular dystrophy, entrepreneurs leading a fossil-fuel free energy revolution, and farmers improving the safety of their crops to make use of the research we work so hard to do here at Cornell.

Jimmy O’Dea is a post-doc in Chemistry. Mischa Olson is a graduate student in Plant Biology. Michelle Delco ’98 ’02 DVM is a graduate student in Biological and Biomedical Sciences.  Guest Room runs periodically this semester.  Feedback may be sent to

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