Harvard Professor Stuart Shieber Downplays the Role of “Revolutionary”

From: “This Week’s News”, Library Journal.com (May 29, 2008).

Last week, Harvard University professor Stuart Shieber made history-he was named the first director of Harvard’s newly minted Office for Scholarly Communication (OSC). In his new role, Shieber will oversee the implementation of the university’s groundbreaking open access mandate, which he helped author, and which many suggest could have wide-ranging implications for the future of scholarly communication. “Let’s not go overboard,” Shieber says with a laugh and an audible wince when asked if he views his new role as a historic opportunity. “People like to extrapolate that [the mandate] will have a revolutionary effect. But you can’t make a policy based on that extrapolation. Sometimes there’s too much talk about momentous, revolutionary effects, it gets too far in front of what is really happening. There are lots of things going on, and there will be changes. We’re just trying to do our part.”

That sober approach should be heartening to observers concerned with getting the implementation rolling. In a conversation with the LJ Academic Newswire this week, Shieber embraced a straightforward mission “to support the efforts of the Harvard faculty to make their collective scholarly output as broadly available as possible.” It’s a big job, Shieber conceded, and one he didn’t necessarily expect to fall to him, despite his role in authoring the policy. “Certainly, there was no lobbying effort,” he laughed, when asked if he had expected to be tapped to lead the OSC. “But I have spent lots of time and effort on these issues, so it was a natural fit.”

Among the first, and perhaps the most central of his initial tasks, will be to establish the online repository that will be the fulcrum of Harvard’s OA mandate. “In theory, it is as simple as downloading some open source software and turning it on,” he said, “in practice, many complexities come up, such as having it work well with other systems already in place at the university.” Nevertheless, work on the repository is progressing, he says, and a beta could be in place shortly. Another big part of his new role will be outreach to faculty.

Perhaps the most engaging-if still unformed-aspect of Shieber’s new job, however, will be developing how Harvard will support and work with open access journals. “The OSC pertains not just to the open access policy, it’s broader,” he explains. “The policy offers open access the articles directly, essentially through author self-archiving. To the extent that we need to find alternative business models, it behooves Harvard to support those alternative business models.”

Shieber said he is looking at a few options to support open access journals. One is to work with the Harvard University Press (HUP), which he called an important ally. He said he has had many discussions with HUP about how the activities of the press and fit with the OSC, noting that HUP will soon publish its first journal in years, the Journal of Legal Analysis-an open access, faculty edited journal. “My hope is that this will be the first of several OA journals HUP will start to run. HUP is a likely venue by which Harvard can support OA journals.”

More broadly, Shieber’s goal is to see OA journals exist on “equal footing” with subscription-based journals. As of now, he says, they do not, because much of the money that underwrites the services of subscription-based journals comes from libraries while the money that underwrites OA journals comes mostly from author charges. “Authors don’t get underwriting help from the library when they publish in OA journals, while they do from publishing in subscription-based journals,” he explains. To put OA and subscription journals on a “level playing field,” he suggests, “you’d want to underwrite OA journals just as you do subscription journals.”

Both Shieber, and his co-sponsor in the FAS mandate, university librarian Robert Darnton, say they are confident of a continuing, vital role for academic journals in an open access future, and note that there has been much discussion at Harvard over whether OA might induce “a blowback effect” on the stability of those journals or peer review. Both believe the evidence does not threaten either journals or peer review, but “that doesn’t mean there is no uncertainty there,” Shieber added. “You can’t just say ‘don’t worry.’ You have too look at these issues. What we do know is we couldn’t keep going the way we had been going. We know that is not sustainable.”

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