Voluntary vs. Mandatory Policies

As the open access movement advances, more faculty become interested in providing access to their work. But there aren’t enough open access journals yet, especially in some fields. Self-archiving is very spotty- a few do it, but most don’t. So faculty associations in universities, colleges, and departments are adopting open access archiving policies.

One policy debate that sometimes arises is whether archiving should be voluntary or mandatory. Though some open access issues are unsettled, this one isn’t. Voluntary policies don’t work and never have.

Stevan Harnad made his “subversive proposal” to archive articles on a Virginia Tech e-mail list nearly 20 years ago. Recently he said:

If one thing has been learnt from the slow, sad saga of OA (now at least two decades old) it is that mandating OA works, but encouraging it doesn’t.

The faculty votes (many of them unanimous) that have taken place in the last few years have been for mandatory policies (there is no list of voluntary policies). The purpose of a policy is to increase the amount of openly available research online, and mandatory policies do a far better job of that:

Gargouri et al. 2010
Open Access (OA) Self-Archiving Percentages for Institutions With Self-Archiving Mandates Compared to Non-Mandated, Self-Selected Controls (Gargouri et al. 2010, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013636)

About 60% of journals now allow archiving of the author’s final version (the post-print), but only 10-20% of articles are archived. That’s why a mandatory policy is necessary. We need that nudge. We need that collective expectation that research will be open, not paywalled.

The word “mandate” evokes negative reactions even before policy details are heard, but it’s an inaccurate term in two ways. First, there is always an opt-out, so it is not a mandate in the strict sense of the word. Second, a policy is approved democratically by those directly affected by it. It’s not a directive from the provost or a dean. It’s a statement that says we think making research openly available is important enough to require it of ourselves.

As authors, we know that open access serves our own interests. More people can read our work if it’s not behind a paywall. Numerous studies confirm that openly available articles are cited more often. When everyone has access, promotion via social media is far more effective and raises the researcher’s profile. Even for those who don’t actively promote their work, the simple act of providing worldwide access generates views and downloads month after month.

We know that providing access to our research helps a lot of people, including those in the developing world and independent researchers. So we can produce a great public good (and advance our own careers) just by setting aside 10 minutes to archive one of our articles.

Let’s make policy decisions based on evidence. No faculty group can singlehandedly repair our dysfunctional system of scholarly communication, but we can begin taking steps to better fulfill the university mission, and that of land grant institutions. If the journals in our field put our research behind a paywall, let’s ensure worldwide access for our articles by taking 10 minutes to archive them.

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About Philip Young

Philip Young is Scholarly Communication Librarian at Virginia Tech where he supports outreach about open access, copyright/open licensing, open data, ORCID, and metrics/altmetrics.

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