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Globe Editorial

Open access to brilliant insights

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February 19, 2008

HARVARD'S ARTS and sciences professors have decided to give the world a look at their research, agreeing to place journal articles in a digital repository that any Web surfer will be able to use for free.

The policy is a bold move to boost the unrestricted, global use of research articles. This open access policy fulfills the great promise of the Internet: Someone in Finland, Japan or Kenya will be able to browse faculty members' articles on literature, science or history. It should mean fewer treks to academic libraries and fewer roadblocks on journal websites that now deny access to nonsubscribers unless they're willing to pay.

Proposed by computer science professor Stuart M. Shieber, the open access policy presumes that the mission of academic publishing is not to make money but to create, preserve, and share knowledge. As envisioned by Shieber, once a faculty member publishes an article - after it has been peer-reviewed, revised, and edited - a copy will go in Harvard's repository. Faculty members will have the right to opt out, publishing the article exclusively with professional journals and not putting it in the repository. But the hope is that most scholars will want their work to be read and cited as widely as possible.

Other schools should follow Harvard's lead. The move will also let arts and sciences faculty reclaim the right to use their published work from journals that have traditionally restricted the use of such work.

Open access is increasingly popular in the academic world. Faculty members at the University of California are considering a proposal similar to Harvard's. There are also free, open access, peer-reviewed journals such as PLoS Biology, which is published by the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit that is, according to its website, committed to making the world's scientific and medical literature a "public resource."

MIT offers open access to its classes on its OpenCourseWare website, which posts the syllabi, lecture notes, reading lists, and exams for more than 1,800 courses. One click away is MIT's Highlights for High School webpage, which spotlights course information that can be used by high school teachers and students.

Other schools such as the University of Oregon have digital repositories. But unlike Harvard, they don't require faculty to participate or deliberately opt out.

The Internet offers the means to free knowledge. The world's knowledge-brokers have to provide the will and the ways.

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