Open Access, Open Data, and Open Educational Resources

Category Archives: Self-Archiving

Beyond Elsevier

Elsevier has been sending takedown notices to any site hosting the final PDF version of its journal articles. The takedowns first became apparent on Mike Taylor was one of the first to blog about it, takedown recipient Guy Leonard blogged about it, and there’s a link roundup on Confessions of a Science Librarian. Later it became clear that the takedown notices were more wide-ranging, going to hosting services like WordPress as well as universities. The blowback was enough to prompt a response from Elsevier.

Elsevier can send takedown notices since it owns the articles in its journals. It owns the articles because authors who publish in Elsevier journals sign away their copyright before publication. The license agreement allows for archiving of the author’s version, but not the journal’s published PDF. Authors should avoid posting the published version of their articles as a general rule, though a few publishers do allow it.

Here are my suggestions for avoiding this problem:

  • Publish in an open access journal (see the Directory of Open Access Journals for a list by discipline). Many require only a license to publish, rather than a copyright transfer, and use a Creative Commons license.
  • If you can’t publish in an open access journal, check a journal’s archiving policy in advance by searching it in SHERPA/RoMEO.
  • Read the fine print regardless of where you are publishing. This is not like a software license where everyone just clicks “I Agree.” This is your work, so read licenses carefully. Copyright transfer gives complete ownership to the publisher, and your rights are limited to those listed in the license agreement.
  • Archive your post-print if possible, since it is your final version incorporating changes from the peer review process. If not allowed, post the pre-print. Archive in a repository where your article is immediately accessible, such as VTechWorks. Research networking sites require membership ( and/or software download (Mendeley) that are barriers to immediate access.
  • Make your archived version easy to read and reuse. If double spaced, revert to single spaced, and insert tables and figures in the appropriate places. Consider archiving your data as well so your work can be replicated and incorporated into larger studies. Attach a Creative Commons license to make it clear you are explicitly allowing reuse. [Update: if you transferred copyright you likely cannot assign a CC license- see discussions by Kevin Smith, Michael Carroll, and Charles Oppenheim.]
  • If you have co-authors, come to agreement early on publishing venues and archiving so you don’t get locked into a result you don’t like. Remember that typically one author signs for all authors, so that person must understand group wishes.
  • Learn about and download the author addendum which allows you to reserve rights, or use the addendum engine.

Above I briefly touch upon the fact that research networking sites do not provide open access, which is an aspect of this controversy I haven’t seen mentioned. By coincidence, at the time this became news I was searching for articles about DSpace and linked data and I found this article on If you take a look, you’ll see that this article isn’t downloadable or printable without becoming a member of All you can do is try to read the small print. Which, in my case, was enough to make me realize that I didn’t need it. But what if I did? This article isn’t available anywhere else. added gasoline to the fire by taking such a combative (and calculated) attitude toward Elsevier in its own notice to users, linking to the Cost of Knowledge boycott and extolling its own support for open access (“ is committed to enabling the transition to a world where there is open access to academic literature. Elsevier takes a different view…”). The e-mail signature of Richard Price, the CEO of, says “The goal of is to get every science PDF ever written on the internet, accessible for free.” I’m sure that would be good for, which is a for-profit business with an absurd domain name. Your participation on research networking sites will be monetized one way or another. If your article is available only on a research networking site, like the author above, do you want your work being used to attract members to a for-profit endeavor? Pro-open access statements by such companies should be considered with healthy skepticism, and in some cases they are just plain openwashing.

Most importantly,, ResearchGate, Mendeley (now owned by Elsevier) and others do not provide open access. Sign-up should not be required for access. Software download, in the case of Mendeley, should not be required for access. These services do not meet the definition of open access established by the Budapest Open Access Initiative:

By “open access” to [peer-reviewed research literature], we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.

The point of this is not to be rigidly ideological for its own sake. It’s important to know what the term “open access” really means, otherwise it will get co-opted for private uses. If you choose to use a research networking service, please make sure you also provide a copy of your article to an institutional or disciplinary repository where it can be found and downloaded on the open internet.

Library Faculty Pass an Open Access Mandate

On August 1 the Library Faculty Association at Virginia Tech adopted an article archiving mandate. Ballot choices also included a voluntary policy and no policy. The mandatory policy received 14 votes, the voluntary policy 10 votes, and no policy 3 votes.

The policy language originally followed the Harvard model, but the opt-out conditions were changed as a result of discussion. Some objected to sending opt-out waiver requests to the Dean’s office (or Dean’s designate), so someone suggested that faculty control access during the deposit process. Access choices are immediate open access (the default), delayed open access, or restricted (with metadata and a request button displayed). This aspect of the policy is similar to the immediate deposit/optional access policy advocated by Stevan Harnad (though deposit is not required immediately but by the time of publication). So the policy is a hybrid.

On a personal note, this was a long and frustrating process. The discussion lasted a year and a half (though that time spans most of two summers, when we did not meet). It’s hard to feel too celebratory when the debate is divisive and 13 faculty members are not on board. I never thought it would be so difficult to convince librarians that access to information is important, or that support for open access needs to be embodied, not just talked about. I’ve posted my 5-minute pitch preceding the vote.

The policy will be posted soon. Thanks to all of my colleagues who voted in favor of the policy. And though the policy is not strictly the one he recommends, thanks to Peter Suber for feedback that improved the policy and its associated FAQ.

Reader vs. Author

It’s striking to consider the dissonance between faculty as readers and faculty as authors described in a recent article by Rachel Bruce and David Prosser, Keeping research in step with policy. While the article’s context is the UK, where the most animated open access discussions are currently taking place, there are few differences from our situation in the US.

The article says a recent survey of UK academics found that, as authors, there was little interest in free web accessibility, yet

… the survey showed that, when researchers are themselves in the position of a reader, there is a strong desire for openly-available resources on the web.

When I hit a paywall, I do a search and feel grateful when an author has taken the trouble to archive an article that I need in a repository like VTechWorks. So I archive when I publish an article.

One US difference that the authors note is our use of interlibrary loan. While I use this service occasionally, I would much rather find an article myself on the web. ILL is more time-consuming and the article still costs money- it’s just that I’m not paying for it. But personally, I find a $50 charge for an article objectionable whether I’m paying for it or the university is. Those barriers of time and money disappear for readers when we archive our work.

The authors conclude that this reader/author dissonance can be overcome with time and explicit incentives. Traditional measures such as the impact factor will be replaced with altmetrics, making the advantages of openness clear. Universities can put more emphasis on open dissemination when they evaluate faculty.

This is partly a matter of reciprocity — we benefit from the open availability of articles on the web, so let’s ensure that our articles are openly available for others. But it’s also a matter of self-interest, since we benefit in the form of views, downloads, and citations. When we publish, let’s remember that we are readers as well, and no one has access to everything.

A MOOC at Virginia Tech

The participation of a Virginia Tech faculty member in a recently completed MOOC has been well documented in the Virginia Tech news, a Roanoke Times article, and in a blog about the course.

Tom Sanchez co-taught the TechniCity course with Jennifer Evans-Cowley of Ohio State, which has an agreement with Coursera. Thinking of Kevin Smith’s recent post in which article archiving saved the day for a Duke professor’s MOOC, I e-mailed Tom about the availability of course materials and he was kind enough to respond.

Naturally, materials (like journal articles) that might have cost the students money were avoided. Negotiating for copyright permissions or digging up previous versions were both deemed too time-consuming. The course did use some archived articles (the suggested readings on the course page links to two articles by Evans-Cowley from SSRN). Tom also noted that “we have a Mendeley group set up for the course topic(s), which is also a source of the content.”

While MOOCs are currently dependent on open content (and therefore provide an incentive to archive articles), that may be changing soon. Around the time the course was taking place, Coursera entered an agreement with publishers to provide licensed content to students (with many caveats, as the article notes).

I also asked Tom about the issue of course ownership. University ownership of MOOC content is viewed as a threat by the American Association of University Professors, as recently reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. Tom replied, “from what I’m told by the Ohio State people, we are free to use all of the course materials however we’d like. We used several ‘guest’ presentations and Coursera didn’t ask for copyright releases for these. I can imagine this will change over time.”

Thanks again to Tom Sanchez for sharing some of the behind-the-scenes details of the course.

[Update: see my interview with Tom Sanchez in August 2014 that goes into more depth about the course.]

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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