Submitted on Friday, 3/29/2013, at 12:31 PM

March 29, 2013

In keeping with a global trend toward making information open to all, the faculty at Amherst College voted this month overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution that will effectively offer their forthcoming scholarly articles online for free.

Bryn Geffert

According to the agreement, the professors have given Amherst permission to exercise the copyright to any such writings published in peer-reviewed journals as of March 5. “In plain terms, that means faculty members remain the owners of their own work, but that they grant the college the right to distribute that work for them and to authorize others to do the same,” explained College Librarian Bryn Geffert, who helped present and champion the open-access resolution to the faculty. It also means that articles published by journals now locked behind paywalls will be viewable on the college’s website at no cost.

The college will post these articles in a soon-to-be-created repository on the college’s website for all to see. 

“We’re excited to make the work of our professors freely available to everyone, everywhere, regardless of means,” said Geffert. “Before this resolution, only people or institutions that could afford often pricey subscriptions to journals could read the articles in those journals. Now, anyone anywhere—a community college student in North Dakota, an undergraduate in Malaysia or a postdoctoral researcher in Iran—will be able to access articles authored by our faculty. It’s wonderful news on a number of levels.”

Geffert explained that library expenditures on subscriptions for professional journals at Amherst and at other colleges and universities have been rapidly outpacing all other purchases; they are decimating the budgets schools have to spend on other acquisitions. “We must find ways to make literature available for those institutions and individuals that cannot absorb these escalating costs,” he said, adding that “as more institutions and faculty members agree to these kinds of resolutions, more information is being made available to all.” 

The adoption of the resolution is part of a growing movement at Amherst in support of open access. In December, for example, the college launched Amherst College Press, a new digital publishing venture that will offer peer-reviewed books written by leading scholars in the humanities and the social sciences that are then carefully edited and made available for free online. (At present, the press is looking for a director.) The new policy also exemplifies the college’s motto, Terras Irradient, a Latin phrase that means “Let them give light to the world.”

Under the terms of the resolution, Amherst enjoys a “nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide license” to the professors’ scholarly articles, provided it does not sell the articles for a profit. Essentially, faculty members grant a license to the college to distribute their articles for them, said Geffert, and Amherst will post each faculty article unless directed otherwise.

Any individual who wants to opt out of this agreement and provide a particular publisher full rights to his or her own work can simply sign a waiver and submit it to the Dean of the Faculty’s Office, which is administering the policy. This can be done at any point in the process.

Christopher Kingston

“What is exciting to me is that one day soon, anyone will be able to go to the college’s website, click on a link and access a repository of the Amherst faculty’s research,” said Associate Professor of Economics Christopher Kingston, who advocated for the idea on behalf of the faculty’s Library Committee. “Internally, posting all of our work there will enable the members of the Amherst faculty to see what other colleagues are doing and then possibly forge connections and collaborations they haven’t considered in the past. The hope is that making research available externally will do the same, and the data available from the schools that have already passed open-access resolutions is promising—click-throughs and views of articles made available for free do, in fact, increase.”

The issue of open access first came to the entire faculty body during a meeting in February 2012. During an update of the Library Committee, representatives of that group and professors expressed dismay at the escalating price of serial subscriptions. Geffert, Kingston and the other members of the committee then reported on investigations about the open-access movement and how other schools were responding.

After contacting colleagues at schools that passed their own resolutions— MIT, Harvard and Duke, among others—the Library Committee, in consultation with legal counsel, came up with a policy that they first presented to the Amherst faculty in December 2012. A slightly revised resolution was then passed by majority vote on March 5, 2013.

In embracing such a policy, said Kingston, “Amherst joins a growing number of institutions of higher education, including several liberal arts colleges, that have adopted similar resolutions.” And it should stand up to scrutiny, he added: “The college’s policy is modeled on the open-access policies of these other institutions and incorporates the best practices in the area.”