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Keeping the fruits of knowledge within reach
The Berkeley Research Impact Initiative explores alternatives to traditional publishing models

| 27 February 2008

At a time when budget-strapped university libraries nationwide are struggling to keep pace with rising subscription costs for scholarly publications, Berkeley is exploring alternative routes to the unfettered pursuit of knowledge.

For the next 18 months, campus researchers can obtain funding to publish their work in open-access journals, which typically charge authors a fee to make their work available online immediately upon publication at no cost to readers. Funds are also available for publication in traditional, fee-for-access journals offering an open-access option to researchers willing to pay for the privilege. The subsidies will pay for publishing costs not covered by grants or contracts.

Under the newly launched Berkeley Research Impact Initiative (BRII), faculty, postdocs, and graduate students can apply for campus funding to subsidize the entire amount, up to $3,000, charged by such open-access publishers as the nonprofit Public Library of Science (PLoS) and the for-profit BioMed Central. The program will also cover up to half the amount charged by so-called hybrid journals, which post a portion of their content online immediately upon publication. A growing number of venerable, for-profit academic publishers - including industry giants like Elsevier (with more than 2,000 journals) and Springer (with 1,300) - now make that option available to authors.

The pilot program was announced last month by Vice Chancellor for Research Beth Burnside and University Librarian Thomas Leonard, whose offices are co-sponsoring the initiative. In addition to subsidizing publication in nontraditional venues, BRII is designed to gauge faculty interest in new publishing models and their potential impacts on campus finances.

An 'unsustainable' trend

The initiative has its genesis in a 2005 conference here on scholarly publishing and the challenges of ensuring that researchers' work is broadly accessible by readers on- and off-campus. The Berkeley Library's budget has been flat since 2001, while journal prices continue to rise.

"The trend is just unsustainable," says Chuck Eckman, the campus's associate University Librarian and director of collections. "The current-model library structure isn't really working with the large-scale commercialization of the journal-publishing realm."

As just one recent example of the price crunch facing university librarians, Eckman points to the American Anthropological Association's announcement, in September, that it was moving its entire publishing operation - comprising some two dozen academic journals - from the nonprofit University of California Press to the commercial Wiley-Blackwell. He notes that other U.S. institutions, including the University of Wisconsin and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have started smaller subsidy programs for faculty researchers, as have some in Europe.

For Berkeley, the concern grows that as journals price themselves out of the market, research performed by a Berkeley scholar might not be available in a campus library. And unless the researcher has opted to publish in an open-access format, the work might not be available online either for six months or more, the standard embargo for traditional journals, including so-called society journals published by associations like the National Academy of Sciences.

"Something's not working on the library side, and we're interested in new ways of thinking about how we might create a sustainable budget," says Eckman. "And while it isn't clear yet whether open access can accomplish that, we want to be exploratory, rather than just sitting back and taking the old path of continuing to cancel and cancel and cancel."

Campus libraries, he adds, have a vested interest in encouraging the hybrid approach, and in providing financial help to university researchers willing to take that route. "It may be that the cost of a subscription is just too much to bear for this or other libraries," he explains. "But if the institution at which the research was conducted has taken this proactive approach, at least the research findings will be available to the scholars on that campus."

The initiative, says Eckman, is intended to produce information about what works best for all elements of the campus academic community, from librarians to researchers - not necessarily to promote open access as an alternative publishing model.

"One thing that was critical to some was that whatever we do, we make it clear we're trying to provide support and respond to new challenges and opportunities in the market, but that we're not directing anyone to publish in any particular venue," Eckman says. "Autonomy and the needs of advancement and tenure are things we don't want to upset."

For more details of the program, or to apply for funding, go to lib.berkeley.edu/brii.