You would have thought I was requesting a field manual for interrogating prisoners of war or a list of members on Dick Cheney’s Energy Taskforce. At least in those instances, I would have received a response that answering my questions violated national security or “executive privilege.”
All I did was ask five librarians at institutions administrating Open Access publication charges two simple questions:
“Can you provide a list of Open Access articles that you have supported through your author support program,” and “Have you rejected any requests to date?”
Now, before I give you the results, I need to mention that the librarians I contacted all serve in public institutions (University of California, Berkeley; University of Wisconsin-Madison; University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; University of Calgary, Canada; and University of Nottingham, UK), which means that their library budgets are also public documents.
Secondly, I need to remind you that publication is act of making a document public. I know this sounds tautological, but the act of publication is the act of making a knowledge claim part of the public sphere. Unlike some kinds of government documents (e.g. interrogation manuals), academic publishing is no secret, and the purpose of paying an Open Access publication charge is to make these document as freely accessible as possible.
If the library felt that author confidentiality was at stake (although I’m not entirely sure why), I would be willing to accept an anonymized report. And even if this were asking too much, simply the number of sponsored articles and the total price would suffice.
Two weeks after asking my simple questions, I received just two short responses. No list, no numbers, but at least a few details: There was some confusion on the part of faculty of what an OA article publication charge really was. Some faculty requests were actually for page charges in conventional subscription journals; one faculty submitted a request for reprint charges; others submitted invoices to the library when they should have been directed to the external granting agency (like the HHMI). To date, no bonafide requests have been denied.
While I am thankful for these two responses, I am troubled by a lack of transparency of how participating libraries are disclosing the details of their programs.
The Alliance for Taxpayer Access ran a strong campaign for the NIH Open Access Policy on the principles of transparency and public accountability. It was a successful campaign because these principles are fundamental to any democratic society. They were also a familiar presidential campaign topic last year and formed the current Whitehouse’s position on Transparency and Open Government.
But public accountability also requires that institutions be transparent in how they budget and allocate their taxpayer funds. Library Open Access policies cannot exist with secret budgets, ambiguous guidelines, and a practice of stonewalling requests for information.
Those who campaign for Open Access need to be held accountable just like everyone else, and budget transparency is the first step.