To the American Association of University Professors:
In 1940, your organization produced an important document: the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. In the 78 years that have passed since then, some things about academic life and work have remained more or less the same, while others have changed dramatically. Among the principles that, I think we’d all agree, are just as applicable and commonly-understood today as they were in 1940, are:
- The need for tenure, and the right of tenured professors not to be fired except for adequate cause
- The professor’s full freedom to discuss relevant subject matter in the classroom, unconstrained by administration’s preferences or views
- The proposition that faculty members’ public communications should be unfettered by the institution but should also be accurate and respectful of others
However, in one significant area of academic life and work — scholarly publishing — things have changed quite dramatically since the AAUP statement was written. This goes directly to the first article in your statement:
Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties.
You may be unaware of this, but the phrase “full freedom… in the publication of the results” has recently become controversial within the scholarly communication ecosystem. It may seem strange that this should be so — who could argue with the idea that scholars should be free to research what they wish and to publish it as they wish? — but it makes more sense in the light of developments in the scholarly communication ecosystem over the past fifteen years or so.
Since the mid-1990s, scholarly publishing has moved dramatically online. Not universally, of course; scholarly books are still largely published in print (though a growing number are published simultaneously as ebooks), but scholarly journal publishing is now primarily an online enterprise.
Online publishing has made something possible for the first time in human history: the instantaneous and near-universal distribution of journal articles. During the print era, there was no practical way to make articles freely available to all, because those articles were trapped on physical pieces of paper. But online, they can be quickly and easily disseminated to billions of people at the click of a mouse. This new reality has led many in the scholarly community to ask an important question: “Now that we can make scholarship freely available to everyone with an Internet connection, why aren’t we doing it?”
Our new online publishing environment has led many in the scholarly community to ask an important question: “Now that we can make scholarship freely available to everyone with an Internet connection, why aren’t we doing it?”
And the answer, of course, is that although the content is available online, access to it is restricted by publishers who charge for access to it. These access charges serve, to some degree, as a cost-recovery measure; publishers typically invest a fair amount of money in preparing articles for publication. But it’s also true that some scholarly publishers charge for access in the interest of generating profit for their shareholders, while many more do so in the interest of securing revenue streams to benefit their society members. Some publishers charge very high prices, some charge very low prices, and most are somewhere in between. But in each of these cases, the publisher can be said to be putting a “paywall” or an “access toll” between the content and its reader. Readers who are affiliated with colleges and universities are helped over those walls by their institutional libraries, which negotiate and pay for campuswide access on their behalf. Other readers pay the access tolls themselves, either by subscribing to journals individually or by buying articles piecemeal. Some make use of pirate operations like Sci-Hub. Many simply go without access.
Again, this is a reality that existed for centuries — and in fact was much more severe, with most people having much less access, during the print era. During that very long era no one particularly questioned this general lack of access to scholarship because it never really seemed like a problem; it was just the way things were given the logistical limitations of print. Obviously most people didn’t have access to specialized scholarship; how could they? But now that those limitations are evaporating, there has been a growing movement to advance open access (OA). While the movement is somewhat diverse in its goals and not everyone agrees on a single definition of the term, a work is perhaps most commonly understood to be OA if it a) is freely available to download and read, and b) may be reused without any of the restrictions imposed by copyright law. (The latter freedom is conferred on the public when an author applies to her work a Creative Commons license that allows unrestricted reuse, including republication, distribution, and the creation of derivative versions, for either noncommercial or commercial purposes. This license is designated “CC BY.”)
This isn’t the place to belabor the pros and cons of OA/CC-BY publishing; authors are capable of considering those and deciding for themselves whether such an approach is right for them.
So what does this mean in the context of the AAUP statement on academic freedom? Well, the issue that has arisen is that many in the OA movement are not content with making OA publishing options available to scholarly authors; they want OA to be mandatory. In recent years, such mandates have come into play in Europe and the UK—which is to say, in relatively small countries that have national systems of higher education and are therefore in a position to establish OA requirements centrally. In the US, there are many institutional policies that encourage OA, but these invariably include opt-out language that grants the author a waiver from the policy upon request. However, powerful private funding agencies (most notably the Gates and Ford Foundations) are increasingly adopting true OA mandates, failure to comply with which will result in ineligibility for future grants. Funding agencies in the US government are also beginning to require something like OA, although in this case the requirement is only that publications based on funded research be made available for all to read, not necessarily to reuse without restriction.
The time has come for the AAUP to take, and voice publicly, a position on the question of what exactly “full freedom in publication” means in the 21st century.
And this brings us back to the AAUP statement on academic freedom, and more specifically to the question of what exactly is meant by “full freedom in research and in… publication.” These words were written at a time when their meaning would have been quite clear: faculty authors should be able to decide for themselves whether, where, and how to publish their work. But they were written at a time when authors did not have mechanisms available for making their work freely available for reading and reuse, and therefore obviously could not be required to do so by their institutions, their governments, or their funders. Now that such mandates are an option — and are increasingly being pursued by institutions, governments, and funders — it may be time to revisit the relevant language in the AAUP statement, to clarify it, and to adapt it to the current information landscape. In doing so, questions you ask yourselves might include:
- To what degree do scholarly authors have a moral obligation to make their work as widely available as possible? To the degree that this obligation exists, is it different in the case of publicly-funded research than in the case of privately-funded or unfunded research?
- Does requiring authors to make their work freely available for all to read constitute a restriction on academic freedom? If so, why?
- Does requiring authors to make their work freely available for unrestricted reuse (including republication, the creation of derivative works, and commercial use) constitute a restriction on academic freedom? If so, why?
- Assuming that mandatory OA makes sense in principle, does it make more sense in one discipline than in another? (For example, should the results of medical or social research be treated differently from the results of literary research?)
- How does this issue apply to graduate students and their dissertations? Should they be subject to rules in this regard that do not apply to faculty? If so, why?
If you accept the invitation to revisit and clarify the language of the statement, I feel it’s only fair to warn you: not everyone will welcome an open discussion of this issue. Some (though not many) feel that OA itself is actually a bad thing that does more harm than good. On the other side, some feel that OA is not merely a good thing, but actually a moral imperative — that it shouldn’t be up to faculty to decide whether, where, and how they will publish, but that OA/CC-BY publishing should be required of them. Neither of these camps tend to be enthusiastic about any discussion that acknowledges and tries to analyze both the benefits and the costs of mandatory OA policies. And yet it seems clear that exactly that kind of discussion is urgently needed. As an organization dedicated to “advanc(ing) the rights of academics, particularly as those rights pertain to academic freedom and shared governance,” the AAUP has an important role to play in helping to resolve these difficult questions, which go to the very heart of the academic endeavor.
The time has come for the AAUP to take, and voice publicly, a clear position on the question of what exactly “full freedom in publication” means in the 21st century. The conversation will be difficult, but it is one we need to have, and the AAUP is uniquely well positioned to lead it.