Open Access and the Origin of the Research University

There’s been a lot written about the Research Works Act in the past week or so. I’m too swamped right now to keep up with it all, but John Dupuis has a nice collection of links for those with a few hours to read up on the topic, though I do wish he’d prepare a bullet list summarizing all the posts for all us busy librarians. I don’t have anything new to add, but I have been thinking of the RWA in historical context. The modern research university was originally created to allow professors to research any topic they wanted, pursue the results of the research wherever they might lead, and to publish the research for the world to share. (You can read all about this development and how it led to the foundation of modern academic libraries in my forthcoming book, Libraries and the Enlightenment.)

There’s a lot of support for open access in the ideas of those who founded research universities. One of the most influential, Daniel Coit Gilman, was the first president of the Johns Hopkins University. He believed that research universities should be “devoted to the discovery and promulgation of the truth,” and that “It is one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures–but far and wide.” Because Gilman believed in the promulgation as well as the discovery of truth, he founded not only the first German Model graduate school in America, but the JHU Press as well, which is the longest running university press in America. University  presses devoted to scholarship and not profits are the natural means of publishing academic research, but universities never adequately funded them, often insisting that they support themselves, even when the whole point was that they were publishing material that wasn’t commercially viable. (For a short history on university presses, consider Cecile M. Jagodzinski’s “The University Press in North America: a Brief History,”Journal of Scholarly Publishing, October 2008, 1-20, available from Project Muse).

One of the founding principles of the modern research university was that the results of that research should be published and widely available, but that principle was ignored over the years if not completely forgotten. If research universities and university presses had lived up to their promise, there would never have been a serials crisis or an open access movement. Were Gilman around today, he might be appalled at the way big universities have become big businesses that cut unprofitable research programs or the way that university researchers give their research results to companies that sell the results for a profit, but he would probably support open access initiatives as among the best ways to promulgate the truth he hoped universities would help discover. The creation of open access directives by the faculty at universities like Harvard and Princeton show that most professors still value the original motivation to share the results of their research widely. Though it seems dark days for the founding ideals of research universities, maybe it’s not yet too late after all, and maybe with enough provocation academic researchers will band together to make their research truly accessible to all.

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