Since everyone else is talking about the new open access mandate from Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, I figure I might as well jump in, too.

There are any number of details that will have to be worked out before we know how the mandate will be implemented, and we will probably never know the precise effect on the world of scholarly publishing. But the vote of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences makes a point that should be widely applauded in the academy. Harvard University Librarian Robert Darnton put it well in his op-ed before the faculty vote:

The motion before the FAS provides a way to realign the means of communication in a way that will favor learning. It will be a first step toward freeing scholarship from the stranglehold of commercial publishers by making it freely available through our own university repository. Instead of being the passive victims of the system, we can seize the initiative and take charge of it.

What almost all faculty care about almost all of the time is the dissemination and use of their work, not its commercial consequences. We have always known this, of course, although organizations that purport to speak for the interests of authors frequently place inordinate emphasis on authors’ commercial interests. What the Harvard faculty has done is give us all a visible and powerful affirmation that what really matters is academic work itself, and not the profitability of particular industries that have grown up around it.

Faculty time and effort, in research, writing, and reviewing, are by far the most valuable ingredients of scholarly publication, and there is enormous scope for universities and faculties to reclaim publication and the associated profits from commercial enterprises. The problem of limited, over-priced access to scholarship is a big one, and the more different ways we try to fix it, the better our chances that a few of them will work. The declaration by Harvard’s faculty focuses on one strategy — mandated (or at least default) deposit into institutional repositories. But more important than the choice of strategy, the declaration reminds us of how much is at stake and why it matters.

It is somewhat troubling that some academic publishers and academic societies have expressed concern that the Harvard mandate will put them at mortal risk, while merely trimming the profits of the big commercial publishers. Plainly, we in the academy have an interest in robust nonprofit scholarly publishing, but we should not fall for the idea that the only way for nonprofit publishing to survive is through policies that assure huge profits to the big players. (There is an analogy to agricultural policy here. In the name of preserving the “family farm,” governments around the world provide billions in subsidy to agribusiness.)

For now, let me repeat that the big news in the Harvard vote is that it helps all of us to focus on the main point — which is that scholarly publishing, through a variety of mechanisms, is first and foremost about making scholarship public, not making money. So, strange as it may sound coming from Ann Arbor: Go Crimson!