In his 1973 book, “The Sociology of Science,” the influential American sociologist Robert K. Merton declared: “All scientists should have common ownership of scientific goods (intellectual property) to promote collective collaboration.” This “Mertonian norm,” as it came to be known, long predated the internet (Merton first theorized it in 1942), but some scholars see it as a founding principle of the open access movement, which argues that knowledge should be free, online, and legal to reuse and share.
Merton died in 2003, but aspects of his ideas about collective scientific collaboration live on in policy recently announced by the federal government. In late August, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released new guidance to make the results of federally funded research immediately available to the American public at no cost. The policy memo was a boon to many U.S. academics, researchers, and librarians, who for years have been advocating with a wider international community for open access and open scholarship. The White House directed all federal departments and agencies to implement the new policy by the end of 2025, meaning that paywalls and embargos on taxpayer-supported research will soon be a thing of the past.
The University of Virginia Library has long supported the open access movement and provides multiple services to assist faculty, scholars, and researchers with making their work open and freely available to the public. In honor of International Open Access Week, we spoke with Brandon Butler, the Library’s Director of Information Policy, about the new policy and what it means for the University. Butler, a copyright lawyer, serves on a UVA-wide open scholarship working group, which will be holding an Open Scholarship Town Hall for UVA faculty on Oct. 24. “I’m a big advocate for open access,” Butler said. “I want to help anybody in the University community who has questions or concerns or is interested in sharing their research in a new way.”
An edited version of our conversation is below:
Q. When would you say the open access movement started? Was it during the dawn of the internet, or does it go back before that?
A. Open access was essentially a movement that was created in scholarship as a reaction to the feeling that it doesn’t make sense to put scholarly work behind a paywall when the internet makes it simple to make things free. The timeline for the movement, can go pretty far back, all the way to the wonderful sociologist Robert Merton, who argued that the ethic of scholarship and research is that what you make should be shared with the world. If you’re making things and withholding them and hoping to charge fees, then that’s not entirely consistent with the values of science. So, the values go way back.
But open access, as we know it today, is strongly connected with the internet. If you wanted to find the perfect inception point, you might look to the Budapest Open Access Initiative. This was a declaration authored in early 2002 by some of the leading thinkers about the ethics and economics of science. They wrote: “An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds.” Ever since then, we’ve been trying to figure out how to change the way we do scholarship to meet that simple opportunity.
Q. How has the UVA Library worked to support this movement? And what are some of the main resources it offers in terms of open access?
A. I would say it’s a four-part answer.
- We support repositories, which are robust, preservation-quality places where scholars who want to make their work open can put their work, and it will be accessible and findable by any scholar in the world because our systems are library-quality. The work will be preservable forever. These repositories are free for any UVA-affiliated author to deposit their work into. They include Libra for articles and other scholarly output, and we also have Libra Data, which is for datasets. The repositories are primarily self-serviced; you make your own deposits, but we’ve got the tools there for you and we’ve got people who can answer your questions.
- The second open access pillar here is our Library publishing operation, which is called Aperio. It’s a press, and it lives in the Library. The goal of Aperio is to help make it easy for faculty and students at UVA who want to create a new open access journal, or who want to publish a new open access scholarly book. We have four journals now that are using Aperio. And it’s free, both to the reader and the author. Some of the open access publishing models out there require authors to pay a fee to cover the cost. Generally, these fees are way too high and they create a real barrier for authors. Our goal all along has been to eliminate that fee — recently, we were able to do that. Every Aperio journal and book is peer-reviewed; these are publications that are up to the same standards of quality as any other scholarly journal or book in the fields where they operate.
- The third pillar here is our Research Data Services + Sciences team. The original Budapest Open Access declaration talked only about journal articles, but over the last 15 years we’ve seen an evolution to recognizing that some of the most valuable scholarly products are data sets — the raw data, that’s the real stuff. So, our Research Data Services team does a lot of powerful work in support of open access. They help people get their data into good shape and develop the kind of data management plans that funders are asking for. That way the data that ends up in an open repository or published somewhere freely available for reuse is in a form that people can actually use.
- I’m saving the least for last, but that’s me. There are, of course, legal questions and policy questions that come up. I can help individual authors figure out what their contracts really If they choose to publish with a particular journal publisher, how can they make their work more open? I also help folks who are embarking on a research project and want the results to be open, but they don’t know how to do that. They may wonder, “How do I put a license on data? What license should I use?” I can’t be everybody’s lawyer, but I can educate them, and help them understand what the choices are and what they mean.
Q. What are your thoughts on the new White House policy?
A. The new White House policy is fantastic. It is a dream come true. It is the kind of change that open access activists have been trying to achieve for literally two decades, since the beginning of the movement. We’ve been going to funders, including the federal government, and saying, “Don’t you think that when you pay for research, the results should be available to everyone?” That’s been the fundamental case we’ve been making all along. COVID and then monkeypox changed things. In the COVID pandemic, publishers made a lot of research freely available temporarily. And then when the monkeypox outbreak came around, federal health agencies asked publishers to make monkeypox-related research freely available, but many publishers balked. I think it just really drove home to the federal research funders that this is absurd — we should not be begging for our own research. That’s where this memo comes from. It pushes the idea that an embargo is just not a tolerable compromise anymore; everything needs to be free and immediately available in order to really accelerate science.
They also expanded the policy to every federal agency that funds research. So that means National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, federal social science funding — all that is going to be covered by this policy. And it’s not just about the articles, it’s about the data; the data that is behind every published article that comes from federal funding will also have to be free and open. And that’s huge.
The other thing that’s meaningful about this memo is that it is really beginning to harmonize with the broader conversation in the global open access community that it’s not just about articles; it’s about data. It’s also about things that are a little less sexy, like persistent identifiers [a long-lasting reference to a document, file, web page, or other object]. This is real librarian stuff — metadata.
Everyone around the world is now moving in this direction. Even private funders, like the Gates Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, all these people are now starting to sing from the same hymnal. And that’s really important.
Q. What can you tell me about the UVA open scholarship working group?
A. It’s a great group, and it predates the memo. It originated with the National Academies of Science, and supported by open research funders like the Gates Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society. Upwards of 50 universities are working with this larger group to help scholars create a smoother path toward open practice. The UVA group is working to identify University policies that will help promote open scholarship here on Grounds.
Our open meeting on October 24 is an event for faculty, especially faculty members who are ambivalent about open scholarship work. This first meeting is meant to explain the global trend in favor of open scholarship, what the Library does to support it, and what our working group is thinking about the federal policy. The ultimate goal is to hear the faculty out, to allow them to ask all the questions so we can make sure that whatever we do is responsive to the concerns and interests that the faculty raise. The provost’s office will present, along with Phil Bourne, dean of the School of Data Science; Brian Nosek from the Center for Open Science; Dean of Libraries John Unsworth; and me.
Q. Anything else you’d like to add?
A. I’ve hinted all around this, but the thing that I think has to be said as explicitly as possible is that the No. 1 barrier to open practice is outdated promotion and tenure standards. And until the scholarly disciplines can evaluate research in a way that is not reliant on journal brands and journal metrics, we’re not going to make progress on this problem. It’s a big barrier that we’re going to have to get through, so I feel like it’s important to bring that up. Our goal at the Library is to help academic departments understand the value of open practice and help them see that it would be good to reward that practice.