Oberlin Blogs

Open Access!

November 23, 2009

Prof. Sebastiaan Faber

Is Oberlin, in the end, mostly about teaching? A couple of years ago I had a discussion with someone who defended that point of view. I disagreed. Oberlin, I argued, is a university in the traditional sense of the word. It's essentially a place that generates stuff. It's a place where different groups of people spend an intense time together to create knowledge, music, and art.

What makes the students here so great is that they are deeply committed to changing the way the world is seen and understood. As teaching faculty, we do our best to allow them to do exactly that, using syllabi, class meetings, assignments, and the like. But meanwhile many of us, too, are actively engaged in our own creative efforts. We write books and articles, give talks, create and curate shows, perform and compose music and art. We like to think of ourselves as teacher-scholars or teacher-artists, and are proud that some of our colleagues are at the very forefront of their fields. We also like to think that our commitment to our own work enriches what we do in the classroom.

And yet Oberlin has been strangely coy about all of this. There currently is no booklet, for example, not even a website, that gathers or lists the fruits of Oberlin's collective scholarly labor. No wonder people think that we do little more than teaching.

Fortunately, this is about to change. Last week the College and Conservatory faculty unanimously adopted a resolution that commits us to two things. First, to consistently report our scholarly publications so that they can be gathered in one place. Second, to make the full text of those publications, particularly peer-reviewed articles, openly accessible to the entire world, through a digital repository.

This is a big deal. Currently much of the cutting-edge knowledge about the world is out of reach for most of the people who inhabit that world. If you want to read the latest research on Shakespeare, protein folding, or Russian nationalism, you're out of luck if you don't happen to be at an institution that can afford to subscribe to high-priced scholarly journals. "That's fine," you might say. "After all, research is expensive." Yes, sure, it is expensive. But those expenses are not carried by the journals that charge an arm and a leg for access to its results. In fact, much of the research is funded by the same institutions that are forced to shell out big bucks for the journal subscriptions--if it isn't funded by some country's taxpayers. Ironically, right when the Internet makes it easier and cheaper than ever to provide access to knowledge, that access is increasingly limited. (Students who don't agree with this situation have joined forces in the Students Right to Research Coalition, to which Oberlin belongs as well.)

So-called Open Access Policies, of which Oberlin adopted a version last week, are meant to help reverse this trend. It was Harvard who took the lead on this issue a year ago, when its Faculty of Arts & Sciences committed themselves to making the results of their research openly accessible to the entire world. It's not been two years yet, but Harvard's repository, as you can see here, is filling up nicely. Since then, a handful of institutions have followed suit, including MIT and the University of Kansas. So far, Oberlin and Trinity University are the only two liberal-arts colleges to make a similar commitment. But I predict that many more will soon follow.

Oberlin's stand on Open Access is just a dot on the global landscape. After all, we're only a small school. Still, as a matter of principle it's an important step: we are stating our conviction that access to knowledge is a good in and of itself. Meanwhile, the resolution will also allow us to do a better job at presenting ourselves as what we really are: a place that is not about transferring knowledge, but about creating it.

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