The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has committed to making its published research findings available to the public free online.

The new open access policy — the first such campus-wide policy at a U.S. university — went into effect after a unanimous vote by faculty at the Cambridge, Mass., university earlier this week.

"The vote is a signal to the world that we speak in a unified voice — that what we value is the free flow of ideas," Bish Sinyal, chair of the MIT faculty, said in a statement issued Friday.

Articles published in academic journals are one of the major ways researchers share their research results. As part of the process, journal publishers make copyright agreements with the author that require them to transfer most or all of their rights to the publisher. The publisher then charges universities, other institutions and individuals to access the articles.

Under MIT's new policy, by default:

  • MIT faculty grant the university nonexclusive permission to distribute their articles through Dspace, its free online repository.
  • Both faculty and the university have the right to use and share the articles for any purpose other than to make a profit.

The policy is already in effect before the authors make any agreement with a journal publisher. However, authors may opt out of the policy on an article-by-article basis.

Similar policies are already in place at individual schools at Harvard and Stanford universities, but not campus-wide.

In Canada, Athabasca University instituted a policy in November 2006 requesting that faculty, academic and professional staff deposit an electronic copy of any published research articles in its repository. However, it does not require the articles to be accessible online to people who search for them.

The MIT news release Friday noted that the journal publishers have been charging subscription rates that are rising at a rate "far outpacing inflation."

"In the quest for higher profits, publishers have lost sight of the values of the academy. This will allow authors to advance research and education by making their research available to the world," said Ann Wolpert, director of libraries at MIT.

Most journals allow online archiving

John Wilbanks, vice-president for science at Creative Commons, said the vast majority publishers already allow researchers to distribute their articles online for free through online repositories like MIT's. But it's not always easy for authors to figure out what their rights are because publishers' copyright agreements vary.

"What this [the MIT policy] does is make it standard and simple," said Wilbanks, whose organization helps make it easier for people to share images, writings, databases, patents or other creations on the internet through tools such as specially crafted copyright licences.

He said many publishers are already learning to deal with the new reality of increasing open access because the motivation behind it for researchers is so strong — making articles more accessible increases their the number of people who read them and cite them, boosting their impact.

"And if you're a publisher and you're going to reject anyone who has to follow one of these things [open access policies]," he said, "you're turning down  Harvard, MIT, Stanford — you're turning down some pretty important scholars."