Wednesday, February 20, 2008

NIH and Harvard - It's About Values

If it hasn't started yet, there's going to be grumbling soon enough when the reality of the NIH and the Harvard Faculty of Arts & Sciences ("FAS") policies set in. These policies require that faculty authors treat that moment when they are about to sign a journal publisher's copyright transfer agreement as an Aretha Franklin moment. The author has to hear the members of the underserved audience who will be denied access if that form is signed. The author has to hear, "You better think (think) think about what you're trying to do to me."

We should expect that under the NIH and FAS policies, some faculty will chafe when they can't just sign the publisher's form and have have to start using a contractual addendum or some other legal notice in response. They'll become even more exasperated if publishers respond by amending the amendments. As masters within their respective domains, faculty are likely to feel some frustration reflecting discomfort with the unfamiliar, and perhaps alienating, legal language in both the publisher's form and the addendum.

The key point is that this really is not a technical conversation. It's a conversation about values. Contractual language is designed to capture a shared understanding among the parties, and the likely back-and-forth about copyright reflects a difference of opinion about the value of public access to scholarly thought and research. The point of the back-and-forth over copyright is to persuade the publisher to accept NIH's and FAS commitment to equitable access to scholarly research or to force the publisher to reveal that it operates under a different set of values.

So while it may be tedious or uncomfortable for a faculty author to have to carefully read the language of any agreement or addendum, that author must do so to effectively express the shared values of the Faculty of Arts & Science in Harvard's case and the American people's in the NIH case.

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