Columns Archive

Canadian Universities Too Close Minded on Open Access

Appeared in the Toronto Star on October 19, 2009 as Canadian Universities Closed Minded on Open Access

This week is International Open Access Week with universities around the world taking stock of the emergence of open access as a critical part of research and innovation.  The basic principle behind open access is to facilitate public access to research, particularly research funded by taxpayers.  This can be achieved by publishing in an open access journal or by simply posting a copy of the research online.

In recent years, many countries have implemented legislative mandates that require researchers who accept public grants to make their published research results freely available online within a reasonable time period.  While Canada has lagged, a growing number of funding agencies, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Cancer Society, and Genome Canada have adopted open access policies.

The result is unprecedented public access to cutting-edge research.  There are now more than 4,000 peer-reviewed open access academic journals worldwide and more than 30 million articles freely available through Scientific Commons. An estimated 20 percent of the world’s medical literature is openly accessible within two years of first publication. Nearly ten percent is immediately available.

Moreover, there is budding momentum behind open educational resources, or open access teaching materials.  A growing number of governments foresee significant benefits – both economic and pedagogical – behind developing open educational resources that could supplement or replace conventional textbooks.

Notwithstanding the success stories, two major barriers remain. The first is the need for broader campus support for open access.  In recent months, many of the world’s top universities – including Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and Cornell – have adopted open access strategies that feature mandatory open access policies within some faculties as well as financial support to absorb costs faced by researchers who wish to publish in open access journals.

Canadian universities may benefit from far more public funding than their U.S. counterparts, but they have been much more reluctant to adopt open access mandates.  While there are some exceptions – Athabasca University along with the library departments at York University and the University of Calgary have adopted open access policies – most have been strangely silent on the issue.

Second, Canadian university publishers have been generally hostile toward open access. Leading university presses such as Oxford University Press and Yale University Press have experimented with open licences, but most Canadian presses have not.  

This is particularly troubling given the public dollars that support university publishers.   Last year, the Canadian university presses received more than $780,000 in financial support from the Department of Canadian Heritage, $1.4 million from the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program, and another $700,000 doled out from the Canadian Council for the Arts.  Yet despite nearly $3 million in annual taxpayer support from those three sources alone, most university presses have opposed open access strategies.

In fact, during the recently completed copyright consultation, the Association of Canadian University Presses signed onto a document that actively opposed a more flexible approach for fair dealing, a position otherwise broadly endorsed by the Canadian education community.  The University of Alberta Press, which last year received $72,000 from Canadian Heritage and $54,000 from the Canada Council, told a roundtable in Edmonton that it opposed flexible fair dealing and special reforms to assist education, yet backed legislation to support the imposition of digital locks on books.  

The success of open access points to the power of merging public support for research with Internet-based dissemination.  As the global community embraces its potential, Canadian universities should not be left trailing behind.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

Comments are closed.