Canadian Universities Too 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, my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) argues that 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.


  1. Paul R. Pival says:

    Michael, keep an eye on the University of Calgary Press!

  2. One too many words in your title, Professor…
    Should read, “Canada … Too Closed Minded on Open Access”.

    We need a politician with guts to say, “Here’s the deal… Open Access or no funding!”

  3. Stevan Harnad says:

    Michael’s article is timely and welcome, but it is nonspecific about just what it is that Canadian universities are closed minded about.

    It’s not about Open Access publishing. Those few Canadian universities that are journal publishers at all, are only very minor ones. The decision about whether and when (if ever) to convert to Open Access publishing is in the hands of the big international publishers (whose journals are also the ones to which access is most needed by users, both in Canada and in the rest of the world).

    Nor is Canadian universities making some of their scarce funds available to pay for Open Access publishing charges going to provide much Open Access either.

    For Canada, Open Access is about providing Open Access to Canada’s own research output, so that all potential users worldwide can access, use, apply and build on it, not just those whose universities can afford to subscribe to the journal in which it was published — and so that the findings of the Canadian researchers who did the research, and their universities, can receive the full usage and impact that their work deserves.

    The way to make all this happen is for Canadian universities to mandate that the final draft of every research article their researchers publish, regardless of which journal it is published in, must also be deposited in the university’s Open Access Institutional Repositories, to make the research freely accessible to all users online.

    That is what Canadian universities need to do in order to make all Canadian research output Open Access. That’s what Harvard and Stanford and MIT (and 100 other universities and research funders worldwide — but not Cornell, nor Athabasca nor York, but only the Library Department at University at Calgary) have already done.

    If you want Canadian Universities to open their minds to Open Access, you have to know what to put in their minds — and it’s about what they need to mandate that their own researchers put in their own repositories.

  4. Stevan Harnad says:


  5. Ryan Budney says:

    I have to agree with the previous poster. University presses in Canada are not major publishers. Speaking for my own little world, most mathematicians and physicists put their papers, preprints and subsequent revisions on the arXiv and/or on their own personal webpages. There has been a concerted effort in the mathematical world not just for open access, but to ensure publishers allow us to keep our work on the web (even for books), and to keep the prices of publications low. Open access has won the war. There may be a few dinosaurs remaining, but the plot is very clear, it’s an open access future.

  6. David Morales says:

    Under Open Access philosophy, Redalyc aims to contribute to the editorial scientific activity produced in and about Ibero-America making available for public consultation the content of 550 scientific journals of different knowledge areas: