They didn't get to Harvard by being stupid, you know. So it's not surprising that professors at the Ivy League school voted to place their scholarly articles online. They have much to gain and little to lose -- and their experiment has much for the rest of us to like as well.
The online postings will bypass scholarly journals, allowing Harvard to publish direct to the public. Though many details haven't been worked out, this should provide a way for faculty -- whose careers often hinge on a "publish or perish" system -- to meet publication quotas without having to worry about whether their latest treatise on Satan's role in "Paradise Lost" is too short for Milton Studies or too in-depth for Milton Quarterly. They still can publish in journals if they wish.
The public, in turn, gains free access to the work of some leading scholars and academics. Though Harvard's site might not rank up there with the Barack Obama music video on YouTube, there could be a surprising crowd of fans among the supposed ignorati of the Internet-scanning public. Scholarly blogs by professors, many in public policy or law, already have found widespread popularity.
The journals, of course, aren't happy, especially the smaller and more expensive ones. If something like this spreads and the thoughts of academic brainiacs are freely available, university libraries are unlikely to spend thousands of dollars for a year's subscription. Journal publishers predict darkly that without the rigor of peer review, the quality of scholarly work may suffer.
In some cases, especially in medical research, they could be right. For now, though, the open-access rule affects only the faculty in arts and sciences. Whether this means some sloppy scientific work gets onto the Internet remains to be seen, but that would hardly be a first, with or without the Harvard open-access rule.
One way Harvard could help ensure high quality, and draw more interest to its professors' work, would be to provide a space on its site for viewers to respond. Subjecting a thesis to the comments of the broad-based public, ranging from other professors to amateur academics, is one of the surest ways to give it a thorough, if more raucous, vetting.
Universities are more than places that confer degrees. They are cultural repositories where a society of learned people maintains and expands on a tradition of thought and study. But with so much of professors' work seen only by their specialized colleagues, the public has lost touch with the value of supporting obscure scholarship. Opening the doors to the ivory tower would help keep it standing and edify us all.