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Princeton Joins Open Education Movement, But How Many Students Will Benefit?

Open education is a major trend right now in the world of higher ed.; institutions like Harvard and MIT have made significant commitments to sharing free scholarly material online. In late September 2011 Princeton decided to join the fun, embracing an open-access mandate that encourages its faculty to post their journal articles on free Internet venues. But without a ready means of distributing those articles themselves, what's the benefit to Princeton's initiative?

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By Eric Garneau

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Princeton Opens Up

In March 2011, a committee comprised of various Princeton faculty members from many disciplines recommended that their institution commit to open educational access in the same way that several of their peers had. Six months later, a unanimous faculty vote made it official: Princeton University would promote free, open availability for the scholarly articles composed by its faculty.

Far from the first university to make this decision, Princeton joins the ranks of schools like Yale, which made their digital images library totally open earlier this year, and Harvard, which after embracing a similar mandate in 2008 has collected all of their faculty's publications into a massive online database. Why are schools making this move? Princeton's open-access committee perhaps puts it best: 'The principle of open access is consistent with the fundamental purposes of scholarship.'

But unlike Harvard, Yale or MIT, Princeton does not yet have a plan in place to actually distribute those scholarly articles themselves - and without that plan, some worry that an open-access mandate could become essentially useless. Again, Princeton's faculty committee realized this, stating that 'an open-access policy without a ready means for faculty to post their scholarly articles and an equally ready means of retrieval would be of very limited value.' But the committee themselves made no concrete recommendations to Princeton, and right now there are no real signs that such a database is imminent.

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How Harvard Does It

To see what Princeton's future might hold, we can look at Harvard's database of scholarly articles, known as DASH (or 'Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard'). Although open access has only been a policy at Harvard for three years, DASH has already built an impressive repository of scholarly knowledge. As of this article's writing, its front page greets visitors with a myriad of diverse educational topics, from green power to the Qur'an. Perhaps more important than its content, though, is its organization: a navigation bar on the right-hand side of the page allows users to search DASH's archives by subject, author, keyword, title or even date submitted. DASH also makes it easy to share articles you find there on various social networking sites. It's a collection of information designed with the modern user in mind, and the wealth of knowledge found there provides a goal other universities should aspire to reach.

What's Next

Princeton's faculty committee stressed several times in their report that a DASH-like database would be the most, verging on only, effective way to capitalize on their open-access mandate. But given that the mandate was just approved a few weeks ago, whether or not that shall come to pass is uncertain. It seems likely, but to use a tired saying, scholars shouldn't count their chickens....

But while a central repository certainly would make the most of Princeton's commitment to open scholarship, their commitment to that openness is admirable regardless. Princeton's faculty is now free - and encouraged - to share their scholarly pursuits in free online forums (their own website, perhaps, or specialty sites related to their work). Even without a central database to host them, that has a lot of potential. And as for the database itself, perhaps we can rest easy by reversing another old saying: if they come, it'll be built.

How does MIT embrace open access?

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