Faculty Senate debates open access research publishing

March 19, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A lively debate about the future of research publishing at Penn State was the centerpiece of the most recent meeting of the Penn State Faculty Senate.

At its March 12 meeting, the senate engaged in vigorous discussion about what has become a hot topic among researchers in recent years: open access scholarly publications versus traditional subscription-based journals.

Open access debate

The open access discussion stems from a resolution the senate passed in 2015 in support of open access scholarly publications. Open access publications, unlike other subscription-based models of academic publishing, do not require a subscription fee to read, meaning the research published therein is more widely accessible and available, including to members of the public.

A number of senators noted that more and more universities are embracing open access publishing, with major universities like the University of California severing its relationship with Elsevier, the largest scientific publisher in the world. Karen Estlund, associate dean for technology and digital strategies with the Penn State University Libraries, noted that these subscriptions typically cost a university millions of dollars per year, with costs rising by as much as 19 percent annually as journals experience profit margins higher than the oil and gas industry.

Many senators agreed that creating a more formal policy in support of open access publishing would be a step in the right direction, with a desire to make their research more easily available outside of academe as a primary concern. One senator shared his feeling that Penn State, as a major research university, has a responsibility to push back against costly publishers for the benefit of smaller universities with less resources to do so.

However, faculty members also expressed concerns about that potentially losing access to subscription-based journals would negatively impact their research, while others were unsure how the cost distribution would be handled under an open access model.

The Senate Committee on Libraries, Information Systems and Technology will use this feedback in considering next steps and drafting a potential open access policy for the senate to consider at a future meeting.

Academic advising policy

The senate also continued work to update its policies on academic advising. Having accepted a legislative report on proposed updates and goals for the academic advising policy at its January meeting, the senate continued to talk about potential steps to meet the goals of the report and strengthen advising.

Several senators shared their feelings that, while they and other faculty members care a great deal about advising students, there are other faculty members who are more focused on research or teaching. The senators discussed the idea of incentivizing or rewarding faculty members for taking on advising duties. The senate was split on what this incentive or reward might look like.

Some faculty members shared their concerns that advising entails more than just helping students select the correct courses. One senator shared how she helped a student advisee deal with a mental health crisis, before directing the student to appropriate mental health resources. The faculty member expressed concerns that she and other faculty are not professionally trained to handle these kinds of situations. She wondered how or if situations like this should be reflected in the policy, and what the expectations of faculty are when presented with these kinds of situations.   

The Senate Committee on Admissions, Records, Scheduling and Student Aid will use this discussion to guide its ongoing work on the academic advising policy.

Other business

The senate also heard remarks from President Eric Barron and Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones, who shared a report on signs of the positive financial health of the University and updates on several ongoing academic dean searches, respectively.

Senators additionally accepted a number of legislative and advisory reports, including on undergraduate registration, the definition of academic ranks, short-term disability benefits for faculty and the unique challenges faced by international students and how to best support them in their academic careers.

The next Faculty Senate meeting will be held at 1:30 p.m. on April 23 in 112 Kern Graduate Building on the University Park campus.

Last Updated March 19, 2019