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Academic publishing in transition

How higher ed is helping to bring about change in the age-old models of scholarly publishing
University Business, August 2016
Many higher ed librarians say they have found new ways to navigate the journal-subscription system.
Many higher ed librarians say they have found new ways to navigate the journal-subscription system.

Like library administrators across the country, David Lewis of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis is used to making hard choices.

This year, he saved $200,000 by canceling dozens of subscriptions to scholarly science journals. In exchange, he began offering researchers on-request access to articles within hours, replacing the instant access they were accustomed to. He also canceled Encyclopaedia Britannica, opting to rely instead on Wikipedia.

“We don’t really have a choice,” says Lewis, dean of the university’s library. “My materials budget has been more or less flat for six or eight years, and so we’ve had to cut everything we can possibly cut.”

Lewis’ mix of strategies—canceling subscriptions, adopting on-demand models and leveraging free online resources—is typical for academic libraries squeezed by the skyrocketing cost of scholarly journals, the so-called “serials crisis.”

But increasingly, librarians and their advocates are also pushing for systemic change: a transition away from the subscription-based model of scholarly communication and toward open access. This transition to free availability of published research is one librarians say university administrators should work to accelerate.

“The solutions are not going to be individual, but rather universities as a community thinking about what is it that we want to do,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), which advocates open access. “Journal-publishing is a $10billion-a-year industry. It’s not a problem that can be solved by individual efforts chipping away at the edges.”

Subscription system navigation

To cope with the serials crisis, many librarians say they have found new ways to navigate the journal-subscription system. They negotiate charges with publishers one-on-one.

They buy only the titles they want, instead of opting for so-called “Big Deals,” which offer bundles of titles at a discount. They join buying consortia that negotiate membershipwide deals—the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, for example, can cut 3 to 5 percent off its members’ costs, says Kim Armstrong, director of the consortium’s center for library initiatives.

And like Lewis at IUPUI, many librarians promise readers on-request access to articles, either through traditional interlibrary loan or via speedier, if more expensive, services. For little-used journals, buying articles on-request—or “by the drink,” as librarians sometimes call it—can be cheaper than paying for a yearlong subscription.

“We would typically expect that we’re building a collection for all time, not for one time,” Armstrong says. “But this is helping to reduce cost.”

Increasingly, however, the realities of a wired world are overtaking strategies designed to optimize the traditional, subscription-based system.

Ad hoc workarounds that researchers have relied on for years to acquire inaccessible articles—requesting copies from colleagues or via the Twitter hashtag #icanhazpdf—have been joined by large-scale, legally problematic online sharing via the site Sci-Hub, which offers free access to 47 million articles, often by illegally bypassing paywalls.

“The old model of subscriptions is just unacceptable and is not working. This is what Sci-Hub really exposed,” says Stanford education professor John Willinsky, who won a two-year MacArthur Foundation grant to develop new, cooperative journal-publishing models. “The only way to put an end to Sci-Hub is to have open access that we pay for.”

Gold and green

How best to pay for open access remains in question. Many subscription-based journals already allow authors (or their departments, universities or grant funders) to pay upfront to make peer-reviewed articles available for free, a system known as “gold open access.”

But not every discipline draws enough research funding to cover per-article charges that, at journals owned by the commercial publisher Elsevier, can range from $500 to $5,000.

If universities cover such fees, they may not spend less than they do now for subscriptions, says Doug Way, an associate university librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where faculty publish more than 6,000 articles per year. At $1,000-plus per article, “that adds up pretty quick.”

Many open-access advocates prefer so-called “green open access,” under which universities or academic disciplines create electronic repositories of peer-reviewed work that can be accessed for free by anyone with an internet connection.

Hundreds of American universities currently have repositories, but only about 55 supplement their repositories with open-access policies aimed at widening the availability of faculty work, says Joseph of SPARC. And fewer than a dozen of those policies explicitly grant the institution the right to make faculty work freely available.

University repositories have yet to catch on fully. Even the most successful contain less than half the content that they could, sometimes because faculty forget to upload their work, occasionally because publishers prohibit it.

And most universities haven’t incorporated open-access considerations into their tenure and promotion systems. “The individual repositories are in place,” Joseph says. “But the culture change and policy change that’s really needed to populate those repositories to make them as useful as possible hasn’t really permeated the university culture yet.”

Still, open access is gaining currency. Since 2008, the National Institutes of Health has required articles produced with its funding to be made freely available within a year of publication.

In 2013, the Obama administration broadened that directive to research funded by all large federal agencies. Next January, the Gates Foundation will require that research it funds be made freely available immediately upon publication.

And once-cautious faculty are beginning to see the benefits of these open-access repositories with their own work. “Many of the people who put their content in there see their own citation rates go up, because it’s easier to find,” says Diane Graves, assistant vice president and university librarian at Trinity University in Texas.

Open isn’t free

Open access could also be broadened by giving libraries a larger role in supporting scholarly publishing from the start—not just purchasing its results after the fact.

Stanford’s Willinsky envisions consortia of research libraries partnering with publishers to finance journals whose contents would be freely available upon publication. Already, 115 American libraries support about 400 journals in this way, Willinsky says.

His grant project aims to encourage more such partnerships, with libraries pledging to maintain their current levels of funding, but to spend the money on supporting open access as well as on subscriptions. “We’re moving away from this whole concept that open access is free,” Willinsky says. “We’re saying that open access is an investment in the community.”

But because the United States has no national governing body for higher education, reorienting the scholarly communication system toward open access is complex—requiring coordinated collective action from institutions accustomed to autonomy.

“It’s going to be a slog,” says Chris Bourg, director of MIT’s libraries. “Because there will be a period of time, and we’re in it now, where we’re funding both.”

And ultimately, existing systems of scholarly communication are tightly bound up with the tenure and promotion process, since universities traditionally give extra weight to articles published in prestigious journals. To this end, SPARC urges university administrators to send clear signals that making
research freely available will draw dividends at tenure time.

But absent that message, the traditional approach makes it hard for libraries to cancel subscriptions to high-profile journals, and for faculty to bypass them in favor of open-access alternatives.

“Mostly, open access is a conversation about copyright and author control,” says Christopher Kelty, a UCLA professor who chaired the University of California’s systemwide open-access committee. “But we also have a related problem, which is that we don’t really know exactly how to maintain control over quality within the university and not just keep outsourcing it to these scholarly publishers.”

Deborah Yaffe is a central New Jersey-based writer who frequently contributes to District Administration, UB’s sister publication for K12 leaders.

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