What Then Must We Do? (Part 1)

I was recently asked to talk to the UNC library staff about open access & copyright issues. Why was I, who am neither a lawyer nor a scholar whose research focuses on publishing and OA, invited to talk about this? Because of my recent run in with Taylor & Francis. Truly, I have achieved internet fame through my blog: I am famous to 15 people. Also, apparently the way to get invited speaking gigs is to have war stories.

Anyway, in an effort to appear as if I actually had a clue when I talked to the library staff, I started writing not one but two posts, in an effort to get my thoughts in order on the topics of copyright, OA, and academic libraries. Specifically, I wanted to be able to answer the question that I believe at least partially motivated my invitation to speak: librarians asking themselves, What Is To Be Done?

So this post is part one of two. Mostly it was written before my talk, as I said, in an effort to get my thoughts in order. But I’ve updated it some now that the talk is over, and I post it here for your edification or amusement. I suppose I’d be happy with either.

It seems to me that this topic has two sides to it: libraries’ collections and subscriptions, and faculty publication habits. Both of these are large, complicated, and thorny issues, which is why I decided to address them in two posts. In this post, I’ll discuss the former.

The position I started from on this is the belief that I’ve held for some time: I think it may be impossible for academic libraries to extricate themselves from the full-nelson stranglehold that commercial journal publishers have them in. Why? Because until faculty stop publishing in, reading, citing, and assigning articles from commercially-published journals, libraries have to subscribe to them, or else cease to fulfill their mission to support the research and teaching at their institutions. And by “subscribe,” I mean either or both purchase to own and have on the shelves, or rent access to online. These are not the same, of course, and have different implications for the library doing one or the other, but I’m going to ignore that for now.

(As an aside: Is the full-nelson a stranglehold? I should probably avoid using sports metaphors, since I have no idea what I’m talking about.)

Of course, libraries have been dropping subscriptions to journals, have for years. The serials crisis, yada yada, nothing new to report here. Academic libraries simply can’t afford to subscribe to everything, so as subscription costs rise, libraries drop titles. (To step up on my evaluation soapbox for a moment: one hopes that these are the titles that receive the lowest use locally, that libraries actually use usage data to make these decisions. But that’s another rant.)

So academic libraries, in order to fulfill their missions to support research and teaching, must subscribe to commercially-published journals… but they’re already falling down on that job by dropping subscriptions. Which is mostly fine, because the subscriptions they’ve dropped are mostly not missed anyway (cf. previous comment about lowest use locally)… and besides, we have ILL networks, so can get those materials, as long as you’re willing to wait a few days.

Now, I’ve been reading about academic libraries dropping their subscriptions to the Big Deals offered by publishers — “offered” is a word which here means, “forced upon” — and instead subscribing to journals one by one. This is, I believe, a step in the right direction. Commercial publishers have academic libraries in a stranglehold, but — to really do violence to this metaphor — ditching the Big Deal is analogous to libraries saying, “You thought you had me by the throat? Ha! That’s my leg!” Libraries don’t need the Big Deal; they’ve just been sold a bill of goods by publishers, in the guise of convenience, because libraries have had neither the data nor the negotiating skills to ask for anything different. As I say, I think this is the right direction to take. Moving away from the Big Deal demonstrates that what’s important for libraries is materials that get used (books are for use), not materials for their own sake. I’ve said it many times: libraries need to (a) get better evaluation data, and (b) grow a pair where negotiating with vendors is concerned.

The problem with the ditching-the-Big-Deal trend is this: commercial publishers aren’t stupid. (Malicious, maybe, but not stupid.) Publishers didn’t get the better of academic libraries by accident; it was the result of careful market analysis and manipulation, over the span of decades. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that many or most academic libraries drop the Big Deal, and subscribe to titles individually, over the next few years, so that this becomes the norm. Over the span of years, publishers will be perfectly capable of doing data analysis on their sales & usage data, and identifying which individual titles are the most used. And then we’ll be back to more or less the same situation we’re in now: publishers will charge astronomical subscription rates for those individual titles, to milk every last dollar they can out of the library market. Of course what the high-use titles are will vary somewhat by institution… but publishers are perfectly capable of identifying those market differences, and have. And much of the time, publishers have better data about libraries’ usage of online titles than the libraries themselves do. And publishers have demonstrated that they are perfectly willing to use non-disclosure agreements to hide the details of their contracts with individual libraries or consortia, so other libraries cannot benefit from that information. So, in other words, publishers hold all the cards in negotiations with libraries. Publishers are essentially monopolies (in that they are the exclusive purveyors of the specific scholarly content they publish), so it should hardly be surprising that they engage in monopolistic behaviors. The one card that libraries hold here is, of course, the money card. Libraries can vote with their wallets, so to speak. That is, of course, the most important card in the deck (to overextend yet another metaphor). But, as consumers, libraries are operating from an informational disadvantage: they only see their own, and maybe a few others’ consumption behavior, but the vendor benefits from aggregate data.

Let’s recap: subscribing to journals in sets isn’t working for libraries, and subscribing to journals individually won’t work in the long run. Commercial scholarly publishers have demonstrated that they are bad actors. So the only conclusion I can come to is this: libraries have to stop doing business with commercial scholarly publishers altogether. Which, unfortunately, brings us back to libraries not being able to fulfill their mission to support the research and teaching at their institutions.

Of course, libraries will never do this, precisely because doing so would hinder their ability to fulfill their mission. And if libraries cannot fulfill their mission, they risk irrelevance, which means loss of users and loss of funding. If libraries don’t subscribe to the journals that faculty and students at the institution use, then the faculty and students will get those articles from other sources: Google Scholar or other commercial services. At which point, the college or university administration would be perfectly justified in asking, Why are we pouring all this money into supporting the library again? Of course, to be fair, without journal subscriptions, the library’s budget would be quite a bit smaller.

Which brings me to an idea for a study: A library should identify every article that’s downloaded from all journal subscriptions from the publishers’ sites (that is, not from a third-party database), and identify what it would cost if the library didn’t have those subscriptions and each article had to be purchased individually. Then compare that cost to the cost of all of those subscriptions. My hypothesis is that the cost of buying articles individually at the paywall would be lower — quite a bit lower — than the cost of maintaining all of those subscriptions.

Assuming that this is true, I see a new role for academic libraries (and one that librarians will almost certainly hate): as a funding source for purchasing individual articles at paywalls. What I envision is this: some clever setup on the the campus network, so that any time anyone hits a paywall for an article, there would be an option, Do you want to purchase this article? Click yes, and it would be purchased and downloaded, and the library fund debited. Make it as easy as online shopping. I challenge some library somewhere to do this.

There are, of course, 2 problems with this: First is that, again, if this were to become the norm for libraries, publishers would jack up the cost at the paywall, and we’d be back to square one. Second is that any barrier to access, even if the user is not the one paying, would probably decrease the number of articles accessed, and so we’re back to libraries not fulfilling their mission to support research and teaching.

I’ve started writing the conclusion of this post several times, and I keep finding myself slipping into the realm of faculty publishing behaviors. But I’m going to set that aside for my next post. For now, let me try to focus on answering the original question I set for myself: What can academic libraries do in the arena of copyright and OA, in light of collections and subscriptions?

The position I’ve been advocating for throughout this post is this: drop all subscriptions from commercial publishers of scholarly content. Subscribing to third-party databases of scholarly content might still be viable, I’m not sure. I haven’t thought that one through very extensively. (Note to self: make that the topic of a future post.) “Collect,” by which I mean link to in the OPAC and via any other mechanism, any and all OA publication venues that might be relevant to the local community.

Of course, no library would do this (except for the linking to OA pubs in the OPAC part, which many libraries do in fact do), for the reason stated above: failure to then fulfill their mission. Doing so would essentially kill the function of the academic library. And so I’m back to where I started: impossible for academic libraries to extricate themselves from their completely dysfunctional relationship with commercial journal publishers.

The only hope that I see for academic libraries is actually almost completely out of libraries’ hands: for faculty and other scholars to radically change their publishing behaviors, and start only publishing in OA venues. And I mean only: if any commercially-published journals are left standing, we’re back to square one for libraries. As I wrote at the start of this post, I’ll deal with publishing behavior in my next post.

Am I being overly dramatic or doom-and-gloom about this? Maybe. Maybe I’m just having a failure of imagination. But I just don’t see any way to get from here to there without burning the village.

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One Response to What Then Must We Do? (Part 1)

  1. Dave says:

    I agree that real change will be effected from the bottom-up. Librarians need to be the change we wish to see and only publish in OA journals immediately. Then we will have the footing to tell other scholarly authors to do the same. Significant change to long-standing powerful interests can only happen when the organized masses work together.

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