Library Publishing Initiatives

I’m grateful to Roger Schonfeld at the Scholarly Kitchen for his synopsis of a study conducted by Ithaka S+R and the Harvard University Library about the organization of scholarly communication at ten major research university libraries. His typology is helping me find some clarity on something I’ve been struggling with lately: libraries as open access publishers. What’s troubling me is the how, not the what. Scholarly publishing in its current form is on an unsustainable path; it must change or collapse under its own weight. I’m 100% in favor of open access and eager for libraries to be part of the solution. But I see the models proliferating and get the requests for funding; it’s becoming overwhelming, and I’m wishing there were some overarching strategy.

One venture that’s exciting is Open Library of the Humanities. Currently supported by 135 libraries and publishing seven journals, with four more, including the high-profile Glossa, to be added in 2016, OLH charges no article processing fees. The cost of sponsorship decreases the more libraries join; it would cost Davidson $462-$1850 annually to become a supporter now. As a fully open access publisher, OLH will make all content available for free to users worldwide.

Luminos, the University of California Press’s open access enterprise for monographs, has published eight books and has two more coming soon. Luminos’s financial model relies on title publication fees and library memberships. The lowest sponsorship level is $1000-$4999 per year. Knowledge Unlatched collects money from libraries and pays publishers to “unlatch” (make available for download, with Creative Commons licenses) books in the humanities and social sciences. The pilot unlatched 28 books, and Round 2—78 books from 26 publishers—is seeking support now. Davidson would pay $2643-$3891 to join Round 2 ($33.88-$49.88 per book); this is a one-time cost.

With these three initiatives, the subscribing library can see title lists and judge whether the content it’s supporting is useful to its clients. Another new open access publisher, Lever Press, is seeking member libraries willing to sign on for a five-year commitment without prior knowledge of its offerings. Lever, a project of the Oberlin Group, Amherst College Press, and Michigan Publishing, plans to publish at least 60 titles. Its fee structure is based on a library’s acquisitions budget; Davidson would pay $6000 per year, or $30,000 over five years ($500 per title).

Were the Davidson College Library to support all of these, we would spend $7462-$12,849 per year, plus the one-time fee for Knowledge Unlatched. I struggle with how to do that. Would we be serving our users best by investing in these new models of scholarship or by investing in content that is most likely to be useful to them?

This is where Schonfeld’s typology helped me. He and his co-authors grouped universities’ scholarly communication emphases into four categories:

  • Collections-based: Scholarly communication functions are carried out to advance a strategic objective of transitioning the library’s collecting activities away from licensing content and towards supporting open access to scholarship. Libraries adopting these models are situated on campuses with an open access policy. These models treat open access as another type of publishing that the library supports with its collections resources and one that it would thereby advance.
  • Research-based: Scholarly communication functions are aimed primarily at supporting researchers on the campus, to ensure that they have access to the newest formats and channels for releasing their scholarship and helping it to have the widest distribution and greatest impact. Libraries that adopt these models do not have campus open access policies in place, but there is nevertheless an objective to contribute to progress in scholarly communication.
  • Collective Ownership: Scholarly communications functions are viewed as the responsibility of the entire library organization, with essentially every department and unit expected to integrate these issues and priorities into their work. There is no “central office” ultimately responsible for organizing or managing scholarly communications activities.
  • Not an institutional priority: The library has not identified scholarly communication functions, per se, as a high-level priority and has not assigned staff responsibility for them. This may be the case because the university’s academic leadership or governance structure has not been able to prioritize open access.

I see OLH and Lever as collections-based enterprises. Barbara Fister, an advocate of Lever Press, contrasted this approach with “Big Deal” journal packages: large bundles of publisher content that libraries, including Davidson’s, have subscribed to in recent years. She wrote last year in Library Journal about the “trade-off we made when adopting Big Deals. We save ourselves the trouble of making our own choices in exchange for a standardized package of much more stuff…. We don’t have to do things this way. Academic libraries collectively have lots of financial clout. We could reroute our Big Deal funds and pool our budgets to create open access scholarship platforms.” I have three responses: 1) Ironically, none of the open access publishers profiled here allows a library to choose the content it wants to support; as with a Big Deal, libraries are offered a package—take it or leave it. 2) The usage data on our Big Deals is very strong; it’s true that not every journal in the package gets used, but the packages overall get used a lot. 3) Rerouting funds to pay for open access platforms, at Davidson and, I suspect, at many other academic libraries, just isn’t that simple. We don’t have $7500-$13,000 unallocated. To free up that kind of money on an annual basis would mean cancelling subscriptions that faculty and students care about. Cancelling subscriptions to fund more important content is something I can explain on our campus. Cancellations to fund unknown content or content that’s endorsed mainly because it’s open are harder to justify.

It seems to me there’s a tension, in discussions about different publishing models, between what scholars want to write and what members of academic communities want to read. Rick Anderson, one of my library heroes, has pointed out that this is not new: “unlike most publishers, university presses provide a vital, high-demand service to authors and a marginal, low-demand one to most readers.” He noted “the simple fact that university presses all too often publish books that no one needs to use or wants to read.” The advantage of research-based scholarly communication initiatives, to return to Schonfeld’s typology, is that they’re honest about the impetus to publish. Scholars want to share their findings and ideas, even if the market is small; why should they not help defray the cost of that? If their institutions want to contribute or even cover the cost entirely, great. Honestly, I’d rather use some library money to help Davidson authors pay publication fees than fund an open access Big Deal; I would know for sure that at least one Davidson user was getting something out of it. The research-based model does not have to exclude independent scholars or scholars from less wealthy institutions; Luminos, for example, is building an author waiver fund to subsidize the publication fees for such scholars.

For open access publishing to truly solve the sustainability problem in scholarly communication, it needs to cost less. Commercial publishers are reaping profit margins of 35-40%; take away the profit margin, and open access publishing should cost at least 35-40% less, right? But that’s not what we’re seeing. So what explains the continued high cost? Infrastructure, I suspect. Even without print publication, there are editors to employ (at least on the monograph side) and technology to operate. This is where I wish there were more collaboration and coordination, but maybe the competition is important early in the development of these initiatives. I hope people are asking the tough questions, though: are there more cost-effective ways to bring research to public attention? Is the same editorial apparatus really needed? Are some of these initiatives just propping up university presses? Why do journals still exist, when articles can be made public more quickly one by one? Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to collaborate and build one technology platform?

I also devoutly wish these initiatives hadn’t focused their fundraising exclusively on libraries. I suppose that makes sense under the collections-based model, but it’s problematic under the research-based one. Supporting researchers in their efforts to share knowledge isn’t the sole responsibility of the library. It seems to me that a great opportunity has been wasted; had pricing structures been tied to endowment, enrollment, or some combination of institutional factors, it would have sent a clear message that making research openly available is a priority and responsibility of the entire college or university. Librarians could still provide the know-how and leadership. Tying funding to library acquisitions budgets sends a different message and further dilutes budgets that are already stretched thin.

I don’t think Davidson is going to be supporting any of these initiatives right now, although we can reconsider closer to the end of the fiscal year. I should certainly thank and congratulate my fellow librarians for experimenting, and I wish them every success. I’ll accept their “we told you so” with good grace, should they prove right. In the meantime, I’ll continue to monitor developments in this space and ponder how Davidson can foster open access. We’ve already made a start: I commend the work of my library colleagues Cara Evanson and Sarah Crissinger, and biology professor Kevin Smith, which you can see in this panel discussion.