2016: The Year Open Access Broke?

It’s Open Access Week, which for scholarly communications librarians and institutional repository managers is one of the big events of the year to reflect on our work and educate others. Over the years, it has become less necessary to explain what open access is. Rather, everyone seems to have a perception of open access and an opinion about it. But those perceptions and opinions may not be based on the original tenets of the open access movement. The commercialization of open access means that it may now seem too expensive to pursue for individuals to publish open access, and too complicated for institutions to attempt without buying a product.

In some ways, the open access movement is analogous to punk music–a movement that grew out of protest and DIY sensibilities, but was quickly coopted as soon as it became financially successful. While it was never free or easy to make work open access, changes in the market recently might make it feel even more expensive and complicated. Those who want to continue to build open access repositories and promote open access need to understand where their institution fits in the larger picture, the motivations of researchers and administration, and be able to put the right solutions together to avoid serious missteps that will set back the open access movement.

Like many exciting new ideas, open access is partially a victim of its own success. Heather Morrison has kept  for the past ten years a tally of the dramatic growth of open access in an on-going series. Her post for this year’s Open Access Week is the source for the statistics in this paragraph. Open access content makes up a sizeable portion of online content, and therefore is more of a market force. BASE now includes 100 million articles. Directory of Open Access Journals, even after the stricter inclusion process, has an 11% growth in article level searching with around 500,000 items. There are well over a billion items with a Creative Commons license. These numbers are staggering, and give a picture of how overwhelming the amount of content available all told is, much less open access. But it also means that almost everyone doing academic research will have benefited from open access content. Not everyone who has used open access (or Creative Commons licensed) content will know what it is, but as it permeates more of the web it becomes more and more relevant. It also becomes much harder to manage, and dealing with that complexity requires new solutions–which may bring new areas of profit.

An example of this new type of service is 1Science, which launched a year ago. This is a service that helps libraries manage their open access collections, both in terms of understanding what is available in their subscribed collections as well as their faculty output. 1Science grew out of longer term research projects around emerging bibliometrics, started by Eric Archambault, and according to their About Us page started as a way to improve findability of open access content, and grew into a suite of tools that analyzes collections for open access content availability. The market is now there for this to be a service that libraries are interested in purchasing. Similar moves happened with alternative metrics in the last few years as well (for instance, Plum Analytics).

But the big story for commercial open access in 2016 was Elsevier. Elsevier already had a large stable of open access author-pays journals, with fees of up to $5000. That is the traditional way that large commercial publishers have participated in open access. But Elsevier has made several moves in 2016 that are changing the face of open access. They acquired SSRN in May, which built on their acquisition of Mendeley in 2013, and hints at a longer term strategy for combining a content platform and social citation network that potentially could form a new type of open access product that could be marketed to libraries. Their move into different business models for open access is also illustrated in their controversial partnership with the University of Florida. This uses an API to harvest content from ScienceDirect published by UF researchers, but will not provide access to those without subscriptions except to certain accepted manuscripts, and grew out of a recognition that UF researchers published heavily in Elsevier journals and that working directly with Elsevier would allow them to get a large dataset of their researchers’ content and funder compliance status more easily. 1 There is a lot to unpack in this partnership, but the fact that it can even take place shows that open access–particularly funder compliance for open access versions–is something about which university administration outside the library in the Office of Research Services is taking note. Such a partnership serves certain institutional needs, but it does not create an open access repository, and in most ways serves the needs of the publisher in driving content to their platform (though UF did get a mention of interlibrary loan into the process rather than just a paywall). It also removes incentives for UF faculty to publish in non-Elsevier journals, since their content in those journals will become even easier to find, and there will be no need to look elsewhere for open access grant compliance. Either way, this type of move takes the control of open access out of the hands of libraries, just as so many previous deals with commercial enterprises have done.

As I said in the beginning of this piece, more and more people already know about and benefit from open access, but all those people have different motivations. I break those into three categories, and which administrative unit I think is most likely to care about that aspect of open access:

  • Open access is about the justice of wider access to academic content or getting back at the big publishers for exploitative practices. These people aren’t going to be that interested in a commercial open access solution, except inasmuch as it allows more access for a lower cost–for instance, a hosted institutional repository that doesn’t require institutional investment in developers. This group may include librarians and individual researchers.
  • Open access is about following the rules for a grant-funded project since so many of those require open access versions of articles. Such requirements lead to an increase in author-pays open access, since publishers can command a higher fee that can be part of the grant award or subsidized by an institution. Repositories to serve these requirements and to address these needs are in progress but still murky to many. This group may include the Office of Research Services or Office of Institutional Research.
  • “Open access” is synonymous with putting articles or article citations online to create a portfolio for reputation-building purposes. This last group is going to find something like that UF/Elsevier partnership to be a great situation, since they may not be aware of how many people cannot actually read the published articles. This last group may include administrators concerned with building the institution’s reputation.

For librarians who fall into the first category but are sensitive to the needs of everyone in each category, it’s important to select the right balance of solutions to meet everyone’s needs but still maintain the integrity of the open access repository. That said, this is not easy. Meeting these variety of needs is exactly why some of these new products are entering the market, and it may seem easier to go with one of them even if it’s not exactly the right long-term solution. I see this as an important continuing challenge facing librarians who believe in open access, and have to underpin future repository and outreach strategies.

  1. Russell, Judith C.; Wise, Alicia; Dinsmore, Chelsea S.; Spears, Laura I.; Phillips, Robert V.; and Taylor, Laurie (2016) “Academic Library and Publisher Collaboration: Utilizing an Institutional Repository to Maximize the Visibility and Impact of Articles by University Authors,” Collaborative Librarianship: Vol. 8: Iss. 2, Article 4.

    Available at: http://digitalcommons.du.edu/collaborativelibrarianship/vol8/iss2/4.

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