Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 8: June 2006


Thinking About Libraries and Access

Libraries—public and academic—need to provide both strong physical collections and access to resources beyond those physical collections. Academic libraries should do their best to assure long-term access to resources in all disciplines, including those disciplines where the primary publication method is the monograph. I believe libraries should pay more attention to gray material in an era where the lines between traditional and untraditional distribution and publication are growing ever fuzzier. Libraries should acquire, organize, and secure long-term access to the things that make us a civilization, the thinking, knowledge and wisdom set down in articles, books and other media.

Effective long-term access involves several interrelated issues, including:

Ř    The money to acquire physical resources and provide access to other resources, and to pay the professional staff to determine what to acquire.

Ř    The means—money and procedures—to assure effective access, through cataloging and other organization and discovery techniques.

Ř    The wherewithal—determination, money, and procedures—to preserve physical works and digital resources and assure that future generations can use those resources.

The standing head for Cites & Insights discussions of events and commentaries related to issues of access to scholarship is Library Access to Scholarship, not Open Access and Libraries. That standing head reflects my primary interests when it comes to talking about access, open or otherwise: How trends in access affect libraries’ ability to maintain long collections, provide long-term access, and provide access to resources in all disciplines (not all disciplines at equal collection levels in all libraries, of course).

Think of it this essay as an extended answer to the question, “Why do I write about library access at all—and why don’t I stick to open access?”

I’m tempted to bring in related issues—for example, the role of the Open Content Alliance and Google Book Search in improving discovery for books (and, for OCA, access to public domain books). But I’d like to keep this fairly short, so I’ll note that a lot of the other things discussed in C&I also relate to library access to scholarship.

Fundamental Assertions

I would not dissuade anyone from focusing on open access to scholarly articles (with or without capital “O” and “A”) and improving both “green” and “gold” aspects of such access. That’s important work. Peter Suber sustains a high level of clarity and completeness in discussing and advocating both forms of open access; Charles W. Bailey, Jr. and (more recently) the bloggers at OA librarian add to that effort, as do others. Many other librarians and scholars are engaged in creating and building OA journals (“gold” OA) and encouraging scholars to deposit their articles in OAI digital repositories (“green” OA). More power to them. Library access involves more and, in some ways, less than open access. My interest is in libraries’ long-term ability to serve the full range of human creative activity.

Scholarship and the stuff of libraries are more than just refereed articles

Science, technology and medicine (STM) consume most of the serial budgets of most academic libraries—indeed, STM journals consume most of the acquisitions and access budgets of most academic libraries. But refereed STM journal articles aren’t all there is to science, technology and medicine, and certainly not all there is to scholarly and human creativity.

Even in STM, monographs play a role, as do working papers, datasets, and other “gray” materials that don’t fit into the refereed-journal-article mold. Outside—in the humanities and social sciences—monographs and other books may be the primary means of communicating progress. For that matter, serial publications other than refereed scholarly journals play significant roles in the record of human creativity that should be the stuff of libraries.

The current journal model is broken

Too many STM journals cost too much money, and increase in price at too rapid a rate, for libraries to sustain the level of access they need. The cost of STM journal access distorts library budgets, driving out both the less expensive journals and the monographs and other resources. The current model, with several large commercial publishers dominating the field of STM publishing and charging what they believe the market will bear, is unsustainable: It is already breaking down, with even the wealthiest libraries canceling large numbers of journals.

It is apparent that some major commercial publishers fully intend to charge what the market will bear. They have succeeded in acquiring most of the highest-profile journals, including many that were originally modestly priced society-published journals, and in raising prices so as to assure profit margins far in excess of those enjoyed by most book publishers and companies in competitive industries.

I am not arguing that these publishers don’t add value. Clearly, they do. I am arguing that the subscription model simply will not stand: That it is already breaking down and will continue to break down, probably at an accelerating rate.

The current model is also broken from a philosophical perspective: It makes it more difficult for scholars, especially independents and those at smaller institutions, to keep up with work in their field.

Open access strives to correct the philosophical breakage. Green OA, however, does nothing to address the financial breakage—which means it fails to address library issues, vital to long-term effective access. Worse, some green OA evangelists regard library issues as irrelevant and even treat with disdain library efforts to improve green OA—if those efforts also meet other needs of the libraries and their academic communities. More about that in a moment.

The breaking model damages secondary players first

Unfortunately, there’s some reason to believe that it isn’t the big commercial publishers and their overpriced journals that will be hit first as the subscription model continues to crumble. The first to go tend to be journals with smaller audiences and lesser reputations, including many of the more reasonably priced journals and those in the humanities.

The breaking model can cause one specific economic dislocation—and clarifies another economic distortion. The economic dislocation: Journal subscriptions shove out monograph and other acquisitions. Some libraries have protected monographic budgets, and that may be a partial solution. The economic distortion is more sensitive: Libraries have been underwriting professional societies indirectly, and can no longer afford to do so.

That’s clear from the surprising alignment of professional society publishers, most of which are by nature nonprofit and intended to promote scholarship, with the commercial publishers in opposing effective steps toward open access. The professional societies admit that profits from non-member journal subscription prices, frequently but not always moderate in comparison with the worst for-profit prices, are used to subsidize other society activities. They argue that loss of those profits will undermine those activities and is, thus, a blow against scholarship. The only plausible response, from a library perspective, is that it is wrong to expect libraries to subsidize professional societies outside the field of librarianship. If other professional societies deserve subsidies from universities, those subsidies should be requested and provided as subsidies, and should be provided out of appropriate departmental budgets—not out of the library acquisitions budget. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” isn’t good enough.

Open access publishing is progressing, but slowly

We didn’t call it “gold OA” in 1990, but that’s when I was first involved with a refereed scholarly ejournal free to all readers, The Public-Access Computer Systems Review (it wasn’t the first such journal). Since then, thousands of open access journals have been started and more than two thousand survive.

That’s a lot—but it’s a small portion of the total scholarly journal landscape and a smaller portion of the total article output.

Open access journals can relieve cost pressures on libraries. Open access journals can reduce the cost structure of the entire scholarly publishing enterprise. Libraries may even be sensible candidates to carry out the modest organizational tasks involved in publishing an electronic-only open access journal.

But open access journals aren’t growing rapidly—and aren’t displacing commercial journals to a noticeable extent. They may be slowing the rate of increase of overall journal costs, but they are not apparently reducing overall costs. Some argue that a complete shift to open access journals could even increase costs to some libraries or universities, but that analysis assumes two questionable points:

Ř    It assumes a very high cost per published article, at least $1,500, even though some open access journals that charge author-side fees have considerably lower fees. Sharp analysis and real examples are required to determine just how much an electronic-only journal, paying only for copy editing, markup, and disk space (since most editors and referees work for free, open source journal publishing software is freely available, and there’s no need for contract offices) should actually cost.

Ř    It assumes that all open access journals will be paid for by direct author-side charges, even though most open access journals don’t currently charge author-side fees (and many subscription journals do charge author-side fees), and even though author-side fees could reasonably be built into research grants.

There are several possible reasons for the slow growth of open access publishing. One factor may be the astonishing level of “untruthiness” set forth, on an ongoing basis, by many within the scholarly publishing community: For example, arguments that open access journals will undermine peer review, reduce editorial quality, or in some other manner damage scholarship.

Open access archiving is neither inevitable nor trivial

“Green” open access—either preprint or postprint versions of published articles, deposited in digital repositories that follow OAI models to allow metadata harvesting—has done well in some disciplines, but isn’t taking over the world.

Green OA does little or nothing to solve library budget problems, to be sure. To the extent that single-minded green OA advocates dismiss journal publishing and library budget problems as irrelevant, they may encourage a catastrophic failure of the existing publishing system and the portion of peer review carried out by that system, rather than a slow slide and conversion from subscription to open access. Such a failure would be unfortunate for green OA, as it would eliminate the chief sources of “branding” for the papers in the repositories.

That dismal scenario aside, the fact is that academic libraries can, and in a growing number of cases will, play a role in making green OA work: To wit, providing professional-quality institutional repositories that have the institutional and staff support to be maintained for the long run. Good institutional repositories aren’t cheap (although the software itself may be free), but they are sustainable for the long term, unlike “server in a closet” departmental repositories with no firm base of funding or firm long-term programmatic support.

Library-based repositories should go beyond articles—and doing so doesn’t damage the articles

One of the oddest arguments in the sometimes-fractious OA community is that institutional repositories should only hold refereed scholarly articles. Library-based digital repositories are likely to go much farther, and probably should: They can and should include supporting datasets, work in progress, and other digital materials created within the repository’s scope that don’t fit neatly into the refereed-article slot.

As long as it’s possible to identify refereed articles, as it always is in any good OAI repository, I can think of no plausible argument for restricting the repository to refereed articles. The arguments for broader inclusion are clear: Such inclusion helps justify the costs of the repository, makes it stronger for long-term use, and improves the library and its parent institution by providing access to important scholarly resources.

If Time Magazine sits next to Tetrahedron on a periodical shelf, that adjacency certainly does not make the articles in Tetrahedron less scholarly, nor is it likely to confuse readers of either periodical. How, then, can the presence in a digital repository of digital objects that aren’t refereed articles—and don’t have the metadata of refereed articles—possibly damage the refereed articles in that repository? It can’t, and any argument that such sharing of repository space is somehow inappropriate should be viewed skeptically.


I don’t have any—or at least I don’t have any that haven’t been stated here, in previous Library Access to Scholarship pieces, or elsewhere. Some will disagree with the assertions here, and they may be right.

I’m an optimist by nature. I believe scholarly publishing and academic libraries will survive for the long term, but with significant changes in both. For that matter, I believe many commercial journals will survive—although, with luck, some will be supplanted by open access journals, either as true journals or as wrappers for sets of repository articles. Science and Nature probably aren’t going away, in print or electronic form. Tetrahedron and the Journal of Economic Studies? Don’t ask me.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 8, Whole Issue 78, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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