Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How academic libraries may change when Open Access becomes the norm

Like many academic library bloggers, I occasionally fancy myself as a "trend spotter" and am prone to attempts at predicting the future.

The trend I am increasingly convinced that is going to have a great impact on how academic libraries will function is the rise of Open Access.  As Open Access takes hold and eventually becomes the norm in the next 10-15 years, it will disrupt many aspects of academic library operations and libraries will need to rethink the value-add they need to provide to universities.

The events of the past year have convinced me that the momentum for open access is nearly unstoppable and the tipping point for open access has or will occur soon.

To be fair, this is a pretty easy call to make, Richard Poynder an independent journalist who has covered open access for over a decade and is as close as an independent observer on such matters as you can get (he claims not to be an open access advocate, though I find his views quite librarian friendly) says that open access is inevitable, the only question is how it will occur. 

I find myself identifying with him, as unlike some librarians, I don't consider myself a really big open access advocate. The fact that I believe that open access will take hold, neither fills me with sheer joy nor unhappiness.

That said I know enough to talk about it to most ordinary researchers in a general way after reading blog posts, articles and books on the topic.  I freely admit squabbles between open access advocates on the exact definition of open access, on the best way to provide/reach it etc often threaten to confuse me.

What I think I do have is some knowledge about some aspects of academic libraries. Some (but not all) open access advocates claim that the goals of the open access movement is more about access then affordability and isn't really about solving the serials crisis (that might or might not occur depending on the route taken) or even about libraries or librarians. As I identify myself as a librarian I love to think what it means for academic libraries when open access becomes the norm.

This post is going to assume that sometime during my professional career in the next 10-25 years, 50%-80% or more of the annual output of new papers will be open access in some form. Whether this will be mostly via through Gold OA or Green OA I do not know. Some models I have read predict also additional disruptions to the scholarly communication system eg. post peer review models may also occur that are not strictly necessary for open access. 

I am not going to argue why I think open access is inevitable, though I think policy changes by governments is the most obvious reason, but feel free to leave comments if you disagree.

What I want to explore in this blog post is its impact on academic libraries. 

1. Libraries roles in traditional discovery and even fulfilment/delivery for users will diminish 

We've known for a long while  that almost no student begins their research from the library homepage and this is likely to occur even for researchers of the future as the younger phd students are showing a preference for non-library "web scale" tools like Google Scholar.

The same report showing that no-one began their search from the library home did show that in the end 56% of users did use library materials via cross referencing of information sources (e.g Library Links in Google Scholar), so in the end the library did play a part in their research though more as a fulfillment role and less in a discovery role.

This has prompted some to argue academic libraries of the future to "think the unthinkable" and focus on delivery of full-text and books and give up on the discovery roles. This is a view that is far from been the majority view with dissenters saying that such a move is defeatist and object that it is risky to rely on for profit entities like Google on such a important role or that libraries can provide personally tuned discovery layers that can serve their communities better than search tools operating at the network level like Google Scholar or Mendeley.

But the rise of open access has the potential to disrupt even the delivery or fulfilment role. In a open access world when most articles or perhaps even books (open access models for books exist, as well "as all you can eat" subscription services like Scribd, Oyster, Amazon Prime) can be gotten for free, academic libraries' role in both discovery and fulfillment will be greatly diminished.

What proportion of articles are free online now? I've seen estimates that vary from 24% free articles (all years) in Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic Search  to as high as 48% for papers published in 2011.

Assuming the higher estimates of the newer articles are true (though I doubt so), we may already be at or near the tipping point of 50% for the annual output of articles each new year.

As it is, we already know from the  Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey 2012 that when faculty can't get access from our library collection, they will search for free access online (80%). This option for searching for free copies is even more popular than ILL or document delivery. This strategy is going to become increasingly more effective as open access becomes the norm.

That explains why tools like Lazy Scholar a Chrome extension that automatically scans every web page you are on to identify articles mentioned and provides a link to the pdf if a free version available in Google Scholar seems to be so popular.

You can expect tools like Lazy Scholar to become increasingly effective as the tide for Open Access turns.

Conversely as argued in the day library discovery died -2035, web scale discovery services by libraries are likely to become even more irrelevant.

Lorcan Dempsey has been writing for years now about how researchers prefer gateways at the "network level" as opposed to the institutional level, but institutional discovery services have always had the advantage of showing all the journal articles you have immediate access to and nothing else and this can be helpful.

But in a world where the vast majority of journal articles are open access, we don't need institutional discovery services to make such distinctions.

Unless academic libraries can provide distinct reasons for why their search services are better than what the likes of Google Scholar, Mendeley web search etc can offer, eg personally tuned discover layers , I can't see why we will need such institutional level discovery layers.

Collection development, electronic resource management is also going to be very different.

At extreme levels of open access say 75%, one wonders if there will be much of a team in the library working on traditional librarian duties of subscriptions and electronic resource management (parts relating to managing link resolvers, knowledgebase management etc).

Services relating to document delivery may diminish in importance as well.

2. Libraries might make a greater focus on Special Collections and move into publishing/hosting journals

So does this mean the technical services portion of academic libraries will be less important?

Not necessarily.

Most obviously if the green route to open access takes off, perhaps along the "The Immediate-Deposit/Optional-Access" , more and more resources will be channeled towards the management of institution repositories.

Beyond simply serving as a repository, some libraries are experimenting also with "overlay journals", such as what University College London is doing. Essentially this involves libraries moving into the publishing business by converting institutional repositories to become publishing platforms. For example, UCL Press is now a department within the institution’s Library Services.  Using the open source , Open Journal System (OJS) and the institutional repository as a storage system, the library is publishing open access journals. There are also many open access journals published via Digital Commons.

Whether academic libraries have the skills, knowledge and incentive to play such a role and retake the scholarly communication system is a big question.

Beyond hosting open access journals, academic libraries will also probably put greater focus on their special collections.

As argued by Lorcan Dempsey, libraries will have to focus their energies on items with high uniqueness (in few collections), in other words special collections. In the future, the prestige of a academic libraries lies in not how many journal articles or books it can provide to its community, but how much unique content that is made available by the library to the world.

Under such a model , academic libraries would perhaps resemble museums, carefully curating and preserving rare artifacts.

Similarly, in Can't Buy Us Love, Rick Anderson proposes that academic libraries should shift from what he calls "commodity documents" (common things you can purchase on the market place eg published journal articles, published books) towards "non-commodity documents" (rare unique material, grey literature etc).

He proposes we "devote a greater percentage of budget and staff time than we hitherto have to
the management and dissemination of those rare and unique documents that each of us owns, that no one but the holder can make available to the world, that have the potential greatly to enrich the world of scholarship, and that can be made available outside of the commercial marketplace without damage to any participant in the scholarly communication system."

There are certain subtleties in the proposal, I suspect I miss but I would argue that in a world where journal articles are available for free and are already efficiently discover-able by Google etc, we would be forced to follow Rick's proposal and focus on special collection which will involve what Lorcan Demsley calls again the "Inside out" challenge. This would involve, digitization/OCR, text transcription, creating metadata and making it discover-able of our special collections.

3. Libraries will have greater focus on value add expertise services such as information literacy, data management services, GIS etc to replace the diminishing "buyer" role

The  Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey 2012 , shows that of all the roles academic libraries play, it is the role of a buyer that is by far the most important. Interestingly, 2012 is the first year since 2003, where there is a fall in this area though it is still by far most important.

This fall could be insignificant, or it could perhaps point to the fact that increasingly more content is available free online between 2009 and 2012.

What is not in doubt is that if open access rises to become the norm, the role of the buyer by the library will definitely diminish. 

Somewhat discouragingly the other non-collection based roles such as facilitating teaching activities and research activities between 2009 and 2012 fell. But the survey notes that this could be due to a smaller proportion of humanities faculty doing the survey, so might not be a trend.

I am going to state the obvious but perhaps unpleasant truth. If faculty view the buyer role has paramount, open access is going to make it tricky to demonstrate the value of the library as it will diminish the value that faculty want from us (at least for now).

It is hence critical for the survival of academic libraries in the coming years to provide value to faculty that goes beyond purely buying material.

Librarians should double-down on providing expert assistance to faculty across the research cycle, whether it be data research management services, GIS services, Bibliometrics or assisting in teaching activities aka information literacy.

Open Access, also creates roles for librarians as guides in the new Scholarly communication landscape, helping clarify open access issues and terms to faculty who will need to adjust to the new publishing options. The greater disruption to the landscape, the more librarians will be needed to guide and advice on say changes in the evaluation of research impact (post peer review, altmetrics etc). Some will be given shiny new titles like "open access librarian" but most academic librarians who do outreach work will need to do the work as well. But will such roles only be short term due to the novelty of issues?

Of course, some academic librarians reading this, will protest and say that their institution is already doing most of this as opposed to purely collection centric roles and indeed this varies from library to library. I worry though the perception of academic libraries as buyers is going to be hard to shake.

4. Budgets of libraries might shrink

This is quite speculative, but how will library budgets be affected by open access? Looking at the ARL Library Investment Index, we see roughly 30%-50% of ARL library expenditure is on materials (majority will be on journals). How much of this will still be under the control of the library when open access reigns?

If savings do accrue from a revamped open access system, how much of this savings will be channeled to the academic library or will it simply disappear from the budget?

Of course there is no certainty that in the open access world, much savings will accrue. Some open access advocates such as Stevan Harnad fear that a overly and premature focus on the Gold route to open access without what he calls a "leveraged transition" (achieving close to 100% self-archiving first hence forcing published versions of pdfs to compete with author post-print pdfs leading to reduced costs for APCs), might simply mean a transition to an open access environment under which publishers recapture their former profits under subscription journals but only this time via APC (article processing charges).

Some models of Gold open access, also simply push the bill to funders and governments, and depending on the type of model, academic libraries may or may not be involved in managing funds for APCs.

I am not a specialist enough to weigh in on these matters, though Harnad's view seems to make sense to me.

In a sense, a smaller total library budget due to losing the need for a materials expenditure budget doesn't quite matter as long as other things remain constant, but would there be a reduction in the prestige of academic libraries?

More worryingly on a very pessimistic view,  if academic libraries are not prepared for the transition and do not make a strong enough case for the value of their operations to replace the role of a buyer, staff cutbacks might occur.

5. Modernising Referencing practices

This is more an intriguing proposal rather than a prediction from Academic citation practices need to be modernized - References should lead to full texts wherever possible 

The article makes a now fairly standard observation that legacy referencing practices are broken because they do not take into account the shift towards a digital online environment (why shouldn't we simply link to a doi for example) as well as changes in the Scholarly communication system.

There's a lot of fascinating ideas in there but I find the most interesting idea relates to open access.

"With open access spreading now we can all do better, far better, if we follow one dominant principle. Referencing should connect readers as far as possible to open access sources, and scholars should in all cases and in every possible way treat the open access versions of texts as the primary source."

He suggests that if a find published version of an article exists under paywall and a preprint or postprint exists online, referencing should link to the freely available version.

Here's the order he suggests for referencing of articles available in

  1. Open Access Journal 
  2. Hybrid Journal 
  3. University Institution repository
  4. Other "widely used" open access site - He mentions Researchgate or Subject repositories like SSRN would fit here too. 

Only if none of this was available should one reference the paywall version as a primary source.


Assuming open access is inevitable, I feel it is only  a slight exaggeration that the upcoming disruption to academic libraries will potentially be bigger than the shift from print to digital for librarians. For good or ill, in the last 20-30 years or so providing access to journal articles behind paywalls was the major purpose of academic libraries as seen by faculty and students and open access will change that.

In a way, I suppose none of the consequences in this blog post is particularly earthshaking assuming open access occurs, but is there sufficient reason to believe that open access is inevitable? I know many librarians who disagree and think it's not so simple.

Even if it does occur, how fast will the transition occur? Will it be gradual allowing academic libraries to slowly transition operations and competencies or will be it a dramatic shift catching us off-guard?

What would be some signals are signs that open access is gaining ground and it might be time to scale back on traditional activities? Downloads per FTE for subscribed journals start to trend downloads? Decreasing library homepage hits? At what percentage of annual output that is open access, do you start scaling back?

Much of this blog post about open access, benefits and are drawn from the State of Open Access interviews by Richard Poynder. 

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