Saturday, May 21, 2016

Does the type of Open Access matter for future of academic libraries?

In Aug 2014, I wrote the speculative "How academic libraries may change when Open Access becomes the norm".

I argue that the eventual triumph of open access will have far reaching impacts on academic libraries with practically no domain of librarianship escaping unscathed. The article predicts that in a mostly open access environment, the library's traditional role in fulfillment and to some extent discovery will diminish (arguably library's role in some aspects of discovery is already mostly gone ).

Given that currently faculty view academic libraries mainly in the role of purchasers, I suggest to survive academic libraries will start shifting towards expertise based services like Research data management, GIS, information literacy etc.

Libraries may move towards supporting publishing of open access journals (perhaps via layered journals or similar) or focusing on special collections, supporting Lorcan Dempsey's inside-out view

I end by suggesting the trick for academic libraries is to figure out the right way and time to shift resources away from current traditional roles. Perhaps the percentage of content your faculty uses/cited that is available for free could be a useful indicator of when to shift roles.

What about the nature of open access that emerges?

One thing I shied away from speculating on was the type of open access that emerges as well as how the transition would occur. When open access become the norm (defined as say 80% of yearly scholarly output freely available) would most of the Open access be provided predominantly via Green Open Access or via Gold Open Access or some fair mix of the two? Would it be provided via Subject Repositories or Institutional Repositories (or maybe even modules from CRIS systems like PURE, Converis) ? 

Heck would it even matter if a Sci-Hub like system prevails and everyone pirates articles?  (That was a joke, I think....)

In other words, did it matter for the future of academic libraries no matter how articles were made freely available?

Elsevier , SSRN and the civil war in Open access

What led to this article was of course the news that the very dominant social science & humanties subject repository SSRN (Social Science Research Network) was bought up by Elsevier. 

I knew institutional repositories in general were not experiencing much traction and if I were a betting man I would venture preference for open access by faculty or rather faculty wanting to publicise their work by placing output online generally goes

a) Gold Open Access (if payment not issue)
b) Green Open Access (via Subject Repository) - for disciplines with traditions such as RePec, ArXiv, SSRN etc
c) Commercial academic sharing networks (e.g, ResearchGate)
d)Green Open Access (via Institutional Repository) 

and when (if?) open access became dominant, open access would be provided mostly in this order.

Still, I must admit until this happened it never occurred to me that subject repositories could be bought by legacy publishers!

Barbara Fister and Roger Schonfeld as usual have very good takes on the situation.

Roger's article points out that Elsevier is likely to pursue a very similar strategy as the one that led them to purchase Mendeley (leverage user information and analytics and to get into the user work flow)

"Given the nature of the emphasis that Elsevier has been making on data and analytics, we should expect to see over time other integrations between an article repository like SSRN and Elsevier’s other services. There is a wealth of information in the usage logs of services like SSRN that could help guide editors trying to acquire manuscripts for publication or that could assist business development efforts for journal acquisitions. Also important to watch are SciVal, Pure, and some of Elsevier’s other “research intelligence” offerings."

In addition, SSRN strength in the social sciences complements nicely Mendeley's strength in STEM fields. 

To me though this purchase of SSRN also shows how much a force Elsevier now is in the open access area.

Here are three moves it made in the open access space in May 2016 alone. 

First off not just 5 days ago it was announced Elsevier was now the world’s largest open access publisher. In terms of number of Gold Access Journal titles they are now in the lead.

Their acquisition of SSRN gives them a foothold in the social science preprint-postprint world. Will arXiv (which I remember had to resort to begging for donations a few years back) or other subject repositories be next? (RePEc apparently is safe) Will other publishers or companies in the library space start doing the same?

Just a few days earlier they announced a pilot program with University of Florida that allows metadata from Sciencedirect to automatically populate the Institutional repository.

In the GOAL (Global Open Access) mailing list, I see talk that the distributed nature of institutional repositories are the best defense against such take-overs.

But one wonders if all this makes any difference if our institutional repositories fail to compete.

Given the large investments that Elsevier can pour into SSRN, add the synergies it can create with it's ownership of other parts of the ecosystem , can institutional repositories truly compete? Institutional repositories today are often mostly metadata rather than full text. Even as a librarian I find uploading my papers to University Institutional Repositories extremely painful compared to commercial alternatives like ResearchGate, due to the complicated online forms.

Sure, most Universities running Dspace , Eprints can in theory can fix the interface, add functionalities that aren't in the standard set, but this would apply only to their versions and not the base package. Compared to a centralised subject repository , researchers would find uploading their output extremely fragmented and uneven experience. Eg Some Institutional repositories would have usage statistics sent to them, some wouldn't. Compare to someone uploading to SSRN,  which will have a set of consistent data available for comparison (Institution, Researcher, Paper) across the whole output posted in SSRN.

So much for my hope that one of the tasks academic libraries could do once the purchaser role was phrased out would be that of a publisher via Institutional Repositories or even overlay journals. 

Also as Jennifer Howard notes, we are slowly getting cut out of researcher workflows. In the past such publishers would still consult librarians to get  a sense of how their material was used. With the digital era, they can see a lot more via web analytics. With acquisition of tools used across the whole research cycle (e.g Citation manager, preprint server etc), they can arguably be closer and know more about faculty than any liason librarian can hope to know!

One bright spot exists though. Current research information system (CRIS)  (eg. Thompson Reuters' converis or Elsevier's Pure), do have the potential to be in researcher workflows and it's logical for institutions to leverage on those systems to provide traditional Institutional Repository functions. But as noted here , such systems are mainly internal focused rather than external focused (though this might change) and libraries are generally secondary partners in them compared to Institutional repositories where they typically lead.

So it's hard to say if this will pan out or if they do what roles libraries will play.


"Librarians certainly should be thinking about what we can contribute to an open access world – after all, we’ve been advocating for it for decades. We need to figure out how we can contribute to a more open, more accessible world of knowledge."

Let's start thinking seriously now...

Personal Note

I was recently awarded the LAS (Library Association of Singapore) Professional Service Award 2015 at a ceremony at the Singapore National Gallery last week.

I am truly humbled and thankful for this incredible honor. I truly did not expect this.

I would like to thank Gulcin Gribb my University Librarian for nominating me and the awards panel.

I was cited for my contributions to the library profession for sharing of knowledge and ideas and this blog is definitely a very big part of it, so I thank everyone who I have worked with, corresponded and exchanged ideas with including all of you dear readers who give me motivation to blog.

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