25 Sep 2012

Libraries 'buy' open access to particle physics journals

2012 will probably be remembered as the year when the Open Access debate entered the mainstream and reached a tipping point: the Elsevier boycott and the Academic Spring; the Finch Group report on expanding access to research; the increasing number of venues and models offering open access options for authors, and publishers protesting that OA is potentially "catastrophic".

Even the most ardent of OA supporters would probably agree that an exclusively 'green' OA model (i.e. unrestricted OA self-archiving) would be unsustainable in the long term, without fundamentally changing the model of peer-review and academic publishing. There are costs involved in scholarly publishing, and these must be paid for somehow - be it through public research funding and grants, (commensurate) subscription fees or author article process charges, depending on your ideological standpoint. 

However, the complexity of achieving open access in a way in which all stakeholders (including publishers) view as sustainable, has also sparked some innovate approaches to the scholarly publishing model - not least, the recent announcement of an open access agreement for twelve particle physics journals which will be funded by a library consortium:
"The consortium invited journals to bid for three-year open-access publishing contracts, and ranked them by an undisclosed algorithm that weighed their fees against their impact factors and the licences and delivery formats they offer. Under the deal, the journals will receive an average of €1,200 (US$1,550) per paper."
The agreement will see 90% of the research published in the field made openly available from 2014 onwards. It's an interesting approach that essentially equates to libraries funding the 'gold' article processing charges typically paid for by authors in a co-ordinated way in order to provide access for all. However, the problem of moral hazard and free-riding casts doubt as to whether this mechanism is sustainable (what is the incentive for libraries to remain financial contributors to the consortium when they could still access the research free of charge?) or transferable to other disciplines where research is not typically concentrated across a handful of key journal titles. Furthermore, there is nothing to prevent publishers from increasing the fee paid per article for subsequent deals in the same way that subscriptions costs have risen.

Perhaps most notable however, is that this approach maintains a direct link between libraries and the provision of access to research - in contrast with some of the alternative models (such as the 'author pays' approach or funding via public research agencies). If this traditional nexus is eroded, libraries may 'lose' one of their more obvious and visible roles. Obviously as librarians we know that we offer a lot more than simply providing access to subscription-based resources, but if libraries are cut out of the scholarly publishing chain, we may need to be much more creative and to work a lot harder in how we package and promote our more covert functions and services.

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