Open access: the view from the library

Library of the University of Sussex (interior)In the wake of the Finch report last year, the UK government gave unequivocal support to Open Access (OA), with a strong preference for the ‘Gold’ route. Money was pledged to speed the transition to the new, author-pays model for publishing research. But how was this transition going to be managed on the ground – and by whom?

Delegates to our Semantico Symposium held in December 2012 reported uncertainty and confusion within institutions about the changes. We heard, of instance, that the initial, pump-priming tranche of cash for APCs doled out to the top thirty universities was proving elusive to track down in at least one venerable institution. In the months that followed, there was a lot of media coverage of the debate as academics who had been ‘asleep at the switch’ – particularly in the humanities – woke to a new dawn that seemed not at all to their liking.

So how are libraries coping with the turmoil? To find out, I visited one of Brighton’s two local universities, the University of Sussex, and talked to Jane Harvell, Head of Academic Services & Special Collections at the Library there, to see what impact Open Access is having on her role.

Open Access growth

The simple answer to my question was – huge. OA has been been bubbling away as an issue for years at Sussex but has exploded in the last 12 months, in terms of the work Jane and her team are having to put into it.

In April this year RCUK introduced a new funding mechanism – a block grant to universities and eligible research organisations to cover the cost of article processing (APCs). Libraries are now in the frontline of the changes, with librarians held responsible for compliance with RCUK’s guidance on OA.

On the day we spoke, Jane was in the process of completing a workflow for OA within the University. Many other institutions will be engaged in a similar exercise, and some have put theirs up online as examples to follow and adapt.

One of the major issues she is grappling with is that ‘nowhere near enough’ funds have been allocated for the University to publish everything it would like to via the ‘gold route’ which BIS prefers. Though the block grant that an institution receives will vary according to RCUK’s assessment of its performance in publishing research during the period 2009-2012, its is safe to assume that many other institutions will find themselves with a similar shortfall.

Where this is the case, RCUK mandates ‘Green’ OA as the next best, compliant option.

As is my right, I asked the obvious, naive question: wasn’t OA simply meant to move the money around from one part of the process to another? Surely, it shouldn’t make any difference to overall budget levels? Libraries still have to pay subscriptions, however, and many of the journals they subscribe to are ‘hybrid’ journals, carrying both author-pays and subscriber-pays articles side by side. The price of these journals has not yet come down accordingly. Some have seen this as ‘double-dipping’ on the part of publishers.

As an aside, it’s also worth noting that hybrid journals have created issues of access for librarians. Historically, access has only been indicated at the journal level and not at article level; therefore OA articles within hybrid journals may not be flagged by discovery engines as such. Web scale discovery services are working to address this issue and there is a new NISO initiative to develop a common standard for Open Access Indicators and Metadata.

UKHE is extremely nervous about the situation overall, with some fearing a meltdown in library budgets. UK institutions represent only 6% of revenues for the bigger publishers, and the UK is alone in having taken such an aggressive stance over the gold route – the US largely went green, and there is no sign of Europe following the UK’s lead. Individual libraries therefore feel they don’t have the bargaining power necessary to drive down journal costs. The net result – nightmare scenario – is that the UK’s commitment to gold OA has the unintended consequence of driving up librarians’  costs.

A new type of intermediary?

One potential source of help could come from entities such as Open Access Key (OAK), a new type of publishing intermediary set up to provide payment and administration services for OA. Though this type of service looks very attractive to institutions, not least because the intermediary can take on negotiating with publishers over pricing, it remains to be seen whether publishers will play ball.

Given that the feared budget meltdown would have a negative effect on publisher revenues in terms of cancelled subscriptions, it seems relevant to ask whether publishers are really any more on top of the changes, during this difficult year of transition, than anybody else.

Academics and OA

One stakeholder group that is clearly having a degree of difficulty with the transition is Academics.

Aside from the more dynamic, usually younger members of the species, they tend not to move quickly over anything. Those in the humanities, who get very little external funding compared to the scientists, do not have much of a driver to get engaged with OA – although this could change if monographs come into the frame (see below).

Scientists are more OA-aware, and quite a lot of them are already set up for it. Many will be used to depositing in places like PLoS and BioMed Central. However both of these are non-profit, so OA could end up being equally disruptive for them. ‘And if the money to publish gold is not there – where do they fit into the workflow?’ asked Jane, returning to her diagram.

Part of the problem is that it doesn’t come naturally to academics to share their research with non-academic audiences. A fall-out of this reluctance is being seen with doctoral students wanting to embargo their work, encouraged by the academics who tutor them.

All the time in the background is REF2020, the next round of university funding, which definitely does engage the attention of academics.

OA for e-books?

OA monographs are not in REF2020 so far, although things could change. Jane, 20% of whose book budget is currently spent on e-books, feels sure that it is only a matter of time before they do get drawn into the picture. The recent announcement by Wellcome Trust that it is to extend its open access policy to include all scholarly monographs and book chapters written by its grant holders would lends weight to this view.


All in all, it seems that librarians have a job of advocacy to do on OA, especially with academics. In providing fuel for this discussion, Jane rates two figures highly for their articulacy and passion: Cameron Neylon and Dr Martin Eve.

There is a lot of volatility in the current situation. Come back next week, Jane commented, and there could be a whole different slew of issues on the table. Clearly librarians like Jane are playing an important role in working through the practical issues that implementing OA throws up, and helping others in the scholarly eco-system to negotiate a difficult year of transition.

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