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What's Up: Open Access in the Future of Libraries

eNews Edition: Fall 2016

Contributed by Chris Bulock, Collection Coordinator for Electronic Resource Management

Academic libraries have changed dramatically because of the Internet and all that it enables. Our collections are increasingly electronic, as are the tools we use to find and manage books, articles, and media. A current CSUN student can find journal articles, renew their books, get a reference question answered, and receive a request through interlibrary loan without setting foot on campus. All this has required new skills and familiarity with ever-changing systems and standards. Now another development is poised to have a tremendous impact on academic librarians: the rise of Open Access (OA) publication. Not only does Open Access require librarians to redefine their collections and services, but the changes are coming rapidly. Just a few years ago, the OA movement was still fairly small, while today, over half of recently published research articles are freely available[1].

Open Access - a Day of Data - Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - 8:30 to 3:00pm - Oviatt Library, Ferman Presenation RoomAt its heart, the OA movement is about making scholarly research freely available to anyone. It’s a simple proposition that has far-reaching consequences for how we fund, publish, and discover research publications. In a more traditional model, librarians make careful decisions about what journals to subscribe to and what books and media to purchase, and the cost of those resources is an important factor. OA, however, flips the costs. The traditional model of publishing requires libraries to buy back research from commercial publishers, often at greatly inflated prices that threaten the sustainability of library budgets. OA solves the “subscription-costs-out-of-control” problem, but other challenges remain.

There continue to be costs to publishing, even in an OA world. Often the publishing costs of an OA journal or book are paid by the authors, who need publications to achieve promotion and tenure, or by federal granting agencies who wish to see research distributed as widely as possible. Sometimes OA fees are fully paid by the author’s institution, and other times OA journals are subsidized by professional associations. In almost every OA scenario, however, the university library no longer pays subscription costs. This is a big change that requires libraries to rethink the way we add material to our collections and make it available to users, but it’s more complicated than that. The world of OA publications is also rapidly changing and requires all librarians to closely follow developments in scholarly communications.

Librarians have always been keenly aware of trends in scholarly publishing, as changes in that world greatly affect our work. For example, when journals began to be published online, this raised questions among students and faculty regarding the value and authority of these new resources. It’s also true that the publishing system has undergone plenty of transformation in the past. It has seen tremendous growth, internationalization, as well as consolidation in the hands of a few major publishers. However, the changes occurring now with the growth of Open Access are different in that they are completely redefining familiar types of publications.

New journals are appearing without volumes or issues, and they may each publish many thousands of articles a year with only a very loose subject focus. Some OA journals require authors to pay the costs of publication, often thousands of dollars per article. Authors wonder if they can trust these publishers, and readers wonder if the usual standards of peer review are being bypassed due to this funding model. Even when authors publish in traditional journals, they are now often able to place a freely accessible copy on their department website or in an institutional repository, which leads to multiple copies of the same article circulating, each with different restrictions and permissions. Many subscription journals make one or two articles in an issue freely available while keeping the others behind a paywall. This makes it harder for readers to determine what they can actually access.

Most of the changes discussed so far are from the author’s or reader’s point of view, so they’re likely to come up in meetings with faculty, instruction sessions, or interactions at the reference desk. There are also new issues to deal with behind the scenes. Librarians must figure out how to use library catalogs and other tools to track and access journals we don’t actually subscribe to, and books we don’t actually buy. OA materials may be available through search engines like Google, but items we subscribe to will only be available if users access them through the library website. Librarians must find a way to bring locally restricted materials together with globally available ones. Librarians also have to find ways to report broken links and bad metadata even when we have no business relationships with publishers.

While more traditional models for scholarly publications are likely to be around for decades, the effects of OA publication on libraries will be profound. The future of libraries rests on how this model continues to develop.

[1] Archambault, E. et al. (2014). Proportion of Open Access Papers Published in Peer-Reviewed Journals at the European and World Levels—1996–2013. Deliverable D.1.8. (2014 Update). Version 11p.