It’s been a fear among librarians for decades, a perception among publishers for years, and now a survey shows it’s now a clear opinion among faculty and researchers — libraries are increasingly viewed as information purchasing agents inside academic institutions rather than intellectual partners.
An unrelated perception that’s been argued for years is that open access is of dubious value to scholars, with their dedication to its ideals hardly rising above lip service.
A recent report from the Ithaka S+R group sheds light on both of these hypotheses, confirming that librarians and traditional library roles are slowly being disintermediated, even among researchers in the humanities (stalwarts up until recently), while open access values are unlikely to sway a scholar from publishing in an established paid publication with better reach and prestige.
Library buildings seem to be the most disintermediated part of the traditional library offering, with only a fraction of respondents relying on it to initiate research. Yet libraries as gateways to knowledge are still viewed as important, with nearly 60% of respondents citing this role as a key function. But it’s a diminishing function — in 2003, 70% agreed it was a key function. Meanwhile, the perception among scholar of libraries as purchasing entities has increased from 80% in 2003 to 90% in 2009.
And while some have been wringing their hands over these data, and while the trends are clear, it’s also clear that libraries serve multiple purposes at academic institutions despite the proliferation of networked information, information access points, general search engines, and online resources.
In short, they’re pretty much holding their own.
In fact, while the percentage of faculty rating themselves as “very dependent” on the library for research information had been falling since 2000, it bounced back to levels above those seen nearly a decade ago in the 2009 survey. Perhaps the economic situation has made the shared resources at libraries a bit more attractive.
For journal publishers, more than 70% of faculty surveyed said it would be fine with them if the print copies in libraries went away as long as online access continued. This reinforces the long-standing notion that libraries are less about warehousing materials than about creating services.
Open access was also a topic of the survey, and it didn’t fare well as a priority for scholars. I’ll let the report speak for itself:
Despite a continuing community-wide discussion about open access, institutionalized in the last several years in the form of open-access deposit mandates, free accessibility online has remained the lowest priority for scholars across disciplines in their selection of a journal for publication; in fact, prioritization of free availability fell substantially between 2003 and 2006. In addition to reputational concerns about the visibility of their work product to their peers, faculty prioritize paying nothing to publish their own articles over the openness of the resulting article, suggesting that the “author-pays” model favored by many open access journals may not match the preferences of many faculty.
Scholars want to be published in the right journals, they don’t want to pay to be published, and the whole thing probably seems a little irrelevant to them, as another part of the report indicates:
. . . faculty interest in revamping the scholarly publishing system is secondary to concern about career advancement, and activities that will not be positively recognized in tenure and promotion processes are generally not a priority.
There are many interesting aspects to this report — differences between science and humanities researchers; a clear trend toward the library as an important but decreasingly important constant in academic life; and direct feedback about the value of open access as a solution for scholarly problems. Overall, the group at Ithaka S+R is to be commended for the trends these regular reports have revealed.
Unfortunately for those affected, the solutions to these problems are less clear than the trends.