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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.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


14 Thoughts on "One Report, Two Findings: Library Roles Changing, Open Access Not Compelling"

There was an interesting speaker at UKSG (Lucy Power from the Oxford Internet Institute, who was speaking on the use of FriendFeed by life scientists) who, during questions, noted that in her research, the tendency seems to be for academics to prefer to publish (a) in a v high profile journal like Nature but (b) second choice is an OA journal – could be specific to life sciences but was an interesting variation on what we have tended to observe in the past, and may be the start of a trend.

I’m not sure that querying the 1300 or so biologists on FriendFeed gives a representative sample of biology as a whole. In general, the online early adopters are much more interested in different forms of communication, and there’s a strong bias for open access models. Also, in your linked article below, the quote from Power is:

“getting into Nature would be the ultimate aim, if they think they might have half a chance, but yes a few people did say that they seek to publish in open access journals first.”

That sounds pretty in line with the article covered by Kent here. Scientists are more interested in publishing in the highest profile journal that they can, career advancement trumps OA advocacy, with the exception of a relatively small number of outliers who put OA first.

The response rate for the Ithaka survey was approximately 8.6% – also may not be a representative sample.

It should not come as a surprise that career advancement takes precedence over the restructuring of scholarly publishing, about which I imagine few really care. I will bet that this is true for all forms of social change, including the technological. As the saying goes, it is not their job. And this is a good thing too because career advancement generally depends on doing good work, which is the primary social goal of the scholar system.

It is also hardly surprising that authors do not want the hassle of paying for what is now free. Author pay advocates seem not to have thought about the adverse institutional complexities of such a system. Either there is a central budget system to allocate author money, with all the horror that entails, or it comes out of each author’s hide. For junior faculty this may mean their pockets. The potential for long run savings out of the library budget is largely irrelevant in such contexts. It is a question of burden.

Quantifying the intuitive is often useful, so this sounds like a good study.

Great post but the the Steven Bell article you link to ( was written in Aug 2008 and refers to the 2006 study.

As for solutions, one would be for academic librarians to display and promote competence in helping researchers find information on the web (and not just resources they license). Another is to take on for themselves the job of curating and making available research data generated at their institutions.

Thanks for the correction on the link. It was one I debated putting in, but added it at the last minute.

The search for solutions may include ideas like yours. Good ideas.

No big surprise on the Open Access front. As I’ve been repeatedly saying, scientists are extremely good at figuring out which activities advance their careers and focusing on those activities. Taking on the publishing industry, or pushing a social cause is often a luxury that a scientist can’t afford when trying to establish a career. At the meeting linked above, one young scientist noted that at his postdoctoral institution, there are over 3,000 postdocs and around 5 or 6 landed a high profile faculty position in the last year. At his new institution, they receive over 400 applications for every job they post. The level of competition is brutal, so any perceived advantage in publishing in a high profile journal is likely to be seized.

As mentioned in my response to a comment above, this is often difficult to discern from online forums, social media and other easily accessed ways of interacting with the scientific community. Those who are pushing hard along the career track are less likely to spend precious time blogging, while those who are advocating a cause find great value in tools that get their voices heard.

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