Yesterday, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) announced a move to make its research journal, College & Research Libraries (C&RL), freely available to all readers. The change will be effective April 1st (no joke!).
The move replaces a prior policy of providing free access after a six-month delay.
According to the ACRL website, the move was prompted more by the desires of its Board of Directors than by a sound business model:
. . . the ACRL Board of Directors felt that it was important to honor the principles that ACRL has espoused and make funding an open access C&RL a priority.
Reiterated by an editorial in the March issue of the journal, Joseph Branin argued that it was time to “walk the talk.” The fact that C&RL remained, in part, a subscriber-access journal was a source of friction for many open access advocates in the library community, which surfaced regularly in public and private forums.
While revenue for the journal has been eroding slowly over the years — the result of declining subscription numbers and advertising income — the move to a free-access model is not accompanied by new sources of income or a cheaper publishing strategy. Indeed, C&RL moved to a premiere publishing platform (HighWire Press) just last year. In contrast, the Journal of the American Medical Library Association is hosted online by PubMed Central, a free service supported by the National Institutes of Health. Neither journal charges authors article processing fees.
Branin understands that new sources of revenue will need to be found, and for now, he is asking his parent institution to fill the growing financial hole:
The ACRL Board made this decision in full awareness that it will require ACRL to find new funding sources for C&RL. Until those funding sources are identified, ACRL will continue to cover the shortfall out of its Operating Fund.
Luckily, ACRL has other sources of income, most notably its bi-annual conference. It is feasible that ACRL will run C&RL at a loss simply for the benefit the journal brings to its members and the credibility it provides to its parent organization. Membership to ACRL comes with both a print subscription to C&RL as well as discounts to its conference.
Print distribution to members may be the first service to cut, according to Branin’s editorial. The $100,000 question, however, is whether there will be remaining incentive for most librarians to remain members of ACRL.
I have no doubt that the Board of Directors discussed the ramifications for abandoning its subscription-access model — it was an issue when I served on their editorial board. If ACRL has a sustainable business plan, its details are not apparent. According to Branin:
Someone must pay the cost. If not subscribers, then others associated with the journal. In our case, it will likely mean added cost to and support from ACRL, which in turns depends on your membership support.
Branin will finally have his opportunity to “walk the talk,” but without a business model, it looks more like a walk in the dark.