College & Research Libraries
College & Research Libraries

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.

Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


13 Thoughts on "College & Research Libraries Adopts Open Access"

Hi Phil,

Carol Pitts-Diedrich is Library Director at OSU. Joe Branin left the position over a year ago.

Doesn’t it seem strange that the Federal government covers the cost of the online hosting and distribution of the Journal of the Medical Library Association. I guess that is one way for JMLA to advocate for OA. Perhaps all journals covered by Medline should consider saving money by doing the same thing. Do you think PMC/NIH can afford it?

I can’t address the PMC/NIH affordability question. My concern for C&RL is that they are moving to a business model that will radically reduce their primary source of income, yet have take measures to increase their publishing costs. This does not set C&RL in a direction of sustainability.

You’re assuming it’s all about business. It isn’t. The journal was not a primary source of income. I’m pleased that my association is doing the right thing. And they are certainly at no risk of losing my dues as a result. The journal is not why I am a member. Organizations are not merely journal publishers.

ACRL, like any other organization –and no different from an academic library– needs to balance its revenues with expenditures. I just looked at ACRL’s 2009-2010 annual report and expenditures exceeded revenues, meaning the organization ran at a loss. Part of the reason is the gradual decline of ACRL memberships. From the report:

ACRL membership declined by 2.78% in 2009–10, more than the average decline of 1.69% expected in a nonconference year.


Revenue obtained from membership dues continues to fall and ended the year 6.13% below budget at $645,488 rather than the $687,663 budgeted for the year.

Supporting a high-expenditure publication that ceases to bring in any revenue may simply make it harder for ACRL to continue bringing you all the other services you love and expect from them.

Yes, but exclusive access to a journal will not increase (or decrease) membership, and the journal was already not bringing in money. So it’s a positive development because we get OA (for which we advocate) and are no worse off.

I disagree. For science societies, the journal was the primary draw in return for membership. Indeed, getting C&RL was one of the main draws for me to become an ACRL member. While I have no doubt that longterm members will continue paying their membership, I’d be more concerned attracting new members when it is less clear what they are getting in return.

Alas, the new OA approach does not cover back issues before 1997 and thus denies us easy access to Ross Atkinson’s seminal article that I have cited many times as the source for Robert Darnton’s idea of the hierarchically structured document that became the Gutenberg-e project:

Atkinson, Ross. 1993. “Networks, Hypertext, and Academic Information Services: Some Longer-Range Implications.” College & Research Libraries 54/3 (May): 199-215

Hi. I’m Kathryn Deiss, an ACRL staff member. I worked closely with other ACRL staff, the Board, the Budget and Finance Committee, Joe Branin and the C&RL Editorial Board as well various ACRL Committees to look at scenarios for the future of C&RL.

Here’s a little background on this decision:

The only barrier to full open access to C&RL online was a six-month embargo that only applied to non-members/non-subscribers, which is to say that full and unfettered access to C&RL online has been available to members for a while. This six-month embargo is what has been lifted and what allows for unfettered access to the Journal for all, an action in keeping with our scholarly communication principles.

C&RL has experienced declining subscription and ad revenues as have many journals and ACRL has been subsidizing C&RL for some years. The Board and staff understand that strategies for developing strong funding sources for C&RL is important to the future of the Journal.

The Board and the Budget and Finance Committee decided to decouple decisions regarding the dissemination of the print version of the journal from the decisions surrounding the six month embargo and open access online. There is a Budget and Finance Task Force currently working on the questions related to the future of print dissemination of C&RL.

Thanks for raising these questions Phil. I endorse the decision to go full OA with C&RL News. We’ll have to agree to disagree on the membership issue though. To answer your question, no, I don’t believe members will drop out b/c of this decision. I hope it will encourage more librarians to join and support what ACRL stands for. The number one reason that members belong to ACRL, according to member surveys, is not the publications – but continue education opportunities. ACRL can continue to expand in that area to grow revenue. But I am wondering if ACRL should be considering an author pays model to support C&RL. I think we could manage this if there was a fee schedule tied to the size of the organization budget. Clearly, ARLs – where I would imagine most of the authors are employed – could afford to support a reasonable author fee. Many of those folks need to publish for tenure, and if that is a one important reason for us to maintain C&RL, then we can all help to support its continued existence. Whatever we may disagree on, we should surely agree that thiks profession needs a high quality outlet for its research.

Steven, I think that might be dicey. Libraries have money to spend to support scholarship, but that doesn’t mean librarians are provided the means of being active scholars in terms of travel funds and (certainly) author-pays publishing. Do you know of any LIS journal that charges authors? I don’t.

Barbara, I don’t know of any LIS journals that have author fees, although one of them once wanted to charge me $60 to make a change to a paragraph. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be tried. It would mean that we’d have to be given some equal footing with other scholars at our institutions, and for those on the tenure track – expected to publish – why not?

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