A compromise reached in the first battles over open access (OA) yielded the 2008 NIH Public Access Policy, a general agreement that 12-month embargoes on published articles based on NIH research were potentially workable. Many funders used this as a model. The compromise was reached in order to provide the public with access after a reasonable time during which publishers could recoup their costs and any necessary surplus in order to remain viable. But the current OA battle — which seems even more strident and ill-informed than the first — is pushing to reduce the embargo period to six months, most notably through the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), which would cut the embargo time in half and increase the number of affected agencies by a factor of 10.
Last week, the Association of Learned, Professional, and Society Publishers (ALPSP) released a study entitled, “The Potential Effect of Making Journal Articles Freely Available in Repositories after a Six-Month Embargo.” Library subscriptions, the life blood for most academic journals, were the focus of the study. The results are striking. The damage would be quick and considerable, with 44% of libraries cancelling some or all scientific, medical, and technical (STM) subscriptions, and 65% of libraries cancelling some or all social science journal subscriptions.
It’s clear that such a move would hurt secondary titles first, with all publishers suffering some, but some publishers suffering the most. That is, journals already at risk of cancellation or hiding inside Big Deals would be more vulnerable, and small publishers of lightly used niche titles could fail entirely. I don’t think this is something anyone wants to see happen. As one respondent put it:
I would hypothesise a simple continuum, with a relatively low risk for high-quality/high-impact/reasonable-price STM journals and a relatively high risk for many journals from the humanities, with the social sciences (from harder to softer) in between. But in any field, it would be most risky for overpriced, low-impact journals.
Of course, the study will be subject to all the usual accusations of bias because it comes from a publishers group. But I can find little in the methodology or results that seems to have driven a certain outcome. The data points seem real. For instance, can you ask a more straightforward question than the fundamental one the study posited:
If the majority of content of research journals was freely available within 6 months of publication, would you continue to subscribe?
In fact, some respondents complained this question was too simple — yet another hint that we have a highly complex situation on our hands, one that the blunt force trauma of mandates doesn’t help.
But the headlines of the ALPSP study aren’t the most interesting part. As is usual with surveys, the verbatims — the statements captured in open field response areas — contain a lot of potent insights. For instance, while timeliness is cited as an important reason to maintain subscriptions, other librarians note that it’s not clear which articles will matter until well after many months have passed. This would make subscriptions harder to justify in an environment in which content were mandated to be free after six months. Therefore, if academics only have to wait a relatively short time before they have free access, they’ll find ways to make that work:
I fear that the six month period is too short to deter cancellation, especially since social software connecting colleagues enables widespread sharing and only one individual needs to have current access for everyone.
While much of the rhetoric about access is about price, it seems that librarians are fairly balanced when assigning blame for the tight subscription market, with more awareness growing that local constraints on budgets are partly to blame (that is, the continued decline in share of budget libraries have experienced for more than 25 years).
Another interesting note is that whether OA protestors like it or not, readers and, in this case, buyers of journal content like having materials that are peer-reviewed, well-branded, cleanly edited, nicely formatted, and easy to use. The librarians make that abundantly clear in their statements. Print copies are still desirable, both for their basic utility and for archival purposes.
One respondent noted that even if information is free, it still creates costs for libraries, where it has to be indexed and made discoverable, services that subscription publishers currently provide as part of their products.
I was reminded at a meeting recently of a period less than a century ago when many stalwart medical and scientific journals teetered on the edge of oblivion — the early decades of the 1900s. Many journals went under after a struggle, were absorbed by others, or vanished without a whimper.
When concepts like a six-month uniform mandate are on the table, it’s clear that all of these petitions, protest efforts, and political campaigns are getting close to severely inhibiting the very thing they were meant to enhance — namely, meaningful, efficient, and useful scientific exchanges of research results. And if we remain passive in the face of proposals that have the potential to undermine one of the great accomplishments of the past century — namely, affordable, useful, and reliable scientific information accessible across the globe on a level like never before — then shame on us.