Back in 2012 when we asked the Chefs, scholarly publishing was shifting (or had already shifted) from being an industry based on selling products to being service-based. The successful transition of books and journals to the digital realm continues to create new needs for the research community and thus, potential new services and revenue streams for publishers. Throughout the internet, convenience has become an important selling point. Some will always opt for the more difficult “free” version, but for those for whom time and effort are valuable, paying for convenience makes sense. A new pilot study performed by Elsevier and the University of Florida’s libraries offers an intriguing glimpse at a potential new service.
Elsevier and Florida’s project looks into ways that publishers and libraries could partner together to automate and expand the content found in institutional repositories. As with anything Elsevier does, the immediate online reaction was largely negative, laced with the usual suspicions about Elsevier’s motivation. For many, it’s almost impossible to objectively judge anything that Elsevier does. This is a bed that Elsevier has made for itself, becoming the prime target for all the sins of the publishing industry through its own past missteps and continuing controversial business practices. But the kneejerk responses have reached the point of absurdity (a favorite recent example being a suggestion that Elsevier had spent millions of dollars to buy SSRN so they could deliberately ruin it). Elsevier didn’t achieve its dominant position by being dumb, and while it’s amusing to picture Tom Reller going to work every morning at a secret volcano lair, any move they make is worthy of more serious analysis.
Elsevier is making major moves away from relying on content sales and toward a future based on selling services to the research community and others. The glaring need this potential service meets is the generally unsatisfactory performance of institutional repositories. Despite years of effort, key problems continue to plague institutional and funding agency repositories — significant effort and overhead for universities/funders, and poor researcher compliance resulting in a mostly empty storehouse. The Elsevier/Florida project, while not a complete solution, suggests how these problems could be solved.
Compliance issues are difficult and often expensive to overcome. Essentially, researchers don’t see depositing copies of their journal articles in repositories as a priority, and as we know, researchers won’t do anything they aren’t absolutely required to do. Since most repository policies (in the United States, at least) offer an easy opt-out choice and very few have any sort of monitoring and enforcement schemes in place, the easiest path for a researcher is simply not to bother. Deposit is a distraction from the real work of research, and consumes valuable time and energy that could be spent more productively elsewhere. Until this year, the repository at the University of Florida contained a grand total of seven articles published in Elsevier journals — a tiny fraction of the roughly 1,100 articles that Florida researchers publish in Elsevier journals each year and that are eligible for local deposit. Where universities have put in place careful programs of monitoring and enforcement, the costs are often staggering.
The obvious solution is to take the decision out of the researchers’ hands, and make deposit an automated part of the publication process. At a recent meeting, Neil Thakur from the NIH shared data showing that when the ACS deposited articles into PubMed Central on behalf of funded authors, compliance levels were above 90%. When the ACS switched to a policy where authors were left to do it themselves, compliance dropped to around 50%.
There is an obvious service to be offered here that is clearly desirable for institutions and funding agencies — if they want well-populated repositories run on a cost-effective basis, publishers can make that happen.
However, publishers must be sufficiently motivated and a business case must be developed. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is that repositories draw away essential traffic from journals, and it’s hard to support a peripheral service product that undercuts one’s primary revenue source. Elsevier’s concept here solves that problem by combining the two and making the journal itself the repository. Elsevier identifies papers with authors from the university and the metadata from those papers powers the university’s discovery portal, pointing readers to the papers in the journals. The number of Elsevier-published articles that can be found through Florida’s repository has now grown from seven to over 31,000.
Readers at the University of Florida, which subscribes to the journals in question, have access to those articles, as would subscribers elsewhere, and of course, any open access articles are also available to all. That would seem to solve the internal access needs for a university repository, but many are equally interested in external, or public access to the university’s published works. Since most publishers have implemented policies allowing the display of at least some version of papers after an embargo period to meet Green open access requirements, this could be a useful next step — send the reader to the best available version of the paper (hosted by the journal) to which they have access.
The other big problem here for many is the question of ownership and trust. This remains a fundamental question as we continue to move into a digital, distributed market. Though streaming services are rapidly replacing the purchase of media, librarians must think of the long term, and of permanent archiving. Many librarians see publishers as adversaries, and don’t trust them to follow through on promises of perpetual access.
This is not an insurmountable problem though, and legally-binding guarantees and ironclad mechanisms can resolve such concerns. CHORUS, for example, guarantees perpetual public access through the use of trusted third party archives like Portico and CLOCKSS. Should the publisher-hosted version ever cease to be publicly available, the archived version comes to light. Libraries in such an arrangement would be free to collect copies of all identified papers to build their own dark archives, or better yet, automated deposit in an institutional dark archive could be part of the paid service (with conditions specified that public availability of those copies is not allowed as long as the publisher lives up to its promises). If the articles are guaranteed to be perpetually publicly available, does it matter where they are hosted?
In many ways, this is a win:win. For publishers, a new revenue stream is created. Traffic to the journal is retained rather than lost to third party repositories, those visitors count in COUNTER statistics, can be shown ads, and can potentially be upsold to read other journal content. For readers, access to the best available version in context is superior to getting a pdf or Word document from a third party source — if there are any related articles or editorials, these become evident. Is the article part of a special issue or section? Perhaps most important, if there have been any corrections, updates, or retractions of the article, the reader can see them. This sort of information, along with important additions like links to datasets, protocols or open peer review reports is regularly displayed on journal websites, but unlikely to be included in a one-time deposit of a pdf into a repository.
For librarians, a low-effort, high-compliance solution is offered for problems that have dogged repositories for years. Rather than continuing to put further burdens on researchers (and hoping they’ll one day reverse their behaviors), paying for a service that routes around this particular roadblock may be worth the cost.
Though not yet the complete soup-to-nuts solution, Elsevier is onto something intriguing here, with wider implications for the industry as a whole. The real question to be answered by stakeholders is the balance between functionality and control. If you get exactly the solution you want, does it matter whether you own it, or even if it’s owned by someone you consider an adversary? Is there so much animosity and distrust that it overwhelms the benefits offered? Is it better to have a barely functional system over which you have complete control?
The answers will vary, depending on the stakeholder and where it sees its mission and priorities. For those where the benefits of a low-effort, robust repository outweigh the “who controls it” questions, the concepts here are worth further exploration.
Note: It has been brought to my attention that I may have been unclear — this pilot with the University of Florida is not a paid service, and the University is not being charged for the experiment. Any suggestion that the service could over time evolve into a paid service is speculation on the author’s part.