Defining success is one of the most vital tasks for the leaders of any organization or any movement. Sometimes we try to paper over differences in our definitions of success. Papering over differences can be healthy when it is done to build coalitions for larger purposes. Papering over differences can be dangerous when it leads to confused thinking about strategic objectives and impedes the wise allocation of scarce resources.
Over the years, more libraries, academics, and publishers have begun to advocate for or accommodate themselves to a new environment for scholarly communication, including open access, institutional repositories, and preprints. Thought of as a movement, one with early visionaries and later arrivals, it is a big tent, including librarians, scientists, startups, societies, university presses, and commercial publishers. In building this big tent, definitions of success have become somewhat muddled, by no means in the minds of every individual or organization, but certainly for some.
Some organizations approaching open access will have a relatively straightforward and common definition of success. Commercial publishers have sought business models that are compatible with open access, market share for these new models, and over time growing revenue generation and high return on investment. Non-profit publishers, such as university presses and scholarly societies, have pursued their own form of sustainability for open access programs, bearing in mind at times complicated questions about cross-subsidization within their larger operations.
We are more likely to see a shared definition of success among universities, scientists, and librarians, when decision-making about definitions is comparatively centralized. In the United Kingdom and some European countries, open access is established policy at the level of higher education funding, and definitions of success there are comparatively straightforward. But in the United States, at least, academia faces greater complexity in establishing definitions of success, with a variety of interests operating not only within the library but more broadly across a university. To be sure, individual libraries and library systems have made some real progress in making their research output freely available. But, for them, is open access a means or is it an end in itself?
At the broadest level, universities, academics, and libraries too often conflate several rather different objectives for transforming scholarly communications. In some cases, the objective is to maximize public access to the university’s research outputs. In other cases, it is to bend the cost curve for the university’s licensed e-resources — or escape this paradigm altogether. Because these two purposes are both widely shared, it is understandable that they become to some degree conflated in the pursuit of “open access.” But, they are in fact discrete goals that merit different (not necessarily mutually incompatible) strategic directions.
This conflation is one of the factors that has resulted in some differences in the open access movement, which seeks a broadly defined outcome for a variety of differing underlying purposes. Here at the Kitchen, Rick Anderson has amply documented some real differences in specific definitions of open access, including differences not only in licensing practices but in the very real differences between open access articles and open access journals. He has also examined some of the broader differences in the goals of the movement, such as whether open access is about removing all barriers for users or simply throttling commercial publishers and whether open access is compatible with embargoed access or charging for access. In Rick’s work, we see the “big tent” approach that any movement will reasonably pursue but also some of the challenges that necessarily result.
At the broadest level, universities, academics, and libraries too often conflate several rather different objectives for why one might wish to transform scholarly communications.
Given the challenges in articulating the fundamental purpose of many scholarly communication agendas, it should be no surprise to find this uncertainty reflected in how libraries approach institutional repositories. In a recent set of discussions about the current state and future directions of institutional repositories (in one of which I participated), CNI found a bit of a jumble:
- There was some confusion about how institutional repositories connect up to funder mandates, disciplinary preprint services, and ResearchGate and Academia.Edu.
- There were an array of “[d]ifficulties in clearly delineating the boundaries and definition of a repository,” with programs for online access to preprints and those for research data management, digital special collections, and other purposes, using the same platform and at times shared staffing.
- And “[t]here is an interesting school of thought surfacing that says that a CRIS [current research information system, such as Elsevier’s PURE] might serve much of the function of an IR [institutional repository],” as well as emerging models where a repository provides discovery but “the publisher controls access.”
At some libraries, if definitions of scholarly communication success have become muddled across the university community, this jumble of platforms and programs is probably one of the factors at work.
The administrative organization of scholarly communication functions in libraries also varies widely. An Ithaka S+R study examining the organization of scholarly communication activities found that in many large research libraries the function reposes in a dedicated office, but how this work is organized may tell us something about objectives and prioritization:
- Sometimes this office is attached to a licensing and collections division, which seems to reflect a view that scholarly communication initiatives can somewhat directly transform libraries’ engagement with traditional publishing models.
- At other times, this office is positioned in a research support or publishing division, which seems to reflect an approach of primarily trying to support scholars’ objectives and perhaps seeing a longer-term or more indirect path to influence.
- In other cases, there is no specific office but rather the function is seen as integrated across the library organization as a shared responsibility.
These different organizational models may not directly map onto different objectives for scholarly communication, but they certainly suggest differing levels of perceived time to impact.
Looking across this landscape, we see an array of approaches informed by a variety of objectives. We should probably expect nothing else in a higher education system as decentralized and differentiated as that in the United States.
Academia has become understandably committed to the necessity of transforming scholarly communication. It is making a variety of investments well beyond institutional repositories, including article processing fees, hosting and publishing services, contributions to disciplinary preprints programs, and more. At the same time, open access, however it is defined, may not always be best seen as an underlying purpose but rather in some cases as an outcome. What is the objective, what is the definition of success, as academia and its libraries engage in issues of scholarly communication? Answering this question crisply and with a clear sense of priority may allow libraries to evaluate their investments, and to organize, staff, and run their operations, with greater focus.