We don’t have to look too hard to find someone arguing that a particular subscription database is a good value because it has a lower than average cost per use. Librarians are as likely to make this argument as publishers, typically to show that our institution is receiving a good value for its investment in the library’s collections. However, is it always that case low cost-per-use is an indicator of good value? If the true value is of a subscription is being obscured by over-utilization, should libraries seek to dampen such excess in order to have more appropriate measures of the real value of a subscription? By doing so, could a library then negotiate for better prices on some resources and thereby more effectively steward a limited budget allocation in order to better serve its community of users?
Cost-per-use is a ratio of two components — the numerator (cost) and the denominator (use). As such, there are two possible strategies for improving the cost-per-use ratio as a measure of value, either driving up use or lowering the cost.
Libraries have many strategies for increasing use and the interests of publishers are aligned with this approach as it does not threaten subscription revenues. Indeed, publishers themselves put a great deal of effort into increasing use as well.
In contrast, librarians have expressed frustration at their seeming inability to influence the numerator part of the cost-per-use equation. No library is able to buy or license all of the content that would be useful to its community of users; most regularly find their buying power declining as their budgets do not keep pace with inflation much less price increases beyond that. Thus, the challenge facing librarians is not how to spend increasing amounts of money on increasing amounts of content but rather how to spend decreasing amounts of money as effectively as possible. In reality, for many librarians, the task at hand is what to cancel.
As one potential remedy to budget challenges, Kristin Antelman has suggested an approach for calculating an Open Access-adjusted Cost per Download metric to leverage in negotiations. In this essay I would like to raise the possibility that the increasing availability of open access content, coupled with the potential for systematized efforts to put that open content into the user workflow, could be a mechanism for librarians to gain some control of their budgets and pricing. Generally speaking, there is little reason to pay for something that is openly available and particularly not when doing so prevents paying for other things that library users need.
Libraries have put great effort into developing institutional repositories, supporting campus open access mandates, and advocating for APC funding. At least in part, the goal has been to drive down costs (and perhaps to drive down profits of commercial publishers) in addition to increasing access for readers. As open access versions of articles become increasingly available through these and other efforts, by presenting open versions to library users, or perhaps even privileging open versions, libraries could leverage the results of their efforts in negotiating for lower prices. Such contracts could still allow the library to demonstrate the value of investing in subscription resources – changing the cost-per-use not by increasing use of subscription resources but by decreasing their costs.
Twitter erupts from time to time with examples of platforms using layout and other design elements to obscure that a copy can be read without subscription/payment or without individual registration. While it is tempting and perhaps satisfying to express outrage at this obfuscation, I’d like to suggest that these tactics – as well as nudging strategies of ResearchGate, Google Scholar, and the like – might give us insight into approaches for how libraries might better put open access materials into the user workflow. I’ve organized these approaches into three categories: acquisition, linking, and delivery.
First, libraries should “acquire” and organize open content as one would subscription content. I am continuously amazed at how many libraries still do not have systematic mechanisms for selecting, cataloging, linking, etc., open access journals and monographs. Of course, these should be evaluated for inclusion based on coverage, scope, quality, etc. I personally still believe in local collection development as a complementary strategy to efforts to make everything discoverable and singularly presented – in large part because I have found that users want “my everything” and not absolutely everything, as I discussed in “Discovery Should Be Delivery“. Treating these open materials differently because they are available without charge undercuts efforts to encourage open access and we are long past the era of being able to credibly argue, if we ever could, that something on the Internet for free is inherently a quality risk.
This second category is a set of strategies for integrating open copy into article discovery and delivery workflow. At a minimum, libraries could present links to open access versions of articles in the link resolver. This will immediate expand the total amount of content that libraries are able to present in the research workflow as it is unlikely that any library has subscription copy of all of the open access articles already available. In addition, users will see options for open copies of the same articles available by subscription.
Adding these links will create communication and perhaps education challenges for librarians. Users might ask why there are multiple links to the “same” article (though maybe not as link resolver menus can already be rather complicated and duplicative). More likely they might ask why there different versions of the same article. Looking at the NISO JAV documentation – there are far more versions than most of us think about with any regularity – and of course any or all of them might be openly available! The most vexing problem is of course how one can identify which version they have accessed and whether it is “equivalent” to the version of record. Efforts to implement article tagging may eventually resolve at least part of this challenge of establishing equivalency; however, any system will likely take significant time to be fully implemented. User studies will also be needed in order to guide decisions about how to best represent open content in the link resolver.
Building on presentation of open links, libraries could nudge users to choose open access versions of articles as appropriate to their needs. Moving from just passive representation of links to providing contextual information to guide the user in making their choices could help nudge users to use open versions. Perhaps icons could be used to indicate free vs library-pays versions? A library could present recommendations to use open copy unless a subscription version of record is necessary for a particular use task. For citing in a formal publication, the user may need to have read a version of record that is only available via subscription. But, we all read far more than we ever cite and, at a minimum, open copy would likely be fully acceptable for the scanning and browsing in order to identify what gets a full read.
Adding nudging information would allow users to make more informed decisions about which version they use for which tasks. Given researchers likely already have habits around downloading and reading, user studies would be needed to investigate which nudges are most effective; nudging is, after all, about trying to change default and habit behaviors.
Most radically, libraries might suppress links to subscription copy when open copy is available. Slightly less radical would be to add friction to the process of getting the link to the subscription copy without suppressing it entirely. As an example, rather than a direct link to the subscription copy, the user could be presented with a one-click to the open copy vs. an option to fill out a form to have the subscription link emailed within two hours. I recognize that even adding friction — much less suppressing links — will like grate against the librarian service ethos. The framing for considering this would be as short-term inconvenience to enable long-term gains and budget viability.
Finally, in the context of interlibrary loan and document delivery, libraries might default to providing open copy rather than a paid version of record. With automated workflows, such as the option of DeliverOA from the Open Access Button, users might be provided immediately with open copy along with an option for a paid version of record copy, if the open copy is not the version of record. Or, the paid version of record copy might not be offered at all in order to contain costs, or only offered after justification, or to some user groups but not others. CalTech has implemented some of these concepts in its interlibrary loan/document delivery platform.
For any of these strategies to be fully effective in improving the library’s negotiating position, library-wide communication and training for selectors, front-line service staff, etc., will be crucial. Library leaders will need to clearly explain the goals and purposes of these efforts, particularly the importance of discouraging users from over-utilizing subscription copy and artificially driving down the cost-per-use, as part of an overall budget strategy as well as to establish procedures for cases for which these defaults might be justifiably waived. Library leaders should also expect that publishers may resist these efforts and that users may complain and should be prepared to support the staff responsible for carrying out these tactics.
For publishers, this may indeed sound like a less than desirable situation — librarians strengthening their negotiating position potentially means a weakened negotiating position for publishers. Indeed, one could imagine a knee-jerk reaction of pulling back support for open versions. However, it might be better viewed as the gift of an innovation driver in this age of Sci-Hub — something that might fix rather than break the subscription model? A savvy publisher should ask what value they can provide that will make subscriptions worth paying for and, by taking this approach, drive innovation and value creation.
Acknowledgements: In laying out these thoughts, I am indebted to Roger Schonfeld’s Red Light Green Light: Aligning the Library to Support Licensing that articulates how a library might align its efforts to strengthen its negotiating position and to Ryan Regier for our many conversations about how libraries might encourage open access. This essay is based in part on my opening remarks at the CNI Spring Meeting panel “The Privileged Link: Open Access, Version of Record, or Let the User Decide?” (presentation slides and video).