Editor’s Note: This piece is co-authored by Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe and Oya Y. Rieger, Senior Advisor to Ithaka S+R’s Libraries, Scholarly Communication, and Museums program.
Last week, Roger Schonfeld discussed how several libraries are increasingly scrutinizing the value of their license agreements with greater attention to alignment with their own strategic interests in light of recent negotiations and cancellations. The financial pressures inherent in Big Deal agreements are often combined with an interest in using them to fund open access publishing. So while some libraries have cancelled their Big Deal contracts outright and changed to title-level subscriptions, others have sought to have them re-born as “transformative agreements” with publishers, with libraries funding both reading and publishing.
The number of statements that California’s action of canceling their Elsevier Big Deal has garnered exemplifies how attention is currently focused on library-publisher negotiations. Today we look at those statements with an eye to understanding what they might reveal about open access publishing, institutional priorities, and the role that library-publisher contracts might play in this arena.
In examining these statements in detail, we quickly realized that there are some common themes as well as interesting divergences in areas of emphasis and positioning. We went through almost three dozen statements (see University of California Scholarly Communication for a collated list) to analyze the similarities and differences among them, and actions promised by them. We offer our observations with a goal of furthering the dialogue on the important issues currently facing both libraries and publishers about open access publishing in scholarly communications.
The statements take a variety of positions, spanning from criticism of commercial publishing (especially large publishers with steep pricing and large profit margins) to advocating open access more ideologically. Here are the key characteristics we noted in our review:
- Authorship: The statements are predominantly written by library leaders. There are, however, a few from senior university leaders such as Provosts or Vice Provosts of Research.
- Claim — System is Broken: The primary argument put forth is that the current knowledge sharing system is no longer fit for purpose and that there is a need to shift to a sustainable and open publishing ecosystem.
- Claim — Needed Interventions: The statements vary in the kinds of interventions that they call for. Some highlight exploring alternative models for supporting open access dissemination of content. Others make a case for transparent and affordable pricing of formal open access publishing, typically coupled with a desire to control open access article processing charges (APCs).While some suggest that the system is reaching a tipping point, regardless of which intervention(s) a statement highlights, the overall suggestion is to shift funds to support open access rather than continue expenditure on closed for-profit publishing.
- Justification — Access and Impact: Some statements view scholarly communication through a lens of diversity and inclusivity and argue that scholarly publications should be accessible across all educational systems and to the public at large. Additionally, these statements mention the analysis that has shown greater use and citations of open access publications in comparison to those that are not open.
In addition to rhetorical positioning, some statements imply a promise of action:
- Future Negotiations: Some refer to either ongoing or upcoming negotiations with prominent publishers; however, they stop short of making any projections about desired outcomes or “lines in the sand” that would cause cancellation.
- Raising Campus Awareness: Some say that the California cancellation has been an opportunity to start campus conversations about the Big Deal and its implications. These conversations seek to raise awareness of the challenges library budgets face and also to explain the specifics of the UC’s cancellation of Elsevier contract. There are several general statements about the intentions to work with the campus academic communities to continue to advance our advocacy and support for open access.
- Promotion of Services: Some are leveraging their support statements to promote their institutional repositories, open access policies and mandates, APC support funds, and related service consultancies for copyright, publisher agreements, and public policy compliance.
Reviewing the support statements have raised several questions for us:
- What happens after cancellation? How do libraries and scholars adapt? A 2017 literature review by Sjoberg revealed that, although there is some research on cancellation decision-making process, what happens after does not get sufficient coverage in the literature. There is a scarcity of testimonies about the positive or negative outcomes of cancellations, assessment strategies deployed, and engagement of faculty and students in post-cancellation reviews. How are we going to know if and how the cancellations have impact on research? A notable exception is the recently presented systematic post-cancellation assessment in Sweden. Research on the search and use of scholarly articles more generally indicates that researchers use the most convenient and readily available means to discover and obtain information rather than pursuing comprehensive strategies. Are researchers going to try to acquire the articles to which their institutions don’t subscribe through interlibrary loan, etc. or will they settle with what’s conveniently available?
- Is there a turn from crisis to strategy? Most library leaders already know where they want to invest and which programs they would foster if they were to have additional funds (see Figures 11 and 14 in Ithaka S+R US Library Survey 2016 Survey) and collections, publishing, and related staffing are relatively low in priority. California’s action, which parallels the still in force cancellations in Europe by Germany and Sweden, has emboldened some to consider cancellation as a potential negotiation tactic — both in pursuit of open access but also for cost containment. What would it look like for libraries to develop a more intentional and long-term strategy to reclaim control of collection budgets without reacting at points of financial crisis?
- Transformative agreements — maybe/maybe not? The statements are notably quiet when it comes to committing to pursuing transformative agreements that would fund open access publication. It seems there is an ongoing debate about the promise of green vs. gold open access and questions about the desirability of propping up the value of the offerings of commercial publishers. It is well documented that transformative agreements lead to research-intensive institutions and countries paying more as costs switch from paying to read to paying to publish. Are transformative agreements sustainable, if there are no price caps, if they succeed in shifting the industry to paying for publication?
We are not the only ones who are thinking about how the subscription environment is shifting and its implications. We were delighted to note that L. Angie Ohler (University of Maryland) and Joelle Pitts (Kansas State University) are investigating the issue directly. They are currently surveying academic librarians in order to address this question: “In the aftermath of the recently publicized breakups between academic libraries and academic journal publishers over renewal of “big deal” journal contracts, are academic libraries consciously planning for, or already making the pivot, to supporting open access initiatives as an alternative to traditional scholarly publishing practices?” We look forward to seeing the results!
In the meantime, we invite comments on this piece. What themes are you noticing? What questions are being raised from your perspective?