Academic libraries have advocated and lobbied for many years to achieve greater levels of open access. Having achieved a major step forward in the Nelson Memo’s policy guidance on open access for federally funded research, the working assumption of US academic libraries is that they will play a further role in navigating this transition. In a recent Ithaka S+R survey of library deans and directors across the US, my colleague Ioana Hulbert found that more than half of the library leaders at doctoral universities expect to pay more as a result of the transition to open access (Figure 21). The argument that research-producing institutions could end up paying more, particularly in a Gold ecosystem, is a familiar one, seen for example through the work of the University of California. But these investments may not be needed, at least not through the library. In this moment of success for their open access advocacy, it is healthy for libraries to pause and consider the path forward. Today, I advance the proposal that the academic library should not take responsibility for implementing open access mandates. This is first of a series of posts reviewing strategies for university engagement with funder mandates.
Let me start by emphasizing that I am certain that academic libraries have an extensive role to play in many other areas related to scholarly communication. This includes not only in the advocacy that has been so successful, but also in new service areas such as advising researchers how to navigate submissions in the publishing ecosystem and providing guidance on questions of research integrity. My proposal is more narrowly focused than this.
In much community discussion, libraries express an interest in using their collections budget to shift spending from subscriptions to open access. In many cases, this mindset has contributed to a substantial expansion in access to the scholarly literature. In other cases, libraries have thereby, perhaps unwittingly, served to prop up the value of the Big Deal. We are at a point of departure where this implicit strategy should be questioned.
Federal funding agencies are starting to revise their policies to require the public availability of the peer reviewed version of a journal article or similar unit of scholarship at the point of publication in response to the Nelson Memo. These mandates are directed at the researcher and the researcher’s institution. They are similar in nature to all the other mandates that come along with federal grants — requirements around conflicts of interest, research security, non-discrimination, budgeting and payment schedules, human subjects, and health and safety, among a myriad of others. Typically, compliance is the responsibility of the university’s research office in partnership with other university offices.
Yet compliance with funding agency policies is not traditionally the library’s responsibility. And indeed the US library community has not taken primary responsibility for compliance with the embargoed public access policy that has been in place until now. So it merits scrutiny to consider what approach to take going forward. Given that few if any libraries anticipate additional direct funding to support this work, what if the library were to stand back? What if it were to step aside rather than take the lead? What if it were to decline to voluntarily take on the responsibility for complying with public access mandates?
In this scenario, the research office would be responsible for complying with the new open access mandates — just as it is for all other research funder obligations. Perhaps the research office would arrange Green deposits. Perhaps it would ensure that grant submissions to federal agencies include funds to cover APCs. Perhaps it would negotiate publishing services agreements with preferred vendors. Perhaps it would take a lax approach, assuming that there are few likely consequences to uneven compliance with this mandate. Regardless, the library would take a perspective of neutrality; from its perspective, any of these scenarios would be acceptable.
In universities, decision-making can vary depending on which department is responsible for the decision, so establishing the research office as primarily responsible would have some key implications. For example, in this approach, the research office would presumably focus on compliance for those research outputs subject to the mandate. This would continue the existing variance in openness by research funding source and field of study. Today, most library leaders look to provide a standard set of services across all fields and many therefore tend to view such variance as problematic and even inequitable, as the Ivy Plus Library Federation has argued. With the library no longer feeling responsibility for this situation, would the research office (or other university leaders) find it problematic? My suspicion is that many research leaders would see this variability as one more natural consequence of different funding models and mandates. If this is the case for research-producing universities, a byproduct of situating responsibility with the research office would be to eliminate one of the factors that stands to drive the unfunded expense of open access.
Meanwhile, the federal funder mandates would ensure that a growing share of a traditional publisher’s content would become open access. As this happens, the library would remain focused on its licenses for subscription content with such a publisher, not fretting about whether to negotiate transformative agreements. Instead, the library would focus on becoming even more vigilant in evaluating the value of its remaining and presumably dwindling subscriptions. Tools like Unsub can help with this process.
As the library is thereby able to reduce its materials budget over the course of time, it would benefit from the resulting opportunity to redeploy resources towards new priorities. For the library, this imperative has been all too often squeezed out through limited resources. University leaders like presidents and provosts are pursuing important strategic directions for their institutions. There are numerous opportunities for libraries to develop and revamp their services offerings in response, as my colleagues and I concluded in a study conducted for ARL and CARL last year. But in libraries today, there are real limitations in the ability to redirect the resources necessary to boldly pursue new service directions. Resources freed up from materials budgets could go a long way towards positioning the library in alignment with university strategy — and thereby establishing its value for a generation to come.
Of course, there is a risk, which varies by institution, that the university would “take back” some of these funds from the library, if the new services are not seen as sufficiently valuable. Some, such as my friends who write The Brief, believe that this suggests a “be careful what you wish for” dynamic in library advocacy for open access, but I do not agree. The purpose of the library is greater than defending its own budget. The purpose of the library is to enable and support its parent institution’s mission including for teaching, learning, and research. The best way to mitigate the risk of library budget cuts is to develop a strong roadmap for new services, and implement it decisively, in ways that steadily add tangible value to the university’s strategic directions.
The US libraries that have advocated for open access have secured a major victory with the Nelson Memo and the resulting zero-embargo mandates. Rather than taking unfunded responsibility for implementing this mandate, there is today an option for research libraries to take a bow and let others on campus address compliance.
Should libraries consider seriously this strategy that the academic library should not take responsibility for implementing open access mandates? I look forward to hearing your thoughts — why or why not? — in the comments. We will also have the opportunity to discuss in the coming weeks through future posts the merits of other university strategies for complying with public access funder mandates.