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.

painting of field workers resting
John Singer Sargent, Reapers Resting in a Wheat Field, 1885, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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. 

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


31 Thoughts on "Is the Library Responsible for Open Access Compliance?"

I disagree. Libraries lobbied for this outcome so it’s the responsibility of libraries to ensure it happens. My research office can barely deliver compliance checks on time. It is unfair for libraries to foist this new unfunded activity on them. It’s also not an integrity issue. I don’t want to spend 2 years being investigated because I published with a 6 or 12 month embargo.
As for the libraries- enforcing (or supporting) compliance is exactly the new activity that materials budgets should be redirected to. Libraries run the repositories. Libraries have the publishing skills consultants and copyright experts. It’s not an unfunded new activity- it’s the job that libraries gave themselves and are uniquely positioned to do.

Hi Anonymous, I agree that (some) research libraries have (some) of the infrastructure necessary to manage (green or diamond) compliance. But I am not certain that just because the federal government chose to put in place a mandate, that therefore any organizations that lobbied for expanded public access are therefore solely responsible for ensuring compliance.

I agree, I don’t think libraries should be responsible for its institution’s publishing arrangements – whether that be actually publishing or monitoring things like open access mandates. I would, in fact, go further in defining a university’s research office’s responsibilities, role and mandate. It’s well-recognised that a university effectively outsources a key component of its promotion and tenure process to journals – and that this is a key driver for not only why journals retain their stranglehold over the publishing process but the endless increases in articles seeking publication (shocking it may be to some, but it is possible to publish research findings without journals). But I would argue that universities also outsource something else: responsibility. I find it curious that universities seem to have so little care about the quality of what their researchers are publishing, outsourcing quality control to journals’ peer review processes instead. If a paper is found wanting and is later retracted, surely this damages a university’s reputation as much as the author’s (and the journal’s)? In a world where competition for funding is intensifying, reputation matters. In a world where competition for the brightest students and research-leading faculty is intensifying, reputation matters. If universities stopped outsourcing both promotion & tenure and responsibility for quality control to journals, I bet the cost of publishing would fall (not least because fewer papers would be published) – and they’d have more funds for their libraries.

Well, bringing it in house would be one way to deal with a compliance mandate! If you don’t publish any peer reviewed outputs, there nothing for the mandate to apply to? Of course, can you get the next grant then….

Lisa, are you thinking that institutions can’t organise peer review without journals? If so, think again! IGOs and NGOs organise peer-review for their researchers’ outputs and then take care of publishing. I think it’s perfectly possible for universities to do the same.

Color me skeptical, but given how much universities undervalue their libraries, I have a hard time seeing them reinvesting the bulk of any subscription-cancellation savings back into the library for (as yet) undefined new services. Scholarship often seems too low a priority for many institutions.

That said, it occurs to me that a similar argument to yours could be made toward library publishing. This seems just as poor a fit for the library’s remit as compliance.

It isn’t like a cancelled subscription’s funds are returned to the general university fund and the library then has to apply get them back. Libraries re-allocate our funds internally all the time. What one publisher sees as a cancel, another would see as a new sale. (Unless the library is managing a budget cut, but that’s not the scenario Roger is laying out here.) I think the bigger hurdle to what Roger proposes, developing new services, may be library budgets where funds for materials are in a different allocation than the funds for operations. The flexibility to convert materials dollars to services may be limited though it isn’t impossible!

Understood, but presumably there’s some level of accounting and approval that must take place at some point. If the library reports that it is moving millions of dollars away from journal subscriptions to some other activity or acquisition seen as less substantive or important by the university’s administration, is it unreasonable to think that some of that money might get pulled out of the library and spent elsewhere? The football team needs new uniforms, after all.

I don’t know how big you think library budgets are that there’d be
that many moving millions! But, sure, of course, there is accountability… but there’s also trust and delegation.

3000ish institutions of higher ed in the USA. Sure, there a top tier with large budgets but they are the outliers not the norm. Anyway, we can turn this empirical… e.g., did MIT Libraries lose what they used to spend with Elsevier when they canceled? Did SUNY libraries when they spent less than they used to? Etc. To my knowledge, when these strategic steps are taken, the library budget isn’t threatened. I do think this is hard to track though since many cancelations are budget cut driven and not part of a library futures strategy.

I think it’s a question of scale. Reducing a package (even an Elsevier one) is one thing, but if one assumes an OA future with an across the board massive reduction (if not elimination) in subscription spend coupled with a very conscious movement of matters around publication out of the library as is suggested here, does that reach enough of a threshold where funding might move to other parts of the university?

Who knows? But probably, at least in some cash strapped institutions.

I would also like to emphasize that the strategy I am discussing here is not a major cancellation or unbundling, necessarily, but would result in chipping away at the price paid over a series of years as the amount of subscription content of value presumably declines. Without an enormous one-time savings, it is less likely that a university could swoop in and take something back in the same way we might otherwise envision.

There’s so much more content out there to acquire if we could re-allocate from journals over time. For some academic libraries, they would delight that they could even acquire books again!

Sure, but if we instead spend the money build a rock climbing wall, we could move up a few spots on the US News and World Report rankings.

Thanks Roger. Does TOME ( offer a small but promising experiment in coalition building or enlisting of those with institutional funds outside of the library who can raise their hand to help fulfill these OA hopes and promises? And I agree with David Crotty – hard to believe that savings acheived anywhere in an institutional budget are shared among those who worked to acheive them. That may be sad, but reality-based.

Hi James, Thanks for spotlighting TOME. There are a number of really interesting models to enlist libraries (and other partners together) in open access publishing. There are good partnerships like this, that typically are not about complying with funder mandates, that make sense as destinations for library budget.

thanks Roger. My point was (and maybe I’m wrong) that TOME money came from somewhere in the instution that wasn’t the library — which I thought was your point

Thanks for this post. My feeling is that academic libraries should not become compliance managers for these public access mandates, as award compliance is already handled by the office of research. However, libraries are in a good position to both support compliance with these mandates (e.g. through guidance, repository service provision), and to help their institutions make informed decisions about how best to comply with these mandates as more research output is to be made openly accessible.

So I don’t think libraries should step away from these mandates entirely, but instead should deepen their partnerships with the office of research towards addressing these mandates. As a service provider in an academic library, I also appreciate being able to help researchers make their content more accessible, and provide advice and guidance in doing so, without being put in the position of enforcement!

Hi Jon, Thanks for your comment. I do think there are some interesting partnerships without question. In this piece, I am hoping to illustrate the benefits of, for example, the library avoiding taking responsibility for negotiating a transformative agreement, whether on its own or on a multi-payer basis.

Thanks for the clarification Roger! I agree, working with other campus units (e.g. the office of research) to share the expense of meeting these new public access requirements makes sense as well. Don’t know that a library would win any prizes around campus by bearing these costs alone.

Thanks, Roger, for the thought piece. I will echo Jon’s comment. I see the library continuing to bring value through acquisition, access, discovery, and preservation of scholarly content. This extends to open access arrangements, particularly with the largest traditional and OA publishers, where the university has a clear interest in controlling costs under comprehensive agreements that include paywalled and/or OA content. The library remains best positioned to engage in those negotiations. I do not see value in the library serving as a compliance agent, although we can and will continue to provide consultation and support for those having to follow government and funder publishing mandates.

Hi Daniel, I agree that the university has a strong interest in controlling its total costs to the extent they are not offset but associated direct revenue. But with APCs able to flow in from the funding agencies, in what way are those costs germane, particularly for the library, which has no necessary role to play with them?

I agree with Daniel that although academic libraries need not be the compliance agent/police, we are still very much at the table when it comes to understanding, advocating, negotiating and assessing OA deals and agreements for the university/college. A compliance agent in my mind “audits,” which is not what libraries have ever done. Rather, libraries provide critical opportunities, guidance, and support for OA. With that said, I would definitely be interested in better funding partnerships between research offices and libraries to support the financial impacts of the transition. Finally, I would venture to say that material savings from these transitions require libraries to be very upfront as to how savings are to be used and leveraged (i.e., to meet new strategic initiatives and programs, some of which will involve more specialized material acquisition). I think, however, we are still very far from libraries being able to divest from a significant number of journals, despite these mandates and despite promises that these new deals are truly transformative.

Hi Chris, There are a number of different ways to achieve compliance. One mechanism is via transformative agreements and other kinds of OA deals.

Thanks for this thought piece. Is there evidence that libraries are actively seeking an additional responsibility as compliance officers, requiring some kind of course correction? The readers of the Scholarly Kitchen are of course well aware that libraries began considering the benefits and drawbacks of transformative agreements well before (years before!) the release of the Nelson memo, as one among many tools to apply in service to a more open scholarly ecosystem. We should be careful not to conflate the services, resources, and guidance that libraries offer to facilitate open scholarship with speculative judgments of their presumed motivations (or worse, suspicion that libraries lack basic understanding of their role and value). Similarly, libraries’ commitment to their users’ ability to be effective and successful as authors as well as readers should not be read as a simple play toward compliance. Libraries, with their relationships to their researcher communities and their careful stewardship of substantial resources, are integral partners in the realization of an open scholarly ecosystem that includes diverse voices and ideas on the basis of merit, rather than on the basis of who can afford to publish. It’s not clear that we need to choose between asking libraries to “take a bow” or continue to contribute their expertise toward this aspiration, but if there is, we will do well to continue to leverage all that libraries can bring toward more inclusive and equitable practices.

Hi Alexa, You asked if there is evidence that libraries are seeking an additional responsibility. A fair number of research libraries are expressing or considering renewed interest in transformative agreements — or renewing their discussions about their drawbacks — in light of the Nelson Memo. The Ivy Plus concerns, as expressed in their recent letter, is an example of this dynamic. The work of academic libraries to pursue the open transition has been extensive and laudable in so many facets. Whether it makes sense, at this moment, to feel responsible for additional investments in support of the public access mandate seems to me to be a somewhat different matter and one that is worth debating on the merits. I hope you’ll take a look at the additional pieces in this series which will argue for other approaches as well.

Great information here—thank you Roger and commenters. One issue that hasn’t been discussed yet is open data. Part 3a of the Nelson Memo covers peer reviewed scholarly publications, which libraries certainly know a lot about and are well equipped to continue managing as needed. Part 3b of the Memo, however, covers scientific data—“Scientific data underlying peer-reviewed scholarly publications resulting from federally funded research should be made freely available and publicly accessible by default at the time of publication.” Who is going to manage this need? I think the argument can be made that libraries have an opportunity to step up to this challenge and EXPAND their involvement in open rather than punt or take a bow. At minimum, libraries will continue to point researchers toward approved data repositories, but some entity (and if not libraries, then publishers will almost certainly swoop in) needs to staff up to help meet this need (by, for example, hiring research embedded data curation specialists). Without a more active and capable presence in the open data space, the requirements of 3b will go unmet, and/or will spawn many suboptimal outcomes (like thousands more Excel files dumped into hundreds of separate repositories, and for what purpose?), and unintended consequences (like data misuse and misinterpretation, privacy breaches, data becoming locked behind publisher paywalls, etc.). A great many advanced scientific research projects, especially those dealing with private health information, will be desperately searching for the easiest routes to minimal compliance because acutally curating complex data into something useful and interoperable is a full time task requiring much more care, expertise, colloboration and money than 3b even begins to address. Will libraries answer the bell (can they? should they?) or have they tapped out of this fight?

Forget about funder compliance, there’s an incredible need on most campuses for effective data storage and curation. Far too many researchers respond with “on my laptop” when asked where they store their data (if they’re advanced, they have a hard drive somewhere in the lab where they occasionally back things up). To me, data centers are a huge part of the future of libraries at research institutions. If this can create easier conduits to policy compliance, all the better.

Hi David and Glenn, I’m glad you emphasize data here. That was one of the recommendations that came out of the project on Aligning the Research Library that I mentioned in the piece — that most research libraries should be making “an accelerated pivot to STEM” — by which we definitely did not mean more collections budget on STEM publishing services.

Comments are closed.