With Open Access Week approaching, I have been flipping through articles and dreaming of solutions to the economic troubles facing academic libraries. Needless to say, I believe in the cause–-information should be widely accessible; knowledge should be “free.” This assertion, however, does not help us answer the question of who is going to pay the bills.
Along these lines, at the end of an article reporting the results of a large survey of editors (n=998) using Open Journal Systems, Edgar and Willinsky make a rousing gesture toward a radical change in the market. After noting that “$8 billion [is] devoted annually for science, technology, and medicine journals alone,” the authors conclude:
Such an investment may appear better directed toward underwriting, for the benefit of humankind, universal access to the scholarly literature. Were the academic community willing, there is enough money on the table … to make this a reality in the years ahead (Edgar, B. D., & Willinsky, J. (2010). A Survey of Scholarly Journals Using Open Journal Systems. Scholarly and Research Communication, 1(2). p. 18. Retrieved from http://journals.sfu.ca/src/index.php/src/article/view/24)
Well then, let’s do it. Or, to be less to the point, what would it take for the academic community to be willing to make this change in how it pays for scholarly communication? Why do universities subscribe to over-priced titles from commercial publishers? I have always assumed (and I would be gladly corrected) it’s a matter of reputation–-in large part, it’s keeping-up-with-the-Joneses at the research university level. True, expensive journals do (often?) publish important research and scholars do need access to this research, but why do we need an expensive journal for this job–why not an open access journal? When people stop using expensive titles (to read, to publish, to evaluate faculty productivity), universities will be free to spend their money elsewhere. This sounds like a long term, economic and cultural revolution–perhaps it’s coming, but I expect a lot of disgruntled faculty on the way. See, for example, how dropping an expensive point-of-need, clinical reference tool quickly produces outraged patrons in the medical library. Imagine this battle waged title by title or bundle by bundle!
If change is coming, and I hope it is, it’s time for libraries to get prepared. In my opinion, libraries have a long way to go if they want to compete a publishers. Institutional repositories and open-source journal software have come a long way in recent years and are now trusted tools. But imagine what we could do with a little more support! Perhaps small chunks of the subscription budget could be redirected (without too much screaming from faculty) to develop prototypes to compete with commercial publishing platforms. The money would support better marketing (if it makes you feel better, call it “advocacy” or “outreach”) and slicker interfaces. If reputation is a key driver of faculty adoption, we need scholarly communication services that fit the bill.
Jere Odell, 10 October 2012. CC-BY.