What if funders and libraries paid processing fees instead of authors?

I was recently contacted by science journalist Elie Dolgin, who wanted my thoughts on Willinsky and Rust‘s funder-library OA subscription model. Here are his questions and my responses, published here to complement the article he wrote: A fix for open-access cost barriers: what if funders and libraries paid processing fees instead of authors?

Whether this model is indeed better than the current OA system reliant on article processing charges?

The main attraction of this model is that it removes the paywall, rather than readers paying to read content (whether paying individually or via library/other subscriptions). One aim of Open Access is to remove paywalls to readers, and the proposal achieves this.

However, most advocates of Open Access aim higher than just removing the paywall; their goal is for OA research materials to have more generous re-use rights too. Traditional commercial publishers have strict rules about what readers may do with articles/information they access. For example, it is usually forbidden to pass on a legitimately-accessed PDF of an article to a friend or colleague. On the one hand, this is intended to strictly limit access to subscribers only, but it can also prohibit passing on the PDF to a colleague at the same institution, or posting the PDF on the institution’s virtual learning environment, even though in both cases the beneficiaries are also legitimate subscribers.
Furthermore, OA aims for more permissive sharing rights than those allowed under traditional licence arrangements. There is emphasis on attribution (such as in a CC-BY licence), and re-use rights would include being allowed to use longer extracts, and to perform text and data mining on the article or dataset. This is really important for reproducibility studies, and for Cochrane-style reviews where data from multiple studies is examined.
This model does not appear to challenge restrictive sharing and re-use practices.

What, if anything, appeals to you about John’s suggestions?

In my experience, many staff in libraries have a (small c) conservative approach to transformative approaches or technologies. They often operate in complicated organisations where it is difficult to effect change quickly, budgets are tight, and they want to be able to give their readers and researchers access to the widest possible range of materials and information sources. John’s suggestions represent an approach to funding academic publishing which goes some way towards achieving (some goals of) Open Access, without being a radical proposal that will make academics nervous.

Any criticisms?

As just mentioned, this is not a radical (“change at the root”) solution. Part of the OA movement is about opening up access to and re-use of scholarly materials, and there is a parallel and often overlapping issue which is the costs of subscriptions. It is suspected by many that the high profitability of many publishers, and that they make this profit from journal articles for which they pay researchers or their universities no fee, is unethical and an unwise use of (often public) funds. I take care to point out that this issue is separate from the OA movement, although some of the goals are shared.
To someone who sees profits being made from the free (to publishers) labour of researchers, squeezed library budgets, and increasing journal subscription costs, John’s proposal does nothing to address the issue from this side: it merely shifts the costs to libraries (and other subscribers) from pay-to-read to pay-to-subscribe-to-support. In this way, the OA subscription model is possibly cheaper than the APC model, but it does not increase transparency in the costs of publishing and help the costs to fall, or the perceived value-for-money to increase and therefore justify the costs of publishing.

Do you buy the argument that funders and libraries will have more bargaining power to lower processing fees, or is this just shuffling money in a different way?

In my experience, libraries have very little bargaining power, as they generally have to accept the price asked by the publisher, or lose the subscription and have to deal with lots of unhappy academics. Consortia at regional or national level can enter into collective bargaining if they stick together to exert the necessary pressure, but this is the same for any charging mechanism, whether this new model or the traditional subscription. Competition between universities is intense, and this can erode the solidarity needed for a collective bargaining model to work effectively.
What is different about this model is whether libraries lose out if they do not subscribe – if the resources are OA anyway, the publishers will have to come up with other benefits to the subscribing institution of carrying on their membership. This is especially important if subscriptions are to continue in the face of further pressure on budgets, where libraries will look to cut anything perceived as non-essential. It is not yet clear to me how such library-funded OA platforms can count on supporters to stay involved – see also Open Library of Humanities which uses a similar model, called Library Partnership Subsidy (LPS).

The novelty of this proposal and why it could put OA publishing on a more sustainable footing

It is novel in that it flips the costs to libraries from pay-to-read to pay-to-subscribe-to-support. I am not sure about its contribution to making OA publishing more sustainable, as it is tangled up in this other issue of publishing costs.
Personally, I would favour a more radical approach, in which we consider how knowledge is produced, shared, and remixed – in the age of the internet. For example, what about a distributed network of document/dataset/other servers connected by search interfaces, with persistent identifiers for items (DOIs), people (ORCID iDs), and organisations, and metrics such as altmetrics to assess the reach, endurance, and citation impact of each item? This would build a new research information ecosystem, allowing knowledge to network and flow easily, and not perpetuate the limits of print-based media in a digital environment. It would also challenge the legacy publishing model which keeps researchers locked in to publishing in expensive journals through the use of their elite names (e.g. “everyone wants to publish in Nature”) and commercial products such as Impact Factor.
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E-Resources FAQ

This is a collection of things I wish everyone knew about e-resources.  Whether this area is new to you or not, I hope you find something useful here; and do let me know about any points I’ve missed in the comments.

What are e-resources?

E-resources are also known as electronic resources and there are two main types: e-journals (or electronic journals) and databases.

Many e-journals are digital copies of print journal articles, but increasingly e-journal articles are published without a print analogue.

There are several kinds of databases

  • Bibliographic – this type of database is a collection of references to published literature.  It functions in a similar way to a library catalogue, but indexes details of articles rather than books
  • A&I (abstracting and indexing) – in addition to bibliographic details, this type of database also contains abstracts of the individual articles
  • Full text – a database which includes the full text of all the articles it has indexed
  • Data/statistics – a collection of numbers and facts which you can query in order to extract a particular dataset.  A database in the purest sense of the word.
  • Images – a database containing a searchable index of images and the images themselves

What does full text mean?  Full text refers to an e-resources that makes available online the whole contents of journal articles, not just the abstract or citation.  Full text articles are often subscription resources, requiring an individual or institutional account for access.

What is an abstract?  An abstract is a summary of a journal article, often published at the beginning of the article.

What is a platform? A platform is a website which hosts content or programs.  Examples include JSTOR and ISI Web of Knowledge (which hosts a number of databases including, confusingly, Web of Science).

What is SFX?  SFX is an OpenURL link resolver, which works by compiling a list of all the journals to which an institution (such as a university) is subscribed and linking to that content.  Primarily, it functions to allow you to search an institution’s subscriptions to see if you can access a particular e-journal, and which years are included in the subscription.  At Oxford University, SFX is locally branded as OU eJournals and is one of a number of resources whose contents are searchable via SOLO.

What is MetaLib?  MetaLib is a search system which allows you to search for resources, link to them, and (in some cases) search within them.  This is not possible for all resources, as they need to be compliant with a protocol called Z39.50 in order to be searchable.  At Oxford University, MetaLib is locally branded as OxLIP+ and is one of a number of resources whose contents are searchable via SOLO.

What is a paywall?  A paywall is a barrier to a website which requires you to authenticate to view the content.  Usually, this requires a paid subscription.  An important implication of this is that any content behind a paywall is not indexable by search engines and therefore will not appear in the search results.  Not everything on the Internet is known to Google.

There are several methods of authentication

Internet Protocol (IP) – the IP address of your computer identifies where you are in the world, and is also used by sites like BBC iPlayer which use your IP address to check which country you are in.  If you are using the university’s computing facilities on campus, the computer you’re using will have an IP address within the university’s main range, which is detected by the e-resource you are trying to reach and access will be granted.  Working “off-campus” means that you are off the university network, perhaps using your own laptop in a university library or working from your own home.  This means that your computer’s IP address is not within the institution’s IP range and you will need a different method of access.  VPN software is commonly used to solve this issue and it works by extending the institution’s network to your computer, thereby bringing it into its IP range.

Want to find out your IP address?  Just go to whatismyipaddress.com

Single sign-on (SSO) – logging in via SSO identifies you as a member of an institution (such as a university) and therefore allows you access.  A great advantage of SSO login is that your authentication can be pushed from one site to another via your browser, so you don’t have to keep logging in when you go to a different subscription site that accepts SSO authentication.

Username and password – the old school method.  Nowadays, this only really applies to a small number of really expensive resources, where tight budgets or low demand mean that a several-user subscription than whole-campus access has been purchased.  There may only be (for example) 5 usernames and passwords for the resource, and if all 5 are in use, you will need to wait until someone has logged out so that you can use that ID to log in afresh.

Also good to know

What is a session identifier?  Session IDs or tokens are commonly used in online shopping sites and data/statistics databases.  These types of sites combine a variety of information to produce the page you are viewing, rather than retrieving a pre-prepared HTML page.  The session ID is used to track the individual user’s actions during the course of their session on the site.  Your shopping cart contents or dataset only exists because you have selected and combined certain elements during the session, which will time out after an order is finalised, or the user logs out, or after a period of inactivity.

URLs which contain “session” or “sid” indicate a session ID, and are not persistent.  If you are attempting to link to a resource, check the URL: if it contains a session ID, the URL will not work when someone tries to follow it later on because the session will have timed out.

Some e-resources have embargoes which are periods during which access is not allowed (usually to protect the publishers’ interests, or in JSTOR’s words “protect the economic sustainability of our content providers”).  There are several types of embargo:

  • A rolling or moving wall – a fixed period of months or years.   For example, most journals in JSTOR have an embargo of 3 or 5 years, and as a new issue is published, its equivalent from 3 or 5 years before will become available on JSTOR.
  • An annual cycle – for example, all content before 1st January of this year is available.  This will add another year to the archive on 1st January of each year
  • A fixed date – for example, only content before 2005 is available

If you’re carrying out research in your subject area, make sure you don’t rely exclusively on resources with embargoes, as you will be missing current and recent material.

E-resources and copyright – keep your use legal!

Most e-resources publishers have a ‘fair dealing’ arrangement which allows you to print or save one article per journal issue.  Downloading an article happens when you view the article on screen, not just if you save it.  Please be aware that systematic downloading is not permitted under fair dealing arrangements and may compromise your institution’s access to the resource.  Also, remember that your access to e-resources is for your own research and learning only, and you may not email pdfs or other downloaded documents to anyone outside your institution.

See also: E-Resources – less frequently asked questions for the next part of the story…

Gold and green routes to open access publishing

*Update* Please see Stevan’s comment below which clarifies some points I didn’t get right!

Open Access (OA) publishing means that the research paper or other information may be accessed by a reader without payment, unlike much scholarly research which is published behind a paywall.  Paywalls are often invisible to university members, as they can click though without logging in if they are on-campus (much paywall access is mediated by IP addresses), but the such subscriptions are still paid by their institutions and they can be pretty expensive!

The main argument for OA is that much research is paid for by taxpayers through government grants, so it is argued that the end product of publicly-funded research should be freely available for citizens/taxpayers to read.  Furthermore, academics in many fields often wish to continue to keep up-to-date in their subject after they have retired.  They may still contribute to professional organisations and contribute papers and letters, but if they are no longer current members of a university, they lose institutional access entitlement to scholarly resources and thus their experience and expertise is lost to that field of study after they cease paid work for that institution.

Jackie Wickham (Nottingham University) spoke about research repositories and two routes to open access (OA) publishing: the more established gold model and the emerging green model.

The gold route is also known as the ‘author pays’ model, and it means that the publication of an article in an OA journal is usually paid for by the author’s institution or included in their research grant.  Increasingly, UK Universities have established publication funds e.g. Nottingham and Birmingham.  There are two further options for the gold route: OA publishers (PLOS, BioMedCentral, Hindari) or traditional publishers with OA option (Nature, Elsevier, Springer).

The green route involves self-archiving the article or conference paper in a repository of published research.  This may be done by subject (e.g. PubMedCentral, arXiv, Repec) or by institution (also providing a way for universities to showcase their research and to preserve it).  There is no charge for depositing the article or paper; the costs of running the archive are met by the institution.

The green route is usually used in addition to publishing in a journal, which may be OA, subscription or a hybrid of the two.

A problem with the green route is that the commercial journal publisher may impose an embargo on the publication of the article anywhere else but in their journal.  As I understand it, the solution to this is that a very similar but not identical version of the article is presented to the commercial publisher and to the repository.