Much ado about licences and subscriptions

  • This resource is free – therefore we don’t have a subscription
  • Why do we need a licence if the subscription doesn’t cost anything?
  • Why can’t we give walk-in users or retired members of staff the same access to e-resources as current students and staff?
  • I don’t pay for this resource, therefore it is free
  • Why can’t I share my login with my housemate/friend/partner?
  • Logging in to library resources is a pain – why do we have to do it?
  • If the library has bought this resource, why can’t we do what we like with it?

I am regularly asked these types of questions, and this blog post distills the essence of my responses.

What is a licence?

To license means to grant permission.  A licence may be issued by a licensor to allow a licencee an activity that would otherwise be forbidden.

What is a license?

An American licence 🙂 Licence and licenseSee also: practice/practise, and advice/advise.

But it’s ‘licensor’ in both British English and American English…

Examples of licences

The CLA licence is well-known in universities, where it allows University members limited rights to legally copy, share or re-use legally works which would otherwise be covered only by copyright law (which prevent others from copying or reproducing someone’s work).

Examples of licencees

A licence can be agreed between a licensor and an individual licencee (e.g. relating to ebook on a personal ereader), or by an organisation on behalf of and for many individuals (e.g. a university library, for the library’s users).

In the example of the university library, a licence will usually have a section relating to authorised users, which sets out which library users are included in the agreement.  By omission, it also indicates the types of users which are not permitted.  This is why some user groups such as walk-in users are allowed access to some e-resources and not others, because we can only legally give them access to resources whose licences name walk-ins as authorised users.

E-resources access is limited to authorised users only by the use of authentication – usually by logging in with a valid university user ID and password.

What is a subscription?

A subscription is an arrangement to receive something.  It can apply to publications which are updated on a regular basis, such as journals, where the subscriber receives the new content at intervals as part of the agreement; or to a database, or archive database.

Subscriptions often involve payment, but not always. Examples of payment-free subscriptions include databases to which a national agreement is in place to allow access for users in higher education, but for which individual universities are not required to pay.

It is important to realise that even if a subscription is free, a licence will usually apply nonetheless.

 Multiple meanings of “free”

“Free” can mean that no payment is involved, or it can mean that users are at liberty to use a product or service as they wish.  Because “free” can mean these two very different things, it is helpful to use the terms “gratis” (no payment) and “libre” (liberal use) to differentiate between them.

A gratis subscription is rarely also libre, sometimes because of the relevant licence, and almost always because of copyright law.

See also my post An introduction to Open Access for academics, explaining gratis and libre in terms of Open Access.

Liability and awareness

If the terms of a licence are not followed, there can be a range of consequences.  It is important that users who will be bound by such terms are made aware of them.  This is why the CLA Licence is displayed next to university library photocopiers, and when accessing a database, users are often asked to accept the terms as part of the process of logging in.

Unfortunately, the wording of many licences is verbose and impersonal, which leads to many people not reading the details, or realising that they have important legal consequences.

“I acknowledge that I have read and agree to the above Terms and Conditions” is often reported to be a checkbox ticked by software users without reading the documents, let alone agreeing to them.  It also annoys my academic colleague Chris Baldwin, who teaches Contract Law, and has to point out repeatedly that ‘conditions’ means the same as ‘terms’, making the duplication a grammatical tautology.

The lack of attention paid to reading the small print has been the subject of pranks where clauses included forfeiting your soul, or assigning your firstborn child to the licensor for the duration of eternity (the “Herod clause”).   Luckily for the licencees, these clauses were not enforced.  The moral is: read the terms.

Apple terms and conditions

Adam & Eve: the first people to not read the Apple terms & conditions

Source: Reddit (warning: some fruity language in the comments)

Academia will eat itself*: the awkward love triangle of scholarly publishing

*With apologies to Pop Will Eat Itself, and thanks to my colleague Becky for the idea

The problem

There are three major stakeholder groups in scholarly publishing: publishers, academics, and libraries. The awkward love triangle arises because each of these groups needs one of the others, but this relationship is not symmetrical between any two parties. This reminded me of the German chemist Kekulé, who had a dream about a snake eating its own tail, which inspired him to propose a cyclic (ring) structure for benzene. Because of the asymmetrical love triangle, it’s difficult to reach agreement through negotiation, as none of the three stakeholder groups can bargain fairly with each other.  One party needs something from another, but it’s always the other who holds all the cards.


Publishers need academics, as without their research output, there would be no market for scholarly publications. Librarians need publishers, as this is the only way they can purchase access to academic materials for library collections (both print and online). Academics need to read, and to get their research published (both to advance their field and because of the prestige, specifically that which comes from publishing in journals with high impact factors).  They expect books to be on the shelves/articles to be available online, and are not usually interested in the financial/collection managements aspects of how they came to be there. Researchers need librarians to manage the library collection; and make it discoverable (cataloguing and metadata) and accessible (arrangement in physical buildings, technology behind online access, inter-library loan agreements).  However, as the balance of library collections shifts towards digital and away from physical media, this role is becoming less visible. Publishers argue that despite declining print publications and associated overheads, the cost of e-resources publication justifies their continued high prices and indeed annual price rises, in a time of budget cuts for many library services.  These cuts often mean that not only can we not afford any new subscriptions, but we often have to cut some existing titles just to be able to maintain core subscriptions, which are growing more expensive every year.  For acquisition teams purchasing materials in currencies other than British pounds sterling, this problem is exacerbated by fluctuating exchange rates.  And don’t get me started on VAT…

Where is the added value in academic publishing?

However, the key ingredient that makes scholarly publishing valuable is the peer review process.  The details and timeline vary between disciplines, but this is an outline of how the process work. Academics sit on editorial boards and review papers submitted for publication in a journal.  During this process, errors will be identified and suggestions made for clarification or extension of the work, so that by the time an academic article has been published, it will have undergone a rigorous review process. It is important to note that the publishers do not usually pay peer reviewers for their work.  So the core principle which makes this type of publishing “scholarly” is in fact not part of the financial mechanism.  And yet, where are all the profits going?

Access to knowledge

In order to protect their revenues, academic publishers host their content on platforms which are protected by a paywall, so you can only (legally) access the content if you are an authorised user – usually a current student or staff member at a university with a current subscription to the content you’re trying to access. Access to scholarly content is very difficult for those without a university affiliation, and is becoming harder as more content is available online rather than in print at university libraries, because the licencing restrictions for e-resources are generally less favourable to walk-in users than the rules for the same content in print format.  For example: switching from print books to ebooks limits access to content for walk-in users, who would otherwise have been entitled to come in and consult the print copy. What about access for researchers whose university library has a subscription to a particular platform, but not the specific content they wish to read?  Niche subjects are particularly vulnerable as pressures on budgets oblige libraries to focus on core, high-use subscriptions. Some researchers do not have university affiliations; for example, they may work on projects funded by charities or funding councils; and many will not have access to digital or print collections except as a walk-in user. Not everyone who is capable of making a valid contribution to our sum of knowledge is working as an academic, losing us the scholarly potential of all those who are in other forms of employment, or unemployed, or retired, or studying outside the HE system (e.g. at school, or independently). Questions:

  • As a society, what value do we place on universal access to knowledge, and how much money should we make available to pay for it?
  • Should the results of publicly-funded research should be freely available for all to read?
  • Does the current purchasing system in which scholarly articles can only be bought from one publisher amount to a monopoly on legal access to that knowledge?
  • What is an appropriate pricing strategy for access to knowledge (especially that which was not created or moderated by the seller)?
  • How will digital media affect our laws about copyright and copying?  These laws were originally developed for print media and are increasingly at odds with behaviour in a digital environment (e.g. format shifting).

Value and price

Despite the best efforts of a presenter at the UKSG conference last month, I am not convinced that publishers and librarians share the same values. For example, consider our beliefs about what happens to the value of knowledge once it is shared: for many information professionals, sharing knowledge increases its value; whereas to publishers, if this happens without money changing hands, it represents a lost revenue stream. Does knowledge depreciate?  This matters when it comes to the issue of embargoes in the Green OA model.  For example, a 12-month embargo on articles in literature or history will be much less of an obstacle in that field than the same embargo in medicine or financial mathematics.  The stats on article downloads show that the half-life of papers in the sciences is much shorter than in the humanities.

Open Access?

The problem with Open Access is that neither the gold nor the green options challenge the underlying publishers’ pricing model.  The Gold OA model, an article processing charge (APC) is payable when an article is submitted for publication, effectively shifting the cost from pay-to-access to pay-to-publish. We are currently living in the second information revolution – like the printing press before it, the availability of information via the internet is having wide-ranging effects on the way we live.  In both cases, the sudden change in how much it cost to make information available held great promise for a more democratic and inclusive culture, as well as a scramble for political and financial control of the new medium. The additional layer of social media, which allows us to connect with each other in a way that overcomes barriers of geography, time zones, and social hierarchy; allows us a second chance at a period of Enlightenment.  Perhaps our Twitter connections and special interest groups on LinkedIn are a modern version of the 18th-century coffeehouses where people met to discuss new ideas

Possible solutions

  • Organise a No Access Day to raise awareness of subscription resources and their costs (like a boycott)

However, this is rather negative and seems rather too much like going on strike. I think it’s key to get academics involved, as they are the only stakeholders who can put pressure on the publishers.  How about:

  • Encourage academics get involved in boycotts e.g. signing up to The Cost of Knowledge, a site where academics publicly sign up to a boycott of Elsevier
  • Encourage academics to make different choices about where they publish e.g. switching to true* open access journals such as Public Library of Science (PLOS)

*By “true” open access journals, I mean those of not-for-profit publishers rather than those from commercial publishers whose open access is funded by APCs.

  • Educate academics about how publishing with the Big Publishers often involves signing away their intellectual property rights – if this makes them angry, perhaps they will mobilise and act with us?
  • Appeal to academics’ sense of the value of universal education and the reduction of cost barriers to education for everyone

What do you think?  Could this be an opportunity for a wholesale review of the economics of scholarly publishing?

Library advocacy

This post is part of 23 Things for Professional Development.

In my sector (academic libraries), I think the most important kind of advocacy work involves demonstrating value for money and outreach.

Although the squeeze on library budgets is an issue (and probably one that will never go away), I think a more urgent problem is that many library users do not understand the connection between access to electronic resources and the fact that these are (1) subscription resources and (2) they are paid for by the library.

What many library users see is a reduction in print periodicals (and maybe books too) and conclude that libraries must not need as much money if they are buying fewer periodical titles.

Improvements in access (e.g. IP authentication, sign sign-on login) mean that many users don’t realise that when they go to a platform such as ScienceDirect on a campus PC, they have just passed through a paywall to a resource they only have access to because the library has paid for it.

Features like this on subscription sites are helping to raise awareness:

Brought to you by the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford

(so much for the contributions of Oxford’s college libraries but there’s a topic for another time…)

And library staff do a lot of work behind the scenes to keep this access live and help people learn how to use these resources.

So although the role of libraries in academia is not under threat in my institution, the roles they play and how their money is spent is changing from things you can see and count easily to more invisible things like electronic access and teaching information skills.  Advocacy has a key role to play in educating people about how academic libraries are changing and demonstrating the value of their more intangible, invisible products.

Reflections on ‘the other place’

Earlier this week, Oxford hosted a conference of college librarians from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.  The theme of the day was ‘co-operation, collaboration and competition’: we had speakers on this topic in the morning, followed by a choice of library/archive visits in the afternoon and time for networking.

The college libraries combine providing information for students and academics like a higher education library; within a physical environment which is part museum, part den; and an atmosphere which is generally more permissive and accommodating than the faculty libraries.  I think our college libraries are quite unique in this way, and it is a great help for us to get together to share ideas in a context that recognises our peculiar situations.

At this event, I spoke about my experiences of working at the Bodleian Libraries compared with working in a college library, and where the main areas of co-operation, collaboration and competition are:

The Bodleian Libraries group is a large organisation (some 750 employees, full-time-equivalent) and I enjoyed the big community aspect of working there.  By contrast, working in a college can be quite lonely, and I’m glad that I came to my current role with experience of working in Oxford libraries, so I have professional contacts close by.

On the negative side, because the Bodleian Libraries group is so large and has so many layers of management, the process for making decisions can be cumbersome and slow.  Also, there have recently been many staff changes at a high level in the organisation, which can bring problems such as a lack of continuity and stability if not handled very carefully.

In the college environment, I enjoy the budget freedom that I have from being the head of my department.  There is top-level support for personal and professional development, which I find very encouraging.  When a decision is made, for example at Library Committee, the decision will generally be backed up and not challenged further after it has been made, which is a great spur to getting things done.  Although colleges and their libraries vary considerably in many respects, we can benchmark against each other.  Bodleian Libraries do not really have any comparable organisations (not even Cambridge, as their libraries as less integrated than at Oxford), but it should not be assumed that this means they are automatically the best at everything.

The working environment in a college is much nicer, especially as college staff have a free lunch every day, and tea and coffee are provided in the mornings and afternoons.  We also have all-staff social occasions at least once a year.

However, colleges are very hierarchical places to work, and I find that social differences such as separate common rooms and lunch arrangements for staff of different status reinforce the divisions between us and can act as an obstacle to everyone working together effectively.  It can also take a long time to become accepted in an organisation that is by nature conservative and resistant to change.

Another interesting point is that as a college librarian, you have to be multi-skilled because you need to cover a great range of skills in a very small team.  I think it would be interesting to develop more skills-sharing between colleges, and if anyone wants me to come and show them how to navigate SFX/OUeJournals or MetaLib/OxLIP+ more effectively, I would be glad to!

I have now had three different jobs at the University of Oxford, and I have sometimes been surprised at how low the expectations can be.   Broadly speaking, the expectations seem to be that keeping a service running is sufficient; not improving or developing it.

Before I moved to Oxford, I expected that the libraries here would be leading the way in user education, resource discovery and the use of space in libraries, but I often worry that we are in fact falling behind other UK higher education libraries.

Finally, here are some examples of co-operation, collaboration and competition between the Bodleian Libraries and the colleges:


  • Graduate trainee scheme: trainees from colleges and Bodleian Libraries participate in the scheme together, and there is a mutual benefit to learning about each others’ roles and experiences
  • Most Bodleian staff development and training events are open to college library staff at no cost
  • During the current decant of closed-stack Bodleian items from Oxford to Swindon, the college libraries have helped readers by allowing them to access texts in college libraries when the Bodleian copy is in transit and inaccessible


  • In the summer of 2011, the OLIS library management system is being switched from GEAC Advance to Aleph.  The steering group for this project has Bodleian and college library representation
  • Circulation Forum and Cataloguers’ Forum involve staff from a range of libraries
  • There is a wide variety of skills in our combined staff pool e.g. cataloguing, conservation, management, social media – and we could make even more use of this


  • E-resources cancellation fees: the fees incurred when college libraries cancel subscriptions to print periodicals are not paid by the colleges but by Bodleian Libraries.  Colleges have made very small contributions to this cost in the past, and discussions are now under way to increase this amount in order that colleges provide a fairer proportion of the total cost
  • Non-Bodleian libraries which use OLIS pay an annual subscription which stayed the same for many years, and an agreement has now been reached to bring this charge up-to-date with current costs and include a proviso for future review
  • The Bodleian has very strict cataloguing standards for adding records to OLIS.  This is because much of their material is in closed stacks, so readers need detailed records in order to judge if the item is what they require, as they cannot browse the shelves; and as a legal deposit library, OLIS catalogue records are regularly exported to other databases so the standard needs to be high as other institutions will be copying these records.  However, this standard is rather over-the-top for a college library such as mine, where students can access the vast majority of our books on open shelves, and are usually looking for items from a reading list, so a simple author and title search will normally suffice.  I would be keen to develop a system whereby I could create simpler catalogue records for items unique to my library, and have a filter applied so that these records are excluded from the exporting pool.

Note: ‘the other place’ is a term used by people at Oxford or Cambridge to describe those at the other; and perhaps from now on, to be used in the same way by people at Bodleian Libraries or colleges!