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Code tackles journal transfer problems

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It’s no secret that the transfer of journals between publishers is frustrating for librarians worldwide. Loss of online access, disappearing archives or even cancelled subscriptions are just a few problems that emerge when titles move between companies. However a new code of practice from the UK Serials Group (UKSG), launched in May this year, looks set to make a difference.

Aiming to improve the procedures surrounding journals transfer, the Transfer Code of Conduct outlines guidelines for transferring and receiving publishers. As Nancy Buckley, chair of the UKSG Transfer Working Group and international sales director at Blackwell Publishing, puts it: ‘The transfer process causes more complications than it needs to. Librarians and publishers don’t want to lose readers so we’re working to ensure a smooth transfer.’

So what exactly do the code’s guidelines cover? According to Buckley, they address ‘thorny issues’ such as exchange of subscriber lists, DOI and URL transfer and, of course, ongoing access to online content.

‘For example, we’ve asked the receiving publishers to give a grace period of access for at least one month after they take over a journal. This is when they identify valid subscribers… but also gives them an extra month to get their books in order,’ she explains.

At the same time, transferring publishers will be asked to pass over good subscription lists - according to code guidelines - and maintain previously-owned content on their website for six months after a transfer. The guidelines also refer to the role of the citation-linking association CrossRef, to help ensure DOI changes actually happen.

At the time of writing, five publishers - Haworth Press, Mary Ann Liebert, Sage Publications, Symposium Journals and Taylor & Francis Publishers - had signed up to the code. However, several industry heavyweights had yet to put pen to paper. Since Transfer-compliant publishers are not expected to fulfil any obligations when transferring journals to or from a non-Transfer-compliant publisher, enlisting the larger companies is crucial to the code’s success.

Buckley is confident this will happen, however. ‘At the moment we’re working with Elsevier, Springer, Blackwell and Oxford University Press… and expect them to [join soon] as there is obviously a big kudos to be had in joining,’ she explains.

Meanwhile, librarians are already expressing cautious optimism over the code. According to Lesley Crawshaw, faculty information consultant of learning and information services at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, any code of practice that helps protect end users and librarians during and after journal transfer is welcome.

Citing an exhaustive range of problematic transfers from many publishers, Crawshaw says: ‘[The code] is a welcome first step as for the first time mandatory requirements exist for both transferring and receiving publishers.’

But while Crawshaw is confident that ‘major publishers’ will follow the code, she believes that small society or association publishers are unlikely to see the need for compliance. She anticipates that problems will be compounded by the fact that until 2008, the code only applies to wholly-owned titles and not society-affiliated journal contracts. After this time, ‘publishers must use every effort’ to ensure such titles adhere to the code.

‘We could have a situation where both publishers are Transfer-compliant, but a journal transfer may still take place outside the code of practice,’ she explains. ‘This could add a complication for librarians in knowing which journals are covered by the code and which aren't.’

While clearly in its infancy, the code has united publishers and librarians in addressing problems. The first phase - laying out best practice - has been achieved and the working group is now considering how to measure compliancy in publishers.

A third and final phase will create a public, web-based database to host relevant information that librarians can refer to when managing their access to transferring journal subscriptions. This will be based on existing industry databases, and UKSG's Buckley hopes that all three phases will be complete by ‘early next year’.

‘It can be tricky to get publishers to work together on competitive matters,’ she says. ‘But we want this code to be something that the librarians actually ask for when signing licences.’

And, judging by the frustration surrounding journal transfers today, this looks likely to happen.