Report reveals impact of open access on libraries

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Academic libraries need to evolve to continue to meet the needs of their users in an open-access world, reports Sian Harris

Open access (OA) has been making the headlines recently – and not just in industry-specific publications. The interest stems from large-scale studies and big policy decisions over recent months.

The PEER project, which reported its results in May, revealed technical challenges and low author uptake with green OA (the deposit of non-final versions of accepted papers in OA repositories) but also saw increased traffic to publisher versions of articles.

Also earlier this year, the UK government and research councils announced strong support for OA. The announcements have been welcomed by many but condemned by others. Interestingly, the opposition comes both people who favour the reader-pays model and from those who strongly push for OA but particularly the green variety with no embargo period (the UK’s policies can seem to favour gold OA, where authors pay to publish).

In July the European Commission announced that from 2014, all articles produced with funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research & innovation funding programme will have to be made accessible either immediately online by the publisher or by researchers depositing their articles in OA repositories no later than six months (12 months for articles in the fields of social sciences and humanities) after publication.

Meanwhile in the USA, OA supporters have again been lobbying the government for the National Institutes of Health green OA mandate to be extended to all federally-funded research. And SCOAP3, the consortium working towards OA to high-energy physics research, has chosen the journals that will participate.

Such discussions and experiments are far from over but one thing is clear: there are changes ahead in the provision of research information. And whatever changes happen with this information will affect those within universities tasked with managing, enabling and assisting access to that information – the library and librarians.

Against this backdrop, earlier this year SAGE, in conjunction with the British Library, brought together librarians and other industry experts from Europe, North America and the Middle East to consider the role of libraries in an OA future.

The aims of the roundtable were to provide an international perspective on the likely impact of an OA future on librarians and to identify the support and skills required for librarians in such a future, from their institutions, publishers, funders and other parties. The report of that meeting, released today, reveals the topics discussed and the recommendations from the meeting.

The participants anticipate that over the next 10 years the proportion of articles published as OA will rise, although estimates of the proportion of scholarly material that will be OA by the end of that time period range from around 15 to 50 per cent. The scale of the shift will depend strongly on national and international policy decisions.

A big potential change for libraries will be the effect of OA on allocation of university budgets, predicted the participants of the roundtable. A shift towards OA is likely to reduce library budgets, although the extent of this will vary between countries and types of institution. OA funding will be harder to budget for than subscriptions because of uncertainties over researchers’ publishing plans. The participants thought that academic libraries are well-placed to manage gold budgets, although some support researchers in doing this directly.

Researchers may be reluctant to comply with OA, unless it is a funder requirement, noted participants. They reported that there is still a strong culture of mistrust and misunderstanding about OA amongst researchers and that communicating with researchers and institutions about it will be an important function for libraries.

Such management and communication skills are part of the librarian skills that participants felt will still be required with OA. In addition, discoverability of OA content will be key to its usefulness, they agreed. Managing metadata will be very important for good discoverability but functions such as metadata management and preservation are likely to be done on a web scale rather than on an institutional level, they noted. Libraries are also well placed to – and in many cases already do – manage institutional repositories.

Nonetheless, as there is a shift in how resources are funded and accessed, there will be changes in the librarian’s role. Individual library value will be judged on quality of provision rather than on breadth of collection, believe the participants. Value will be added by digitising and making available unique collections and libraries will increasingly need to work together and share functions and services.

The panel also recommended that a review be taken exploring attitudes towards the role of institutional collections as more content is available as OA. ‘As with all publishing models, [OA] carries both benefits and costs. The group believes that good policy outcomes will only result if those involved in the marketplace are willing to acknowledge and evaluate both and calls upon those involved to maintain open dialogue on [OA],’ said the report.

‘We see the shift to open access as raising issues for the whole of the scholarly communication process, and seek to work with other stakeholders in that process to understand how the whole system can adjust to the major changes which will result from open access to scholarly content,’ commented Stephen Barr, president, SAGE International, in his introduction to the report.

‘Events since the workshop, including the publication of the report of the Finch committee and associated statements from the UK government and research councils, and restatement of the position of the EU on access to and preservation of scientific information, have only increased the importance for the many stakeholders in the scholarly communication system of engaging with this profoundly important change agenda,’ he continued.

Caroline Brazier, director of scholarship and collections at the British Library, also believes that discussion about the implications on OA on libraries is important: ‘Increasing numbers of academic researchers and policy makers in several countries are embracing the idea that the results of publicly funded research should be as widely available as possible. While research librarians have been amongst the strongest advocates of OA models, the implications of these models for research libraries and their future role in supporting the research process are less well understood,’ she said. ‘We must look beyond discussions on the pros and cons of ‘gold’ versus ‘green’ models to fundamental issues such as the future of research collections, changing skillsets and services required to support researchers of the future, at institutional and national levels. We hope this report conveys the urgency and significance of these issues to the wider research community.’

Siân Harris, editor of Research Information, attended the roundtable meeting and wrote the report on behalf of SAGE and the British Library