The information battle

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Publishers, libraries and researchers need to work together to address government access requirements, according to discussions at the annual ALPSP conference, writes Sian Harris

Sometimes the scholarly information sector can seem like a battleground. Publishers and other information-providers wrestle with trying to please librarians and researchers, as well as their shareholders, parent societies or universities – while often disagreeing with each other on the best business models to use. Similarly, librarians battle to balance budget constraints and institutional policies with the varied requirements of their users.

Into this mix comes the involvement of governments. As Crispin Taylor, executive director of the American Society of Plant Biologists, observed at the ALPSP conference: ‘Whether we call it intrusion or not, governments are increasingly partners in publishing.’

The most hotly-debated role that governments play is over open access (OA), as has been seen clearly in the USA in recent years. Versions of two competing bills are regularly proposed to the US government. One of these is the Federal Research Public Access Act, which would require all federal agencies and departments with annual research budgets of $100 million or more to make final, electronic manuscripts of resulting journal articles publicly available over the internet within six months of publication – often by the so-called green OA route of putting versions of pay-to-read articles into open-access repositories. The other bill is the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, which would prohibit any federal agency from imposing any such condition on researchers it funds.

There have been numerous committees debating access policies and how to reconcile the usually competing pressures of widening access while protecting copyright and revenue. However, not all the parties affected by access policies are represented equally, according to Steve Breckler, executive director for science at the American Psychological Society, who is involved in many of these discussions. ‘The stakeholder groups that are the most active are libraries, publishers, governments and university administration. Scholars themselves are noticeably absent from the debate,’ he observed.

‘This is something scholars should care about, but nobody is really engaging them. There is an opportunity for publishers to engage them,’ he continued.

Graham Taylor, director of educational, academic and professional publishing for The Publishers Association, agreed – suggesting that publishers could consider ‘publisher-led green OA, with delayed access in a way that doesn’t damage business models.’

This is an approach that Springer has taken with its OA policy. ‘We don’t want to fight the future and we don’t want to fight our customers,’ commented Wim van der Stelt, executive vice president of corporate strategy at Springer, ‘That makes acting against the old way of thinking easier.’

He believes that this approach can also benefit publishers. ‘Springer has a forward-looking OA policy, which is green and supports compliance with mandates but only after more than 12 months. Six months is too short for a green OA mandate. This can be very positive. We comply and show that it costs money,’ he said. One of the results of this has been that the Wellcome Trust decided to pay for gold OA, where it pays publication fees so that articles are freely-available immediately.

‘Not many people are really served by green OA,’ van der Stelt continued. ‘We have great repositories. It’s just that they are branded by publishers.’

This view was echoed in another session by consultant Simon Inger. ‘I’d keep the information in publisher silos and create a clever rights layer,’ he suggested.

Such an approach would address potential technical challenges of complying with green OA mandates. Laurent Romary, director of research at INRIA, commented on the OA agreement between the Max Planck Society and Springer. ‘Part of the deal is to upload publisher content onto the Max Planck Society’s platform, but mapping the technology is a challenge,’ he remarked.

The reason for such challenges is the wide range of formats and systems used by publishers and by institutions, for the content, the metadata and the methods for tagging things like article titles and affiliations. ‘Putting together such a system requires dealing with publisher chaos and institutional chaos,’ he added. ‘The first thing to do is to talk. Publishers shouldn’t treat universities as customers but partners.’

The European Commission-supported PEER project, which is looking at the effects of large-scale, systematic green OA, should help address this challenge. As Graham Taylor predicted: ‘A possible conclusion of PEER will be that if you want green OA to work you have to work with publishers.’

And he believes that scholarly publishers should get more involved in discussions with governments. When governments consider their digital strategies, there are wider issues at stake than the just the details of OA mandates. ‘It’s not just about lobbying and defending; more advocacy is needed,’ he remarked. ‘It’s important to turn up looking big in front of government. If we allow it, the political agenda for creative content will be dominated by the music and film industries.’