Librarians envisage positive role in open-access future

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Earlier this year Croatian open-access publisher InTech carried out research into open access in libraries. Paul MacKenzie-Cummins reveals some of the findings

In April 2012, InTech conducted an online survey of 211 academic librarians across a range of regions, including the USA, Canada, Australia, the UK, Germany, India and Egypt. The aim of the survey was to assess both the current and future roles of librarians in an open-access (OA) world. The survey sought to explore current levels of awareness of OA, to canvass existing attitudes towards OA, to understand how librarians view their current role with regards to OA, and to gauge how OA is changing – if at all – the role or the academic librarian.

The survey found that overall levels of awareness of OA are moderate to good within the librarian community, with 45 per cent of participants of stating they have a good understanding of what OA is and a further 50 per cent stating an assertive confidence with the OA publishing model.

In addition, since this survey was conducted, awareness will invariably have increased thanks to the series of high-profile events that have focused on the growing OA movement. As part of recent policy moves, much attention has been expended on communicating the need for greater levels of OA across the academic librarian community.

Positive attitudes towards OA

Proponents of recent OA policies may take encouragement from the survey, which showed that the OA publishing model is supported overwhelmingly by librarians. Around four out of five (78.5 per cent) of respondents stated that they support OA and only 5.5 per cent rejected the principle outright. Of those in favour, almost half (45 per cent) strongly supported the move towards greater OA. Some 33 per cent, while remaining favourable, retained some concerns over OA.

According to respondents, the main benefits of OA are: increased ease of access to content for readers; increased visibility, usage and impact for authors; and unrestricted copyright, which facilitates sharing and collaboration.

As one respondent commented: ‘[OA would] stimulate ideas and engender collaboration. The advantage to the author is reaching a larger audience. The advantage to society is a true narrowing of the gap between the information "haves" and the information "have-nots".’

However, when questioned regarding the extent to which academic librarians should be responsible for educating and informing their respective communities about OA, a knowledge gap became evident between those librarians with an adequate comprehension of the principle and those who felt they lack sufficient support.

While the majority (97 per cent) of participants stated they have a key role to play in providing information about OA to their community, only 58 per cent said they are sufficiently knowledgeable about the principle to effectively provide support to their academic colleagues – 42 per cent of whom gave limited availability of resources as the main cause. The result of this could be that librarians might struggle to educate and inform users effectively over which are good or poor OA resources, which poses a dilemma for the OA community.

Indeed, while it can be argued that progress has been made in proporting the benefits of OA, a shortfall in this knowledge gap persists and needs to be addressed if scholarly publishers are to make further ground in advocating OA as a preferred alternative to traditional subscription-based publishing.

Presently, according to the survey, library listservs (88 per cent), conferences and events (85 per cent), and personal research and contacts (84 per cent) remain the most popular sources of support for information. This is followed by government-funded initiatives such as JISC and OA specialist publishers themselves who are also regarded as useful resources among respondents, at 73 per cent and 67 per cent respectively.

So, while the above continue to play their part, there remains a marginal disparity between those who state they have adequate access to information about OA and those who don’t. This suggests that the STM community must work harder to raise the profile (and understanding) of OA.

Is OA changing the role of the librarian? In short, yes. The librarian community does see OA as changing the role of the librarian, but they do not necessarily perceive it as a threat to their jobs. Instead, according to the survey, librarians felt they have a key role to play in OA and need to adapt and, to a certain degree, challenge the existing way of doing things.

One way of doing this is by librarians re-positioning themselves as research ‘partners’ (96 per cent agree), with a focus on workflow within their institutions to improve efficiencies and encourage greater collaborations (87 per cent agree). It is also suggested that librarians should focus less on acting as proverbial gatekeepers and have more involvement in the creation and dissemination of content (80 per cent agree). As one respondent put it: ‘There will be a greater role for the librarian to organise the various OA sources and to make students and researchers aware of resources.’

Paul MacKenzie-Cummins is head of marketing & corporate communications at InTech