7. Findings: Providing Access to Research

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The web has not only changed the way research is published, but also the way it is accessed. If publishers aren’t making research accessible enough, researchers will find their own ways around the system.

The interviews in this chapter reflect the perceived failure of the current system to encourage innovation (Elaine Westbrooks) and provide access to all those who need it (Charles Oppenheim), the cultural change that is needed (Simon Bains) and the technological solutions offered to information overload (Gemma Hersh).


7.1 Institutional relevance

Institutional relevance was sixth highest of 20 issues raised by respondents and was a topic in 26 of the 463 comments. It was raised as the biggest challenge facing the library sector 24 times. After accessibility, it was the second most often raised challenge facing the library sector.

The traditional route to accessing scholarly literature was through the library, but increasingly the library’s role is under question. This started with the move from physical access to electronic access:


‘Digitisation and moving away from physical copies of sources.’ (Researcher)


‘The replacement of the library as such by online services.’ (Researcher)


‘People don’t read books anymore; electronic publications are the new norm.’ (Researcher)


But for some, even the library’s role in providing electronic subscriptions is seen as unnecessary:


‘People’s literature searching no longer requiring their databases.’ (Researcher)


‘Decreasing need for intermediation.’ (Researcher)


Especially in the face of increasing open access and piracy:


‘Staying relevant in a world of open access and piracy.’ (Publisher)


‘Not getting obsolete for bigger parts in an environment with 100 per cent open access and Google, who would have gotten legal rights to deliver all of the full text of all of the published knowledge (and having the monopoly on “commercialising” this “open” access).’ (Publisher)


For some it is already too late:


'Libraries have become insignificant.’ (Publisher)



Although institutional relevance is seen primarily a problem for libraries, it is an issue that will have profound knock-on consequences for researchers and publishers too, if it is not addressed. Suggested solutions to the perceived institutional irrelevance of libraries focus on a fuller understanding of the role of the library, and encouraging researchers to make use of the support and resources they offer.

  • Researchers should find out what libraries can do for them;
  • Researchers should take the time to get to know the library resources;
  • Researchers should deposit articles in institutional repositories;
  • Researchers should help early career researchers understand the value of the librarian’s role;
  • Researchers should support the position of libraries in the campus administration;
  • Publishers should allow the deposit of articles into institutional repositories, and free up the content in sustainable ways;
  • Publishers should encourage interoperability through open standards and protocols;
  • Publishers should work with the library catalogue vendors to make their content easier to access;
  • Publishers should refrain from unsustainable pricing policies, recognising the strains on libraries;
  • Publishers should provide better metrics to help libraries make informed decisions.


7.2 Accessibility

The primary purpose of scholarly publishing should be to disseminate research findings to those who can use them or build upon them. It is therefore not surprising that accessibility is seen as the biggest challenge for scholarly publishing in an increasingly complex information ecosystem.

Accessibility was the issue raised most often by respondents; it was a topic in 146 of the 463 comments. It was raised as the biggest challenge facing researchers 41 times, the publishing sector 37 times, and the library sector 69 times. It was the most important of the 14 topics respondents were asked to rate, rated 8.77 out of 10.

Often the question of accessibility comes down to one of money, not only of subscriptions, but also increasingly of Author Processing Charges:


‘Subscriptions to journals are very expensive, but also the Open Access Deals/APCs are a very costly issue.’ (Librarian)


‘Cost of access to published material especially for students from third-world countries.’ (Researcher)


‘Meeting the expectations of research funders and accepting that costs of scholarly publishing need to be reduced.’ (Librarian)


‘Getting books published without large subventions from authors.’ (Publisher)


‘Budget constraints – always has been, probably always will be.’ (Librarian)


These costs are not always felt to be justified, and there is an increasing loss of goodwill between publishers and the librarians:


‘Being able to afford outrageous subscription costs.’ (Researcher)


‘Budgets vs. greed.’ (Publisher)


‘Customers paying twice for the same content.’ (Publisher)


‘The reputation of publishers as money-grabbing bastards.’ (Publisher)


The reduction of publishers to ‘money-grabbing bastards’ inevitably simplifies the complexity and diversity of the publishing landscape, where there are many struggling publishers:


‘The rise of the super journal. How can small journals compete on cost?’ (Publisher)


‘Scholarly publishers’ business model is failing to generate the revenue necessary for university presses to continue publishing monographs.’ (Publisher)


Fundamentally, unless the problem of accessibility is addressed researchers will find ways to circumvent the current systems (see section Piracy Piracy):


‘Availability of research to all. Paywalls must become porous otherwise more SciHubs will pop up!’ (Librarian)



Unsurprisingly, when so many of the problems surrounding accessibility are related to costs, many of the suggested ways of addressing the issue revolve around publishers simply reducing costs, or moving to fully open access. Other respondent suggestions:


  • Publishers should have greater flexibility in pricing models;
  • Publishers should have usage-based pricing models;
  • Publishers should have pricing models that preclude the possibility of double dipping;
  • Publishers should have moderate and fair prices for APCs and subscriptions;
  • Publishers should have transparency around content pricing;
  • Publishers should lobby for better open access funding;
  • Publishers should demonstrate the value added to a manuscript in production and marketing;
  • Publishers should provide impact data;
  • Publishers should streamline their publication portals;
  • Libraries should offer researchers advice about OA publishing;
  • Libraries should fund and host open access journals;
  • Researchers could establish open access journals without the contribution of publishers;
  • Researchers should make use of the resources provided by the library;
  • Researchers should let libraries cancel big deals and very expensive serials;
  • Researchers should have basic information management awareness in all post-graduate study;
  • Researchers should reduce unnecessary paper inflation;
  • Researchers should be advocating for higher library budgets;
  • Researchers should share preprints and migrate to open access.


7.3 Piracy

Although piracy often catches the headlines, it was relatively lowly ranked as an issue impacting the scholarly publishing cycle. Piracy was joint-ninth most important of the 20 issues raised by respondents. It was a topic in 13 of the 463 comments. Unsurprisingly, it was primarily raised as the biggest challenge for the publishing sector, where it was mentioned 11 times. It was the 13th most important of the 14 topics respondents were asked to rate, rated 6.19 out of 10. It was one of only three issues where the size of the challenge was rated higher than its importance, and it was rated as the biggest by publishers, if not the most important.

For publishers, piracy can be seen as a lack of recognition of the contribution they make to the scholarly publishing cycle, the consequences of which have not been fully recognised, and in which the library community are sometimes seen as complicit:


‘The constant push to ensure publishers are NOT rewarded for their services, whether that be via green OA with no mandates or at the other extreme, theft and piracy of content.’ (Publisher)


‘The prominence of Sci-Hub and how its success will be detrimental to everyone.  If they put publishers out of business, then there will be no content to pirate.’ (Publisher)


‘Piracy. Especially the support that pirate websites get from the library community.’ (Publisher)


For those in the library community, it is often seen as a natural reaction to the current behaviour of the publishers:


‘Violation of copyrights, e.g. Sci-Hub. The copyright policies and the behaviour of the publishers are no longer accepted by the researchers and the librarians.’ (Librarian)


‘Availability of research to all. Paywalls must become porous otherwise more SciHubs will pop up!’ (Librarian)


The issue was also raised by Gemma Hersh, of Elsevier, who pointed out that publishers are supporting ‘responsible sharing, and looking at a healthy ecosystem for scholarly publishing’.



The problem of piracy is primarily seen as a big challenge to the publishing sector, and may be seen as a symptom of research not being accessible. Sometimes the suggested solutions often focused on the symptom, rather than the underlying cause:

  • Libraries should stop promoting piracy;
  • Libraries should prevent access to Sci-Hub;
  • Libraries should safeguard against theft or donation of patrons’ credentials;
  • Libraries should educate faculty on issues of security, sharing and associated risks;
  • Libraries should provide access to the published document;
  • Libraries should lead the way to an orderly transition to open access;
  • Libraries should cooperate with the researchers and fund journals or alternative ways of scholarly communications;
  • Researchers should tell publishers that they want the transformation to open access, circumventing the issue of piracy;
  • Researchers should comply with copyright rules;
  • Researchers should consider all options before sharing login details or research through non-official channels.


7.4 Discoverability

It is not enough for researchers to have access to the research; they also need to find it when they need it. Ensuring the discoverability of content is a problem for both libraries and publishers. 

Discoverability was fifth most important of the 20 issues raised by respondents; it was a topic in 27 of the 463 comments. It was raised as the biggest challenge facing researchers 17 times, the publishing sector six times, and the library sector four times. It was the second most important of the 14 topics respondents were asked to rate, rated 8.37 out of 10.

Discoverability is seen as an increasingly difficult problem in a fragmented ecosystem with vast quantities of information and brandless megajournals:


‘Findability of pertinent articles: the publishing sector is so fragmented, with databases so specialised and clunky, that it is easier to find research in illegal spaces than legal ones.’ (Librarian)


‘Information overload, lack of awareness about the resources among research scholars.’ (Librarian)


‘Resource discovery in the new brandless world of publishing (megajournals etc).’ (Librarian)


Publishers and libraries need to find ways of ‘cutting through the noise’ (Publisher), to not only help researchers in ‘locating the right papers” (Researcher), but also ‘finding the most appropriate publisher’ (Researcher).

Discovery has traditionally been the preserve of the library sector, and the significant gap between the number of comments that highlighted discoverability as an important issue, and those more widely recognised challenges (i.e., accessibility, trust and validation, changing publishing models, and open access) is likely to contribute to the rising questions about institutional relevance.



There are three main strands to helping with the discoverability of research: education of researchers, development of new tools, and facilitating the sharing of research online;

  • Publishers should provide guidelines for researchers to make their research findings discoverable;
  • Publishers should come up with shared, dedicated, cost-efficient search solutions;
  • Publishers should publish fewer journals;
  • Publishers should make it easier and clearer to get to and share research;
  • Publishers should find cheaper models that support better online distribution;
  • Libraries should help researchers understand how to find the best articles;
  • Libraries should provide improved discovery mechanisms, and try to develop better access portals;
  • Libraries should lobby publishers for better search tools;
  • Libraries should stop forcing people through rubbish library catalogue systems;
  • Researchers should not just write for other researchers.


Elaine L. Westbrooks

Vice Provost of University Libraries and University Librarian, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


What do you see as the biggest challenges in the scholarly publishing cycle today?

The cycle that we have does not promote innovation. It doesn’t incentivise innovation and risk taking. It incentivises the status quo, and that’s because it’s based on the system of promotion and tenure. Until our researchers are free to publish their best work and not have to focus on a few journals, supposedly the best journals, for that prestige and that status, we’re always going to be in trouble.

We really have to change, the cycle is not sustainable, but most researchers don’t even understand the role they play in this process. They review these articles, sit on editorial boards, and then the publishers sell it to the library for exorbitant rates that we can no longer afford. That’s something that libraries, research libraries, have been thinking about for the past 20 years, and open access has not really moved the needle at all.


What can libraries do to try to overcome this problem?

The thing that we’ve been championing the most is open access, and I think open access has been positive, but it has still not enabled me to purchase the materials that our scholars want. So the impact of open access to me has been minimal. Until I can afford the materials – the content that my faculty are publishing on this campus – we’re going to always have this problem. What we can focus on is education and awareness of not only researchers, but also graduate students, the next generation of researchers. There needs to be better education about what they are doing – not only are they part of this vicious cycle, but they are giving away their rights in the process of it.

I’d also want libraries to band together. It’s not that we’re interested in fixing prices; we’re just interested in being able to buy the content that our very own faculty produces. The fact of the matter is it’s a monopoly, so we want it to not be a monopoly.


Is there more researchers can do?

Researchers have to understand the role that they play. The role as editors, and on the boards of these various journals that gouge libraries. Again, this goes back to promotion and tenure; if they were not rewarded for those activities, they wouldn’t do them. Another example is I’m trying to figure out what the APCs [Article Processing Charges] on this campus are. I know at least 50 faculty members who have paid article processing charges, over the past two years, but I don’t know how much. I know I’m spending just under $20 million on materials, and there’s tens of thousands of dollars being spent on this campus, and I don’t have access to those numbers.

Most researchers don’t understand the real costs involved, the everyday researcher just doesn’t understand the costs of publishing and the economics of publishing, and the fact that they’re not even seeing that, I think, is a problem.

They need to stop giving away their rights. They could be starting new journals to compete with the existing journals, and give me permission to cancel the Elsevier contract. I would have to have this campus’s support to walk away from Elsevier. I would need to get them to a place to say ‘Yes, you walk away from Elsevier, we support you on that’. Because I can’t afford them.


What can publishers do?

There are some learned societies and other places that are really advancing science and doing wonderful work, but the big publishers have to realise that what they are doing is not advancing science. They have money to make, and I think we can find ways for them to make money and still not gouge universities and libraries. They’re just consolidating, and consolidating, and consolidating, and pretty soon they’re not going to be selling us journals, they’re going to be selling us data.

Because they are going to commoditise whatever they can, and even if everything were open access starting today, libraries would still be spending a lot of money on cataloguing and indexing and doing all those things that are necessary to make those materials accessible to our faculty and staff and students.

Publishers have to find ways to partner with libraries and universities, instead of dividing and conquering us. It’s hard to think about what they could do, other than stop oppressing us, and stop charging all these exorbitant prices.

It’s hopeless, it’s broken. I have no hope of anything changing in the next 10 years. That’s probably more like 20 years, it just seems pretty hopeless to me.


Professor Charles Oppenheim

Former Head of Department of Information Science at Loughborough University


What do you see as the biggest challenges in the scholarly publishing research cycle today?

The biggest challenge is the very familiar one: the fact that an awful lot of researchers can’t get access to the research output, because it has been locked down by publishers who have imposed paywalls of one sort or another. This means that certain individual researchers can’t get access to materials, or indeed even if they work for an institution, it cannot afford the costs. People are being deprived – or have barriers put in their way – of getting ready access to the information. So the clogging up point, if you like, is this paywall barrier. There are other challenges, but I think right now, in virtually all fields of endeavour, that is the biggest challenge.


What can libraries do to help overcome these challenges?

And indeed what can researchers do, I think they go hand in hand. What libraries can do to overcome these challenges is to encourage researchers not to pass ownership of the materials to the publishers in the first place. Whether it is the data or the research article. And to be robust in the way that they respond to requests from publishers, where publishers say: ‘Sorry, in order to get published, you really need to sign this form that’s absolutely essential.’ Libraries can teach researchers about the alternatives, and encourage the researchers to be robust in their challenges to the publishing industry. And what researchers can do themselves is to follow that advice, and to help themselves. They can form consortia of some sort or another, to help build alternative structures that are acceptable to those researchers. In my view, libraries and researchers need to work together.

One of the problems that I’ve found is that librarians are really afraid to challenge the status quo. There are a lot of librarians who feel they’re not in the position to do so, or they’re afraid of legal challenges if they try to challenge the status quo. One of my great disappointments is, in fact, that librarians have in many cases ducked the opportunity to help researchers. There are loads of libraries that do encourage, but I don’t think they’re strong enough – they’re not assertive enough in the way they approach this.


So what do publishers need to do to help overcome the challenges?

The publishers recognise the potential dangers of the emerging landscape. Elsevier, in particular, has taken a much more strategic long-term view.

In my view, Elsevier’s long-term plan is to reduce the significance of its current market dominance of the scholarly article scene, and they’ve started buying into various other value-added services which will be of use to researchers. As a result of which they want to become the one-stop shop that researchers have to fall back on for all sorts of procedures and processes that researchers go through. Other publishers have not been so fast, and don’t have the resources anyway near those that Elsevier has.

So what publishers should do, ideally, is accept that the situation is changing, and like Elsevier move into other broader areas where they can still offer assistance to researchers, but without this huge single blockage that exists at the moment.

It would be easy to say that they should reduce their prices or be much more willing to allow creative commons, or much more flexible about their request for assignment of copyright. I don’t actually see that as happening, though. A sensible approach, if I were a publisher, would be to follow the Elsevier approach: reduce the significance of the current subscription model to just part of their whole offering, and to make themselves indispensable.


How optimistic are you for the future of scholarly publishing

Scholarly research will carry on, one way or another, and will continue along the basic cycle, the real question is ‘How optimistic am I about the future of the various players who are currently there?’

My feeling is that unless publishers change, like Elsevier has tried to change, they may well be squeezed out. They’ll become so unpopular they’ll be bypassed; they’ll get pushed out. Librarians are also under threat. If you like, the one group that will continue, come-what-may, are the researchers themselves. There may well be new players entering the market; people we haven’t thought about, unlikely players, Apple or somebody like that – might suddenly decide that this is something ‘we want to get into’. But I think it will become more efficient, and I think it will become open to more people.


Gemma Hersh

Vice President Open Science, Elsevier


What do you see as the biggest challenges in the scholarly publishing cycle today?

The research community is confronting a number of challenges that we’re helping to address. On the one hand, you have the ever-increasing overload of information to review, and the lack of time to review it. Alongside are increasing demands to improve and measure research performance.


Are the big publishers doing enough to meet the big challenges facing scholarly publishing?

To address those challenges, at Elsevier we’re increasingly using machine learning to help researchers do their work. It can help bring them the right information when, where and how they need it. Lots of organisations are applying machine learning technologies in different ways but the larger organisations are doing more to scale out and apply ML to a broader set of research tasks at both an individual and institutional level.

So, on an individual level, take for example an enhanced article recommender based on prior usage behaviour. Similar to how Amazon does it, we can present you with options for future reading without having to take additional time to restart your search and discovery workflow.

At an institution level, take for example the ability to tell a university materials research department how their researchers are performing against other universities on a wide variety of metrics. The system can then make recommendations for future research projects, collaborations, investments, etc.

The larger organisations are also actively expanding their Open Science initiatives, which we believe can also improve research performance.


What steps are Elsevier taking to overcome some of the challenges in the scholarly publishing cycle?

On the technology side, we’re greatly expanding the number of technology employees to help us develop and deploy machine learning, natural language processing, and sophisticated visualisation across vast quantities of data. We are leveraging a deep understanding of our customers to create and acquire solutions that combine content and data with analytics and technology in global platforms that help overcome various workflow challenges.

On the policy side, we are supporting a more open, more collaborative and more transparent world of research to improve research performance. We believe that Open Science has the potential to do that and we’re working with the wider research community to empower researchers to be more effective, better equipped to collaborate and share their research. 


What could researchers do to help overcome some of the challenges facing the scholarly publishing cycle?

We encourage and enable researchers to share more of their work with others in both pre- and post-publication form, so they can learn more from one another and advance scientific progress. They should make more use of preprint servers for pre-publication content, and create private groups on Social Collaboration Networks like Mendeley, to share copyrighted material.


What could libraries do to help overcome some of the challenges facing the scholarly publishing cycle?

Librarians remain critical resources to help researchers be aware of and understand all the tools, technologies and policies that publishers and information analytics providers like Elsevier offer to help them succeed. The recent explosion of platforms and methods for sharing articles and data has also led to some confusion as to when and where researchers can share, so that too provides an important role for librarians to play.


Simon Bains

Head of Research Services and Deputy Librarian, University of Manchester


What do you see as the biggest challenges in scholarly publishing today?

The biggest challenge in scholarly publishing today is academic culture, because although there are better and more affordable ways to do scholarly publishing than we have at the moment, it is very difficult to change or implement those models. Research dissemination is closely aligned with career progression within a very established and conservative academic culture.

New alternatives models start from the point of view that scholarly research should be open and available, rather than from the point of view that scholarly research can only be sustained by subscriptions or funds on demand to remove paywalls. If we tore the existing model up and started from a different position, we would come up with something very different. We wouldn’t invent what we have now, because the status quo is a commercial solution that made sense when it was introduced, but does so no longer.

But change requires researchers who are prepared to publish with new organisations, or to create their own new publishing channels. The usual barrier to this is a perceived need to publish in what are seen as the ‘right’ places and what is ‘right’ is closely associated with career progression. This makes it very hard to persuade people to do something different when that may be regarded as putting their career progression at risk.


What can libraries do to help overcome the cultural challenge?

Libraries can provide some of the solutions, some of the funding to help develop the solutions, and the advocacy to encourage our colleagues to think about this in a different way. The latter is the most challenging aspect of it.

Libraries are becoming better at advocacy. We started from the perspective of our own budgetary pressures, but while that’s important to us, it’s not the driver for the research community. It took a while for libraries to understand that that was the wrong message, but we are better now at explaining it in terms of the benefits to the researcher, and because there are new models and some researchers are using them, we’ve got better case studies, and more metrics to show that your career is not going to falter if you publish with PeerJ rather than with Nature. We can continue to push that, but it remains a challenge.


Is there more researchers could do?

There are researchers who are engaging with this, and it’s great to see that. The most powerful way to persuade a researcher to change is for them to hear from another successful researcher that it works, rather than hear from the library that the library thinks that it works. There are certainly open research enthusiasts in the research community, but I worry about the effects of the echo chamber. I follow open researchers on Twitter and they are all very enthusiastic and keen about it, but I think they’re a drop in the ocean and probably give me a false sense of the size of the open research community. I suspect very many researchers are doing what they have to do because there is a compliance requirement that they do it.

I think you can only go so far with that ‘stick’ rather than ‘carrot’ approach. You risk ending up with a community who are doing it because they have to, without really changing their thinking about why they’re doing it and whether it’s valuable. You’ve really got to shift that thinking from compliance to benefits, and I think there is still a challenge getting that message out beyond a hard core of open research enthusiasts. The change is certainly happening but the question is whether it is fast enough. We need more senior researchers to lead by example, and cannot expect the change to result solely from librarians pushing the message.


What do publishers need to do to help overcome some of the challenges facing the scholarly publishing cycle?

It depends on the publisher, as there are many different models. Commercial publishers have engaged in different ways; some have embraced open access, some have been more reticent. We need the publishers who are wedded to subscription models either to offer sustainable and affordable open business models or we need to move our publishing business to new publishers.

The Finch recommendations were designed to lead to a transition to full open access, but this has demonstrably failed to happen. We need publishers to do something different, but I don’t see what the motivation for them to do that is, given the current environment, where we continue to subscribe to journal titles, whilst at the same time paying to make a selection of papers open access. There needs to be different incentives to encourage the transition that the UK envisaged following the Finch recommendations.

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