Perspectives, insights, and research

From the Scholarly Kitchen

Libraries Face a Future of Open Access

May 23, 2018  |  By

Originally published in The Scholarly Kitchen on May 23, 2018

When librarians prepare for a negotiation, they now routinely reach for the muscle.

At least that’s how I read the news about the Swedish library consortium and its dealings with Elsevier. If you have been too preoccupied with the Royal Wedding to pay attention to news coming out of the world of STM publishing, you can get a good backgrounder here. Briefly, the Swedish consortium attempted to dictate terms to Elsevier, terms that Elsevier would not accept. The result is that Elsevier’s contract will be cancelled, meaning that there will be no authorized access to Elsevier content for the consortium users.

Mugshots of Al Capone

I have written previously about how the current landscape looks to publishers. In every negotiation, publishers are mindful that their ability to control access to their publications is compromised by unauthorized access from such sites as Sci-Hub and ResearchGate. How can Elsevier or any publisher shut off the Swedes or the Germans when Alexandra Elbakyan is waiting in the anteroom? Librarians have learned to reach for the muscle and now confidently demand terms that no publisher can or will accept.

This raises the obvious question of whether librarians knowingly and actively seek the support of copyright pirates; or perhaps librarians simply are going about their business in their usual upbeat way, working diligently to make the world a better place, and the critical involvement of the shady characters is neither sought nor recognized. My own view has changed. I think the cynicism quotient in academic libraries, measured against other organizations and institutions, is very low. This is not, after all, Wall Street or, lord help us, the telecommunications business. But, like the populist governments that have now been installed in a number of Western democracies, the party of cynicism has taken control of some leading library organizations. Thus a nod to the likes of Luca Brasi no longer seems out of line.

Having grown up in New Jersey, I have some qualms about what it means for anyone to form an alliance with unsavory characters. What do you do when they ask for a favor in return?

So it’s about time to consider what happens if the libraries win. By “win” I mean they refuse deals with publishers and turn their constituencies over to unauthorized sites. This will save them huge amounts of money, of course, money that they would surely like to put to other uses. Publishing is an ecosystem, however, and a significant change in one element can ripple across the entire field. If Sci-Hub becomes the default place to go for full-text content, what else will change?

To begin with, many of the services that publishers now provide will be diminished or disappear, and new services will struggle to find capital to invest in them. Most importantly, the benefits of operating at a large scale will be under considerable pressure, and scale is the biggest driver of the economics of scholarly publishing. The nominal cost per article will rise, though nominal cost is irrelevant, as only boy scouts will pay retail, as the welcoming arms of Sci-Hub will be open to everybody else who chooses to pay nothing. More to the point, though, is that the cost to operate a publishing company (as opposed to the costs incurred by customers) will rise in the absence of scale. Thus downward pressure on revenue and upward pressure on costs: this is not a recipe for a stable situation. We should look for restructuring, downsizing, and divestitures.

I have often heard it said that the break-up or diminishment of the big commercial firms would be to the benefit of the independent professional society publishers. I doubt it. The number of independent publishers of any size has been dropping for some time, with more and more societies choosing to license their publications to the larger houses. If the libraries win, if access to full text is effectively outsourced to Sci-Hub and its ilk, what would be the motivation for a large publisher to pay a royalty to a society publisher that has been mounted on the larger publisher’s platform? Libraries will be emboldened to work down a list, with the biggest publishers at the top, through the mid-size publishers, and finally reaching the smaller ones. If you are going to outsource Elsevier to Sci-Hub, why stop there?

These musings were prompted by a tweet I saw a couple weeks ago: What is Sci-Hub’s preservation policy?

Twitter being Twitter, I have no way of knowing the context of that remark. Was it sarcastic? “Now that Sci-Hub is becoming the go-to place to access content, are you going to tell me that those crooks give a damn about the preservation of the scholarly record?” Or was it doe-eyed and innocent? “I would be interested to learn more about Sci-Hub’s preservation policies now that we use it for access.” On the other hand, if we were to be told about Sci-Hub’s preservation policy (Twitter being Twitter), it would be fake news.

If the libraries win and the big publishers are brought to their knees, will we see Sci-Hub and other such sites begin to embrace “library values” — that is, the suite of practices intended to enhance the life-cycle of scholarly communications? Over the long term, how do you feel about a commercial organization like ResearchGate when it comes to end-users’ privacy? When you outsource full text, what do you hold onto?

Thus I am not so sure that the celebration in the library world about the crafty Swedes will be long-lived. The assumption is that libraries will have more money to spend on other things, but it seems as likely that provosts will take that money away from the libraries. After all, why invest in the library when Sci-Hub is doing the principal job of providing access — though we never mention it by name? The $2 million we have just taken back from Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley, and Taylor & Francis can go to the head of the chemistry department, with a dollop for the new gym. The uncoupling of access from the library will likely lead to the diminishment of the library’s place on campus, putting the library into the position of the university press, an unloved community obligation.

The perspective summarized here is not one of advocacy, and the last thing I would do is to exhort libraries not to pursue better deals with their vendors. Rather my point is that libraries and legacy publishers are in an unholy embrace. They need not love each other to feel they should stick together — for the children, for the budget. What appears to get lost in discussions of the march of cancelled contracts in Europe is that it is not just publishers that are being disrupted. This is a disruption to the entire ecosystem. When the favor comes due, we may not like the terms, but pay we will.

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