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Smarter Libraries Through Technology: Disruption in Scholarly Publication

Smart Libraries Newsletter [October 2018]

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The realm of scholarly communications has entered a period of increased uncertainty, where pressures toward open access publishing increasingly present challenges to longstanding business models. The shift from the commercial subscription model to open access has major ramifications not only in the business economy for scholarly publishing but for the technologies involved in discovery and access to scholarly resources.

The digital age has been one of unfulfilled promises for scholarly communications. In the early days of e-journals, many believed that the transition from print would result in more immediate access to research findings and dramatically lower costs. It seemed at that time that rather mounting documents on web servers would involve almost negligible costs and could be accomplished rapidly. In some disciplines, this vision became more of a reality, as seen with the of physics preprints launched in 1991. But overall, the wholesale change from print publishing to electronic brought little change to the academic and business processes. The peer review process continued to be managed through commercial publishers and societies, and the business model continued to be based on subscriptions, funded primarily out of library budgets. The subscription model imposes significant barriers to access to academic research, given the broad disparities in the funding available across libraries to purchase subscriptions in each discipline. For items not covered by their library's subscriptions, researchers can make requests through interlibrary loan or document delivery services, or pay the fees offered to non-subscribers. These “paywalls” represent a barrier for independent researchers not affiliated with a library.

The subscription model places a massive burden on academic libraries. The budgets of libraries, unfortunately, cannot support access to all possible resources available in all disciplines, making it necessary to be very selective about the journal titles to include in their body of subscriptions. The ongoing increases in subscription costs and the growth in new publications means that libraries must be very selective and make difficult choices regarding the resources they offer to their faculty and students. The need to carefully manage, track, and assess the investments libraries make in scholarly journals drives requirements for electronic resource management technologies, which were originally developed as discrete products and more recently incorporated into the functionality of library services platforms.

The pressure to mitigate costs and provide access to the widest possible range of scholarly content led to the emergence of the “Big Deal.” Many of the major publishers would negotiate a price with each university that would include coverage of all their e-journals. These deals, though costly, gave library users access to a very broad range of scholarly materials. These arrangements also meant that libraries were paying for many journal titles that they otherwise would not have selected. Libraries had to determine if the costs of individual titles they really needed purchased discretely would exceed the cost of the comprehensive offering, which might include considerable numbers of resources out of scope for the institution that may not see use. The Big Deal versus selective subscriptions has major implications for libraries.

In recent years, there has been some pushback with libraries not renewing their contracts and going back to discrete title selections. Regardless of the packaging, many academic libraries devote most of their collection budgets to subscriptions to electronic resources and have made deep cuts in monographs and other collection materials, as well as in other operational areas.

Open access presents an alternative to the subscription model. It has been an ideal model for scholarly publishing from the beginning of the e-journal age but has proven difficult to realize. The costs of journal management, peer review, technical infrastructure, and other factors needed to support high-quality scholarly publications are substantial and require a sustainable business model. In contrast to subscriptions, where libraries pay for end-user access to journals, a commercial model of open access involves article processing charges (APCs) paid up front for published articles, which are then freely available for all to access. Some scholarly articles today are entirely open access; others are hybrid with a mix of restricted and open access. This business model shifts the financial burden away from the library to the researcher, and these fees are often covered by departmental funds or included in the budgets of grant proposals. There are other routes to open access, such as publishing agreements that allow preprints or accepted versions of articles to be made available on personal websites or institutional repositories.

After many years of slow progress toward open access for scholarly research, pressure has dramatically increased, primarily through the mandates of the organizations that fund research. In the United States, organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health require that articles produced from research that they fund be made available as open access. In Europe, several countries have issued mandates that all articles produced be made available as open access, and access to all content provided to their researchers for a negotiated national payment.

In a bold move, eleven national research funding organizations in Europe, have asserted a new strategy, called Plan S that states “By 2020 scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants provided by participating national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.”1

Such mandates and other pressures may move the scholarly publishing industry toward a tipping point where open access becomes the default model of publication. This change has broad implications for the resource management and discovery technologies used by libraries. The products available today, although they include capabilities to support open access materials, were designed primarily for the subscriptionbased economy.

On the resource management front, the business models of open access require different support than subscriptions. With open access, functionality would need to be built around article processing fees, whether the fees come from library or external budgets. In a hybrid environment, tracking access to scholarly resources moves form journal titles to individual articles, likewise for discovery services. The current model of index-based discovery is based on many assumptions related to the subscription model. These products now need to link to full text for all articles available as open access, even if the library does not hold a subscription for the journal. The task of managing and providing access to scholarly content would be simpler for libraries should comprehensive open access become a reality. That outcome seems unlikely, and distant at best, which means that the work of libraries in this will be much more complex than it was when almost all content was procured through subscriptions.

The changes afoot toward open access seem to be reshaping the business of scholarly publishing. Companies like Elsevier, Wiley, Clarivate, Digital Science, and SAGE, have each not only increased their involvement in open access, but have also shown a keen interest in the tools and technologies related to supporting institutionally conducted research and the workflow of scholarly publishing in addition to publishing the articles produced. These companies have made acquisitions or developed internally products related to peer review management, citation management, research data management, research information systems, discovery of research funding opportunities, scholars networks, and other activities. The library software vendors are likewise entering this arena, notably Ex Libris with its new Esploro product.

Open access naturally impacts library discovery services. The index-based discovery services are now well established among mid-sized and large academic libraries. These products continue to evolve and are increasingly able to lead searchers to open access content in addition to the resources covered within library subscriptions. While index-based discovery represents an important component of a library's website, they reach only a limited portion of research activity. Many— if not most—library users rely on Google Scholar, Scopus, Web of Science, or other citation databases appropriate to specific disciplines. Tools have been developed to facilitate access to resources to assist users with gaining access to library resources or open access content when not using library-provided discovery services. A slate of browser plug-ins has been developed able to present the full text of an article from a website with its citation. These plug-ins work behind the scenes using resources such as the library's link resolver or databases of open access articles to identify the source of the full text of an article whenever possible, often saving users from having to purchase it via the paywall.

We can anticipate additional tools and technologies to emerge as the realm of scholarly publishing evolves and open access content becomes more prevalent. The trend for companies traditionally oriented to scholarly publishing to develop or acquire new businesses and their products oriented to scholarly workflows, discovery, analytics, and other related tasks will continue. Elsevier, Clarivate, and Digital Science have followed this pattern. This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter features the expansion of yet another publisher, SAGE, as it expands into the realm of technologies in support of broader academic activities through the acquisition of Talis and Lean Library.


  1. Science Europe, “cOAlition S: Making Open Access a Reality by 2020,” press release, September 4, 2018, https://www.scienceeurope .org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/cOAlitionS_Press_Release.pdf.
View Citation
Publication Year:2018
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 38 Number 10
Issue:October 2018
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:24065
Last Update:2023-01-19 22:55:53
Date Created:2019-03-05 17:09:11