Public libraries in the United Kingdom are set to play a role in expanding public access to academic research via the recently announced “Access to Research” plan. Thousands of research journal articles will be made available for free: but only on computers located physically within a public library, not remotely.
The plan implements one of the key recommendations of the Finch Group, which was commissioned by the U.K. government to investigate how access to publicly funded research could be expanded. The group recommended providing walk-in access to “the majority of journals in public libraries across the UK.” As the report observed:
“At a time when public libraries are under severe pressure such a move will help to strengthen their position in the communities they serve, and lead to increased usage and value. It would have an immediate effect in extending access to the great majority of journals for the benefit of everyone in the country.”
Many U.K. public libraries are experiencing a crisis of funding leading to closures and severe reductions in service.
Access to Research provides access to more than 8,000 journals from around the world, on topics such as health, biological research, engineering, and social sciences. It is a result of collaboration between publishers, through the Publishers Association, Publishers Licensing Society, and Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers; and librarians, through the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL). The search delivery software, Summon, was provided for free by ProQuest.
When she announced the initiative at the beginning of February, Janene Cox, president of the SCL, said that approximately 75 library authorities (which serve similar purposes to public library systems in the U.S.) had expressed an interest in joining the pilot. According to LJ‘s infoDOCKET, that’s over half of all local authorities are already in the process of signing up, the technology was tested in 2013 by 250 public libraries, and the service will now be rolled out as a two-year pilot. (For more and a list of participating publishers, see infoDOCKET.com.)
Cox added that “it re-affirms the important role that public libraries have in supporting learning, promoting research and encouraging greater access and use of digital space and technologies…the access to research project is evidence that as a sector we are prepared to think innovatively act collaboratively and seek creative solutions to ensure our library offer continues to innovate, improve and deliver real outcomes for our communities.”
The announcement was welcomed by public librarians, who saw this as an opportunity to open access to research materials that were otherwise out of reach for the vast majority of the public, as well as to encourage more people to visit their local public library. Claire Back, a Development Officer (Digital) at Plymouth City Council, said the scheme would have a positive impact on the local community. “Our library users will be able to search for and read over one and half million journal articles,” she said, :enhancing the collections we already have and strengthening our position in the community as a space for education and learning.”
She went on to add that “the library I work in has already had enquiries as a result of the launch publicity. It’s now up to us to make sure that people (including library staff) know about it.”
Back argued that the restrictions to walk-in visitors only will not necessarily be an issue of concern as “this is also the case with the family history websites, Ancestry and Find My Past”, two of the more popular resources made available by her library to the general public.
However, this view was not shared by David Prosser, Executive Director of Research Libraries UK (a consortium representing 34 university and other research libraries in the UK). While he welcomed the increased access to research findings, he raised concerns about the initiative being restricted to walk-in visitors. Said Prosser, “…the Access to Research scheme is oddly limiting in its vision, insisting on constraining online electronic information to specific locations at specific times. The Internet and mobile revolution gives the intellectually curious access to information when they want it, where they want it. Access to Research curtails these freedoms by requiring the curious to visit a library during opening times to gain access to online material.”
He added, “In a time of public library closures and reduced opening times these restrictions do nothing to ease the path to knowledge for the reader, but are entirely for the convenience of publishers.”
Open access advocate Penny Andrews, who is one of the Open Access Button student leadership team, said that while the increased access for the public was “a good thing”, she had some concerns about the implementation of the project and the lack of information about alternatives, which she described as “disappointing.”