February 16, 2018

Shift from Green to Gold OA Could Leave Libraries Out of the Loop

As more and more countries embrace policies that drive government funded research into Open Access publishing, an Open Access standard in the future is looking less like a possibility and more like an inevitability. But in a paper released earlier this week, Dr. Richard Wellen of York University, Toronto, argues that an Open Access future in practice could be very different from what it looks like on paper.

In the paper, published in the journal SAGE Open and available on infoDOCKET here, Wellen notes that governments in both America and Canada have been making moves towards demanding that work produced with the aid of government funding be available openly to the public once it’s published, though private publishers will have the first chance to run it, with pre-press but peer-reviewed versions of studies running later on. This is the so-called ‘green’ model of OA publishing. In the long term, Wellen says that model will give may to the ‘gold’ model, in which authors pay a fee to be published, while still undergoing rigorous peer review. Those fees cover the administrative costs associated with publishing, creating an Open Access Market in which information remains mostly free

While a new Open Access standard of publishing may be welcomed by many librarians and researchers alike, Wellen points out that the transition may force changes in the way libraries are involved in research. Many scholars, both independent and those situated within institutions, depend on libraries for access to journals. But in the Gold OA publishing environment that Wellen sees as more likely to take hold in the future, traditional subscription models may no longer be a barrier to entry, taking libraries out of the equation for some researchers.

At the same time, as scholarly publishers sense the industry is changing, they’re changing their business models to move into services like information discovery that are traditionally under the purview of libraries. Wellen points to the recent purchase of the academic social network Mendeley by publisher Elsevier earlier this year.

“If libraries don’t have to buy information from publishers, then you have a disintermediation for libraries already,” said Wellen. “Libraries will always have a function, but at the same time, commercial publishers are wielding tools like Mendeley and Scopus that aid content discovery.”

Social networks like Mendeley and Academia.edu, said Wellen, could have much more relevance in an open access future, especially as open access megajournals like PLoS and PeerJ become more prominent. These journals emphasize the validity of papers they publish over the impact they’re likely to have. That’s a good thing for authors, said Wellen, as it means they have to spend less time looking for journals that will be the best home for their work, a time-consuming and costly process that can result in articles being peer-reviewed multiple times before being accepted.

“Megajournals avoid that by having a filter that doesn’t judge for scope or impact in advance of publication. They allow the community to do that,” Wellen said. “But the only way that model can succeed is with a robust system of post-publication filtering, and that is where crowdsourcing comes in.”

Tools like Mendeley, ResearchGate, and Academia.edu let authors reach the target audience for their work regardless of where it was published, and that audience determines what impact the piece will have by passing it around to colleagues or referencing and citing it in their own work.  “They let the community be the judge of the relevance of an article,” Wellen said, rather than the editorial boards of august journals.

University of Sheffield School of Information lecturer Dr. Stephen Pinfield, who edited the article, agreed on that point. In an interview, Pinfield said, ”Scholarly communication is likely to involve greater use of more informal, immediate, and interactive forms of ‘publication,’ incorporating social media technologies into the communication flow.”

If libraries are becoming less necessary for subscriptions in the future, though what is their role going forward? Currently, Wellen points out, the library at York University is helping to process author payments to Gold-style Open Access journals. Despite the growing importance of social media in connecting resarchers to one another’s work, though, libraries won’t be relegated to processing payments. Librarians will always have a role to play in helping to find pertinent information for researchers and students, Wellen said, and could become even more important in helping to catalog and curate the ballooning data sets that are so key to modern research.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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  1. Without commenting on the piece in general, one important correction: Most Gold OA journals do not require article processing fees. The “Gold model” does not require such fees.

  2. Regarding the assertion that “traditional subscription models may no longer be a barrier to entry, taking libraries out of the equation for some researchers”, I doubt this, not because I don’t think this type of Gold OA will take root but because many university-based researchers who use subscription-based resources already don’t realize that it’s the library that is choosing which resources to subscribe to and paying the bills. Instead, they have a vague idea that the university is paying, or in the case of students may not even realize that anyone is paying until they graduate and find that they can no longer access their favorite subscription-based resource.

    In other words, librarians are already quite disinterimediated from most users’ consumption of the growing portion of scholarly literature that is available online.

  3. This piece appears to reflect an outdated view of libraries. Today the majority of university libraries in North America provide journal hosting and support services and are the stewards of the institutional repositories.

    • I’d agree, Heather. Two nascent trends that I think hold promise for libraries but require somewhat disruptive change would be library as academic publisher, for one, and library as OA publisher partner (covering institutional affiliates via an annual fee to waive or reduce the OA Article Publication Charge), for another. The latter is not really so different from a subscription, but the model would involve some recalibrating with grants, from the faculty side, and subscription budgets, from the library side…

  4. As a student, I feel having open access to knowledge is very important. To make advancements in medicine, space travel, studies of physics and a range of subjects we need a curious population. Many children want to be astronauts and scientists and doctors when they grow up, what happens as they get older? To fuel curiosity we need to make knowledge and studies easy to access and free or very low priced. It is very hard to stay ambitious when subscriptions to science journal magazines sometimes cost hundreds of dollars. For there to be an abundance of discoveries and break-throughs information must be spread quickly and for free. When it is expensive to read studies, logically there are less people reading them. This closes the door to studies being replicated, and studies being built upon. Demanding money for knowledge will only decrease knowledge spread. The growing size of public journals and metajournals makes me hopeful for the future where progressive knowledge is only a few free clicks away.