Open Access: The Half-Revolution Continues

Wiley recently announced that is launching a pilot of what appears to be the exact same article sharing feature, SharedIt, that Springer-Nature put in place about a year ago. This is after a pilot using only Nature journals was judged successful. Wiley’s pilot and SharedIt both allow  authorized users to share a copy of an ‘enhanced’ PDF of any article through Readcube. This article can’t be downloaded or printed, but it can be read online and once you have a “shared link”, you can share that link with anyone else. Here is a nice little video summary from Springer-Nature that shows how it works.

I wrote a blog post about the launch of the SharedIt last year. In it I mostly expressed  my worry about these Readcube enhanced, DRM restricted, PDFs becoming the standard way articles are used and shared. I also worried about how SharedIt will affect inter-library loan and this just being another way we are moving from owning content to just having access to content. Graham Steel also wrote a good blogpost about this, discussing some of his issues with finding/using these shared links (which seem to be resolved now) and some similar concerns to mine about these Readcube enhanced PDFs.

It’s  a bit interesting how these shared links work. For instance, try and access the full-text of this article. Unless you are under an institution’s network with an subscription to this journal, you can’t access it. There are no open access pre or post prints in repositories for it either. (At least at the time of writing this).  So if you want to read this article…Nope. Not happening. You can empty out your wallet to purchase it, or you can wait a couple days for an inter-library loan.

But wait! Try this link! You can now see the full article!

The above link is a SharedIt link. I didn’t get it from my own’s institution’s subscription. But rather, I found it from a link Nature Genetics shared on twitter:

So let’s just recap here: I was searching for this article online and I couldn’t access it. However, I was able to search for it on twitter and find a link to a full-text online version. Now I can just copy and paste that link here and share this a full-text version of this article with anyone who reads my blog!

This is pretty cool right? I mean…it appears to be on first glance. Open access and sharing right?! Three things:

  • Look at how Nature Genetics is using the #scishare hashtag. It is a reverse #canihazpdf hashtag! Providing access to an article instead of asking for access. If you do a quick twitter search for this hashtag you will see that it is mostly just Nature Genetics using it to share their articles, but in some cases you do see researchers using it to share articles they find interesting.
  • Nature Genetics (the only journal actively using the #scishare hashtag currently) is hashtagging keywords in their article title (e.g. for our article #genetics). This could either be a way for them to promote their research on twitter or – more cynically – this could be a way to stop people from finding free copies of articles by searching twitter. Hashtagging a word in the title doesn’t make it impossible, but it does make it significantly harder.
  • Also, yes. This is a fake, DRM-filled PDF. Readers really want a real PDF they can download, print, and hold tightly at night. But they use the DRM-laced ebooks we provide to them from Ebsco and ProQuest, and they will use these.

Let’s get to the meat and potatoes here though. We are at this weird spot in the open access movement where publishers realize how beneficial open access is for their publications (higher readership, citations, downloads, promotion…etc) but they still are immensely enjoying the big dollars library subscriptions cost them. So larger publishers often try to get the best of both words. And I mean, of course they do! They are profit-driven!

We’ve seen this from publishers using double-dipping. i.e. Letting authors pay APC’s to make articles open access and then still charging for them. Or from just flat-out charging for articles that should be open access. Publishers’ incentives and motives are just unaligned with what researchers and libraries want/need.

SharedIt and Wiley’s new pilot is just another way for publishers to do this. A key finding in Nature’s original pilot of SharedIt was:

“The trial had no adverse implications for subscription-based journals either in terms of institutional business or individual article sales”

One of the main goals of the Open Access movement, beyond just providing access, was (is) to solve the serials crisis and stop libraries from going bankrupt from trying to afford journal subscriptions. SharedIt is a way around this. Publishers get the benefits of open access articles + they keep the library subscription dollars. Just another way the Open Access movement is still a half revolution.

There is more here though. Libraries still struggle when it comes to accurately assessing usage of the journals they subscribe too. Let’s say that one of journals has 1,000 PDF downloads for the year, The subscription is about $3,000, so $3.00 and article sounds fair and we keep subscribing. However, what if 900 of those downloads are for articles for which their are open access copies online? They may be in a open access in a repository or maybe even OA on the publisher site but we have no way of knowing (though, thanks to Counter we are making some progress with the latter). We continue subscribing to this journal because it has such high usage. Thinking we are paying $3 per article, but really we are paying $30 per article because 900 of these articles could be found open access online. Admittedly, this is a bit of an extreme example – unlikely that high number are all available open access online – but it is possible.

Also I’ve been noticing more and more journals that are choosing to make specific issues open access on a permanent or temporary basis. The rest of the journal remains paywalled, but they open up a few things (or sometimes almost everything) to get a readership boost. Libraries don’t dare unsubscribe to these journals because they aren’t officially open access . Also, since these publishers often don’t charge APC’s to authors for this content, they aren’t even really hybrid either.Once again, publishers get the best of both worlds: They get the open access boost + Library subscription dollars.

This all leads me to an interesting hypothetical: If libraries agreed to continue to pay subscription costs to journals, would journals agree to make everything OA? This is slightly like the argument of taking library subscription dollars and putting all that money towards APCs instead.  …. I don’t think either would work. The cure would be worse then the disease.

It is fascinating we have gotten to this point though. Open access has been recognized as an undebatable good. So much so that publishers trying make all the content they can Open Access. They are just trying to do it in a really sneaky way. Hoping libraries don’t do anything about it and change their subscription practices. So let’s do something about it.


About Ryan Regier

Doing Library Stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier
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3 Responses to Open Access: The Half-Revolution Continues

  1. popcrate says:

    It seems like this Restrictive, undownloadable, unprintable PDF is just another method of preventing open access, while appearing to be headed the right direction.

    What really needs to happen is ditch that entire model, and come up with new ways to reinburse authors. Perhaps a subscription for distributing free content, or making already-free content more availiable and discoverable.

    I would rather pay a subscription to get a delivery of a bunch of handpicked quality articles… than to pay into a system that encourages restrictions upon those articles.

    ^ all of that is In My Opinon. ^

  2. About your second-to-last paragraph: do you know about OLH?
    In a nutshell: instead of having institution subscribing, or of having them pay big deals of APC only for their own authors, institutions pay for the publication system to run and their libraries get a word about the curation of the system (e.g. which journal ought to be funded that way).

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