Library Collection Development in the Era of Open Access and Article Sharing

The Serials Crisis has always made the future of journal subscriptions unstable and headed for disaster. 6% yearly price increases, at a rate higher than inflation, with one party in the scholarly publishing process – the publishers – often pulling in 30% profit margins? Nope.

What makes this all the more shocking is that these price increases and profit margins are still happening today, when the percentage of journal articles that are Open Access (OA) is hovering around 50%. 45% of journal articles published in 2015 are now OA and the rate of OA is increasing every year.

Add this to the fact that is also now easier than ever to get access to a non-OA journal article through scholarly networks, social media, inter-library loan, or just plain-old email. Publishers even encourage this sharing through their policies like the STM Voluntary principles for article sharing and more actively encourage it with initiatives like SharedIt. There is a solid argument that most of this article sharing falls under fair dealing/use anyways, so publishers could not deny this sharing even if they wanted to.

It’s also becoming clear that value of a journal is shifting to individual articles instead of the whole journal. Consider how the citation rates vary massively between different articles in the same journal. Or how high inter-library loan numbers for articles from a journal are probably not a predictor of good usage for a subscription to that journal. Or how university researchers only cite a fraction of journals their library subscribes to and that this fraction is decreasing.

All this makes it very clear libraries need to reassess what journals they subscribe to and how much they are paying publishers. How do they do this? A more in-depth approach to evaluating journal usage, like CRKN’s journal usage project, is a good place to start. Using an OA adjusted cost-per use is another one. In this fascinating paper, Kristin Antelman lays out Caltech’s approach to developing a OA adjusted cost-per use to evaluate how much a library is really paying for journal subscriptions. They are using 1findr, a subscription based tool for obtaining the OA numbers. However there is an open alternative for finding OA information, Unpaywall and I’ve been working on creating a journal level OA adjusted cost per use using it.

Another interesting approach for library consortia’s to directly negotiate Article Processing Charge (APC) offsetting. This has been happening at a small level for a few years now. Libraries are negotiating APC discounts for their authors into their agreements with publishers. However, in last couple years we’ve begun to see library consortia become more aggressive about these negotiations and rightful so! An Austrian consortia recently entered an agreement with Wiley where their authors do not need to pay an APC to publish in Wiley journals. Germany’s Project Deal continues to hold strong against Elsevier to get fair pricing  and are inspiring other consortia to become more aggressive as well. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with library consortia negotiations and open access in the next few years.

When leveraging publishers into agreeing to fair agreements it’s important to not just being aware of how much of their content is open access, but also how much your institution is paying that publisher in APCs. This is where Hybrid Journals (closed OA journals with an OA option for individual articles) create a big problem. Publishers’ often proudly claim they don’t Double-Dip. That they give subscription discounts for OA articles published, so they aren’t being paid twice. It’s unclear if they are actually not Double-Dipping though. Prices keep going up every year, no matter if the rate of OA increases, and the back-room calculations these publishers do to assure ensure us we are getting a fair price is all a little laughable. When have library consortia ever got a fair deal from large publisher that they didn’t have to fight tooth and nail for? We shouldn’t be trusting publishers’ claims that they don’t Double-Dip, we should be demanding their math is open or doing the math ourselves.

Your institution can help with this! You can start tracking whatever OA publishing and APC spending from you can and then adding it to the OpenAPC dataset. This data and the APC prices that publishers report can then be leveraged to determine how much your institution is spending on APCs with a publisher or journal.

I think all the above methods are going to be necessary ones in the future of collection development in libraries. As Antelman says,

If we choose not to use OA in decision making, even as the data becomes more readily available and reliable, we are not being good stewards of our institutional resources, and we are not serving future researchers as much as we could be through development of collectively heterogeneous and deep collections

Now, even as I write this blog I am aware there are going to be some OA Advocates who take this as further proof that the real solution here is for libraries to cancel all their journal subscriptions. That this is the best way to finally bring about the open access revolution. I agree with them 90% of the way -and always admire their passion – but we are not at the ‘cancel all journals’ point yet. Fact is, even though I argued above that so much content is accessible outside of the library, a large number of researchers and students are reliant on the library for access.


I don’t think library users should be reliant on the library. Yes, I think the library will always be an important place for discovering important and relevant research, but it should not be the only place. As teachers and librarians we should be training our users to be critical, independent researchers who are reliant on open resources. So that when they leave our institution and no longer have access to our library (as so many students do) they still know how to find scholarly literature and make use of it.

However, we are still a long ways from that. I still see a lot of students who will not bother searching farther for an article if their library does not have access. We can’t just cancel all journals and expect them to learn via trial-by-fire. That won’t work.

Also sometimes, in the medical and health field especially, access to scholarly research is needed immediately. We are not yet at the point of OA or article sharing where access to articles can be obtained immediately, but hopefully soon.

At some point though, in the next few decades, or even in the next decade, we will reach a point where libraries should begin mass cancelling scholarly journals and we will need all you ‘cancel all the journals’ advocates then. Don’t go anywhere!

Finally, I just want conclude with a quote from this CARL/CRKN brief prepared Kathleen Shearer, Responding to Unsustainable Journal Costs:

There will be no long-term relief from price increases unless we collectively promote
a transition towards a more open scholarly communication system, and invest in
infrastructure and services that are more sustainable.

This is crux of it. Paying high APCs to publishers may just shift the burden of the Serials Crisis to Authors instead of Libraries. We need to build our own infrastructure and services. To find pricing models that are fair for all parties involved, be they authors, publishers, research institutions, or libraries. No one party should be making 30% profit margins while the rest are struggling for funding and access.


About Ryan Regier

Doing Library Stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier
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One Response to Library Collection Development in the Era of Open Access and Article Sharing

  1. Pingback: Library Collection Development in the Age of Open Access and Research Sharing | A Way of Happening

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