Soapbox

October 23, 2013 11:15 am

Access to research comes at a price

Saïd library will not pay additional fees to point to Harvard Business Review content

In 2008, the Sainsbury Library at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, with a number of specially selected libraries, was “invited” to take part in a “pilot” to pay EBSCO, the journal aggregator, an additional amount of money for the privilege of using URLs to point to Harvard content contained in our existing subscriptions. The Sainsbury Library refused and, with other defiant libraries, entered a period of irritation, impasse and escalating pressure to pay up.

For a librarian, there is nothing more delicious than having a vociferous academic weigh in on their side in a battle they have been waging, without much external support, for years. Thus my delight in Joshua Gans’ attack on Harvard Publishing’s attempts to force libraries into paying additional charges so that these libraries can use URLs to point their users to Harvard content within database subscriptions for which the libraries have already paid a considerable sum of money.

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In 2000, EBSCO secured the exclusive right to distribute Harvard Business Review content through one of its flagship management journal databases, giving it an important advantage over its rivals in the market for delivery of academic content to business school libraries, and through them to business school communities everywhere.

As the internet became more ubiquitous, librarians, like others, were quick to appreciate that in delivering content to students, embedding a URL in a reading list to point to an electronic source contained in one of their paid subscriptions, was not only legitimate practice, but was an easier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to the expensive purchase of print copies of Harvard articles to be included in reading packs.

Even in the days of print, many librarians – all of whom held subscriptions to the print journal itself – viewed the need to purchase additional copies of HBR articles for reading packs as unfair. This anomaly could finally be rectified through the judicial use of the new technology. For Harvard the selling of content for reading packs was a highly lucrative sideline to the publication of the journal. Since Harvard Business Review was, and is, the quintessential source of the easy read consolidation of the latest in management thinking, and therefore highly used within management teaching, when those reading packs ceased so did a lucrative and secure revenue stream for Harvard Publishing.

In 2008, Harvard’s dilemma was manifested in an “invitation”, issued jointly by Harvard and EBSCO, for existing EBSCO subscribers to pay additional money to use the deep-linking URLs to the Harvard content.

I, along with many colleagues, felt that the bizarre idea of charging for the act of deep-linking was not only a step too far, but also a step that carried a dangerous precedent should other publishers wish to similarly view the use of URLs as a legitimate revenue-raising device. Many of us refused to pay, particularly as we were already paying EBSCO for access to Harvard content. As a further irritant, this year, EBSCO – no doubt at Harvard’s insistence – made 500 Harvard articles unavailable to be downloaded or printed.

While the present Gans-revived debate about Harvard and EBSCO is interesting to see played outside the library profession, this particular debate for us is largely done and dusted: some libraries paid and use the URLs and some have not.

What is more interesting is the bigger question: who should have access to information; who should pay for that access and use of content; and who should be paid for producing and/or distributing that content for consumption and use by others. If we want to preserve the creation and reuse of information, what we want is a system that allows the flow, but in which fair payment and recompense takes place.

Nothing new there, but as in the case of the Harvard/EBSCO/libraries mess, getting the basic formulas wrong is plainly problematic and unlikely to create a scenario that supports growth and harmony.

This same dilemma is likely to be played out in the broader but similarly irritation-prone Open Access world in which higher education institutions in the UK, the US and elsewhere have been plunged by government-stipulated mandates that require academic researchers to make their papers immediately and freely available for all to use, on the grounds that their research has been largely funded by public money. In the US, the UK and elsewhere, the open access movement has been alive for many years and, generally speaking, has had wide in-principle support.

But notwithstanding the obvious merits of the new open access mandates, and the highly laudable intentions from which they came, the underlying arrangement by which this is to be delivered is rife with likely irritations and stand-offs as in the Harvard case. For example, in the UK, the government stipulates that academics funded by government research grants must make their output open access. Academics can do this by publishing via one of two options: a Gold option, through which the author pays the publisher an article processing charge (APC) to make their article available for public use through the journal online site, or a green OA option, whereby authors deposit their last version in an institutional repository, again at no cost to the user but avoiding the payment of an APC to a journal publisher. Either way, the end user no longer pays. And, over time, the plan assumes, all journal content will be free to users at the point of access.

So now journal publishers are to be paid by the authors rather than the end user or the journal subscribers for supply of the articles. It is hard to think of any other area of enterprise where such a model would be viewed as inherently sustainable, a factor not lost on the people who came up with this plan. To make it work, the UK government allocated to higher education institutions a sum of money from which they could pay the APCs on behalf of those authors opting for the Gold option.

But, higher education institutions have realised the lump sum will not cover the costs, with some institutions estimating their allocation will cover as little as 25 per cent of what they would need on an average nominal APC charge set by publishers. Add to that the incendiary of uncapped APCs and it is difficult to understand how the government was anticipating an easy ride between cash-strapped higher education institutions wishing to up their research output and publishers with free rein on how high they can set their APCs.

To complicate matters, the money available for payment of APCs is only allowed for articles produced from research funded by UK grants. All higher education researchers who write articles without being fund recipients will be excluded, but will still face the same new and unbudgeted APC charges. Across the higher education sector, this situation is being repeated again and again and one imagines that the pennies dropping will soon produce a cacophony of irritation. The noise may have already been heard as the UK government recently adopted the position of Barack Obama, US president, at the outset of his open access mandate and shifted its recommendation from OA Gold to the Green option.

But publishers have access to a counter position, which the more powerful publishers are already applying, allowing authors to upload their output into their higher education repositories, but only after embargo periods that are longer than that which would make them eligible for open access status under the government mandate policies. The cynically inclined might conclude that publishers are prepared to effectively scuttle the freeing of information if they perceive a threat to their revenue stream.

As this plays out, it is likely that universities will have insufficient funds to deliver open access as envisaged by the Finch report, which set this in motion, and governments will have to face the increased cost of safeguarding publishers’ revenues. Furthermore, researchers will face the difficult choice between their academic freedom to publish where they wish, or publish in journals with lower or no APC charges. In the process they will have to collectively rethink how they and their institutions accrue the much sought-after reputation and prestige that has been inextricably linked with peer-review academic journal publishing.

No information is free. Costs of production, review and dissemination are high and complex. Open access requires a business model for publishers, if they wish to remain part of the information chain, to occupy new positions in the chain: positions that support the agreed objectives and purposes for which the information is created in the first instance, rather than be led principally by a profit protection ethos that exploits and thwarts the laudable ideals of the open access movement.

The author is Bodleian Business Librarian at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

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