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'Build a wall' or 'tear down that wall'? Open access and libraries

By William Russell-Edu, librarian of the European Institute of Oncology, Milan, Italy

I recently watched the documentary “Paywall: the Business of Scholarship”. If you haven’t seen it, I really suggest you do. As the makers of the film point out, “Most of society do not realise that they fund a majority of research that is publicly funded, then that research is eventually locked up behind a pay wall, and then they have to pay $39.95 to read the results.”

“Paywall” looks at the debate around open access (OA) which makes published research openly available online to everyone, at no cost, and with the freedom to redistribute the contents as desired. The film also examines how the profit margin of 35-40% enjoyed by some publishers dwarfs that of companies such as Apple, Facebook, Walmart and Toyota – and the measures being taken by authors and librarians to make things fairer.

At the same time the film was released, the European Union’s “Plan S” was also launched. Under this initiative, researchers receiving public funding from research funders in 11 EU nations will not be permitted to publish in paywalled journals, but rather only in open access ones. This prohibition will take effect in 2020, and as things currently stand, it  would  hit such prestigious high-impact titles as Nature (and its dozens of related titles such as Nature Medicine, Oncogene and British Journal of Cancer), Science, Cell, Lancet (including of course its “family” of related titles such as Lancet Oncology etc.), New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of Clinical Oncology, Cancer, and a host of other journals). Many of the world’s most important and respected scholarly publications would be affected. While it’s true that some of these journals also publish OA papers, the fact that they also publish paywalled papers classifies them as “hybrid journals” and hybrids will also be banned as far as Plan S is concerned.

Some 85% of scholarly journals will be affected, and not surprisingly, the publishers are very concerned about the impact this decision could have. But what do librarians think about it? It’s almost ingrained in our DNA to do all we can to provide access to information with as few barriers as possible, which is what authors want, too. Many libraries have been physically downsized. It is rare to find an institution that can offer additional space to a library. The library I work in occupies less than half of the space it did 25 years ago, although in terms of content it has massively expanded, thanks to online.

Rising journal prices combined with shrinking budgets has caused headaches for many librarians, who now have less money to spend.  The vast majority of the library budget is spent on journal subscriptions, mainly to the “big players”: Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer-Nature (consolidation in the sector is now quite commonplace), Oxford University Press, Sage, and Taylor & Francis to name a few. Of course, publishers raise their prices because they can, and - to be fair -  because the market allows it, indeed requires it: you make the best products you can and get the best profit margin possible. So, as a librarian, I can’t just say “Cell” is too expensive, we’ll cancel it and switch to “Science”. Although there are libraries that have cancelled contracts with major publishers due to their continued practice of erecting paywalls. Elsevier is an obvious example, but they are not the only ones. Publishers are demanding payment terms that libraries can simply no longer afford.

It’s October, which means it’s time to renew journal subscriptions. EBSCO, in their “Serials Price Projections” (which they send every year) “expect the overall effective publisher price increases for academic and academic/medical libraries for 2018 (before currency impact) to be in the range of five to six percent.” They tell us in a warning that hasn’t changed since I started working in my current institute in the mid-90s, that it is a good idea to “add an additional two to four percent to the estimated price increases when budgeting to protect against a possible weakening of the currency between now and the time subscription payments are made...” We’re looking once again at an annual increase of 10%.  Single journal subscriptions are difficult to cancel as publishers usually offer bundled subscription packages at a bargain price. As subscriptions (even to bundles) get cancelled, paywalls consequently grow.

“Open”, however, doesn’t necessarily mean “free”. Publishers need money to make “free” things free to the public. Although a journal may not ask for a subscription fee, it may well impose article-processing charges, where an author pays to submit an article. Moreover, this amount can vary from around €100 to perhaps €3000 or more. Moving to the “pay to publish” model instead of the current “pay to read” one (Gold OA) would fulfil the Librarian’s dream of making research freely available to all. However, whether this means lower overall costs isn’t clear if the same costs have simply switched from one payer to another. So it could well be the case that the same amount of money that the library would otherwise receive under the budget heading “journal subscriptions” will simply be called “article processing charges” (APCs)– and will not necessarily go to the Library itself. Would libraries have a publishing budget instead?

A key element of the debate that is often mentioned is “quality control”. Read a story with a headline such as “Open Access Publisher Accepts Nonsense Manuscript for Dollars” and you can see why.  Although the situation is improving compared to the past, people tend to be suspicious of open access, wondering whether the journal is reputable and whether its papers have been vetted, or “peer-reviewed” by appropriately qualified professionals in the field.  The fear of “substandard journals” is of course justified, as any researcher will tell you. Almost every day, researchers receive an email from a “predatory publisher”. Predatory publishing is an exploitative and fraudulent open-access publishing model that applies charges by pretending to be a legitimate publishing operation (perhaps even with a site that, deliberately mimics that of a genuine publisher) without actually providing the editorial services associated with genuine journals. It’s basically “phishing”, blended with advanced version of the so-called “Nigerian email scam”. These journals practically beg for your paper, and often refer to your previously published work. You can recognise them immediately from their insistency, elaborate style and frequent English errors. They are unnaturally complimentary and aim to flatter the reader. The journals usually have a title which bears more than a passing resemblance to a genuinely prestigious journal (a list can be found here but some rather brazen examples include the plausible-sounding Journal of Nature and Science, Cancer Research Frontiers, Genes and Cancer,  International Journal of Oncology Science, and Cancer Therapy & Oncology International Journal). These emails usually omit any reference to the large fee (e.g. €3000) which they will then require in order to publish the paper. In fairness it must be said that some journals are more predatory than others, and it isn’t always clear where being predatory begins, what is acceptable marketing and what is not.

While predatory publishing is of course highly questionable, there are other more extreme practices born of the “Can’t pay? Won’t pay!” outrage felt by many people trying to access published research.

Sites such as Sci-Hub freely and illegally provide journal articles worldwide. If we ignore its wholesale violation of copyright, Sci-Hub is the world’s most successful open access initiative. It contains over 70 million papers and bypasses paywalls – allegedly by stealing (or at least relying on the theft of) thousands of personal credentials, and then changing them and possibly sharing them with cybercriminals once stolen. The site features in the “Paywall” documentary, which includes an interview with the Sci-Hub’s creator (aka the “Robin Hood of Science”) who, not surprisingly, has faced several lawsuits, although she doesn’t seem too worried by the prospect. The articles in Sci-Hub are pirated from prestigious publishers - largely Elsevier, whose stated mission of “making uncommon knowledge common” thus receives “help” from Sci-Hub - albeit in a way that Elsevier doesn’t really appreciate.  One can see that it’s illegal, but it’s hard to deny that there must be a need. The take-home lesson for publishers is that they must try harder. And it’s probably the same lesson for us librarians too!

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of agreement between publishers and libraries, but in my reverie I would like to think that if we didn’t have to worry about journal prices, we would have more time to spend on “higher things”.  As librarians, we are in a key position to promote OA and its benefits. In addition to offering advice on OA copyright and intellectual property, we should ensure that our library users and institutes comply with OA requirements of their national funding agencies. We also need to verify the quality of journals swimming around in the predatory sea. In short, the librarian’s role is moving away from being a simple custodian of a collection, providing access to resources and services, towards embracing one of research support - indeed one of research partnership. To facilitate this transformation, a creative approach, clear communication and a commitment to collaboration are called for.

William Russell-Edu is the librarian of the European Institute of Oncology, Milan, Italy and a member of the Editorial Board of ecancermedicalscience. The opinions expressed herein are his own.



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