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Mixed success in drive to free up publishers’ content

Big STEM publishers yet to heed calls for open content to help with Covid-19

Attempts to persuade publishers to free up content to help researchers, students and academic staff during the coronavirus pandemic are having mixed success, according to higher education IT company Jisc.

The firm, along with a number of sector organisations including Universities UK, recently appealed to academic publishers to make teaching and learning materials—especially those on the coronavirus—free during the outbreak.

“The majority of content comes from a small number of publishers and if we can get them to play ball that would be a huge swathe of content that would suddenly become available,” said Siobhan Burke, library support services programme manager at Jisc.

Last week Jisc approached the publishers it deals with to clarify what, if anything, they are doing to make their content more available. To date, more than 20 publishers have responded.

A variety of stances are being taken by different publishers, in what Burke described as a “mixed picture” where some are “opening up content to existing subscribers” while others “are just making it completely openly available”.

Overall, Burke said, more content needs to be made openly available.

“There’s a lot of noise and talk about content being made available but, when you actually get down into the detail, what does that mean and what are we getting access to and how? And that’s where we are trying to help,” she said.

She cited Annual Reviews as an example of a publisher that has made content openly available, and JSTOR as one of the organisations making content free, but only to existing subscribers.

But she added: “We haven’t really seen any of the big STEM providers…I don’t think a lot of the big players have said what they are doing yet, if they are going to do anything.”

In a bid to help provide more openly available resources, Jisc itself has boosted the content on its Discover library hub, adding some 14,270 records from the Directory of Open Access Journals, 27,460 records from the Directory of Open Access books, and more than 1,870,000 from the HathiTrust Digital Library.

It has also, from last week, changed the search results people get when they are looking for content, to bring up open access materials first, then non-open access online resources, and print material last.

Burke warned that in order to make a good use of the rise in publishers freeing up content, libraries will need to make those newly available contents “discoverable”.

“If [the publishers] make it open or if they make it free to existing subscribers there’s an added administrative issue for librarians to make this content discoverable in an easy way,” she said.

“If you don’t add it into those systems that people are searching then they are not necessarily going to benefit from all this content that is being made available, so we are working with the providers of those systems to suggest ways they can do this as easily as possible.”