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Librarians find common ground with former foes

At the UK’s biggest scholarly publishing conference, Adam Smith finds that academic librarians and publishers are trying for once to get along—and they are mostly succeeding.

The fast talker at the back of the room must have wanted to embarrass Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s head of open access. Over the heads of other delegates at the UKSG scholarly publishing conference in Glasgow on 31 March, the man called out that a systematic analysis from 2014 that he co-authored showed how publishers such as Elsevier are charging $30 for academics to access blank pages in research papers—and that this study was the third most popular paper on the online digital repository Figshare in 2014.

The man was Graham Steel, who as @McDawg is one of Twitter’s most vocal supporters of  open access and a fierce critic of what he sees as profit-hungry publishers, such as Elsevier. Wise remained calm, saying that she hadn’t heard of the paper but would take a look.

The exchange between Steel and Wise was a bit of drama in a windowless conference room kitted out for PowerPoint, not theatre. There were not many other tense moments at UKSG. I did hear librarians and research information managers pursue publishers over double dipping. This is the practice of publishers earning money from article-processing charges, or APCs, for papers in the same journals for which they are already paying a subscription fee. But generally publishers were keen to talk about how they are comfortable in the open-access environment. So Wise explained how Elsevier is exploring options to offset APCs against subscription costs; representatives from Wiley and others argued that they were already doing this.

It was all very friendly. Springer saw the conference as an opportunity to claim that it has come up with a way of combining subscription costs and APCs for research institutions. Springer’s plans are the result of negotiations between librarians and publishers that have been mostly brokered by the UK higher education ICT organisation Jisc.

The Springer model is for research institutions to pay a single fee covering subscriptions and APCs. One librarian told me it was the best new model she had seen. She was delighted that in one fell swoop, Springer was eliminating the administration around individual APCs.

Processing countless invoices and covering them with funds from several different sources has been a nightmare for universities. Last week’s review of the implementation of Research Councils UK’s open-access mandate backed up earlier news coverage in Research Fortnight—that universities are doing a poor job of tracking how much they are spending on APCs and how their academics are publishing.

But someone close to the Springer deal told me that the negotiations had been rather fraught. Jisc’s role is to neutralise the tense discussions between publishers and the librarians who in recent years have been demanding that the former must open up about how much they charge different institutions, as well as offseting subscriptions against APCs. These issues have been aired in the public before, in exchanges such as the one between Steele and Wise. But more recently Jisc has moved them behind closed doors, where both sides have slogged it out and come up with deals including that agreed by Springer.

Having hung out with research librarians for a few days at the UKSG, I got the feeling that the open-access movement has made them realise their power. Librarians have long been in charge of hugely important collections, and they have always made academics and students aware of this fact. But the revolution in the business model for publishing has brought them the realisation that as a group they are using largely public funds to buy goods and services from private companies—and that this gives them significant financial and moral clout.

This is why they get excited by provocations like the one delivered in the UKSG’s opening plenary by Geoffrey Bilder, director of strategic initiatives at the publishers organisation CrossRef. Bilder said buzzwords such as open access and metrics are diverting attention away from a more important issue in scholarly publishing, which is that academics are publishing too much content and having less and less time to read it. Many librarians listening to this were pleased—not necessarily with Bilder’s thesis but certainly with his verve.

Big ideas, like open access, need agents of change. Librarians have become those agents. They are busy workinbg on other aspects of scholarly communications, such as rolling out Orcid’s unique author identification numbers to their academics. Janette Colclough, a research support manager in the library at the University of York, ran a session at the UKSG explaining how her university is cajoling academics into adopting Orcids. Bilder, who was one of the original architects of the system, became another man speaking up at the back. He told Colclough it was three years to the day that he ran Orcid’s beta test and that he was thrilled to see universities and publishers adopting it wholesale.

Bilder said to me afterwards that librarians have certainly become more active in pursuing the changes they want to see in scholarly communications. That much is clear. In another session, one librarian was asked to  identify a positive aspect of open access and she said that it has provided more status for those people who many just think of as book shelvers and catalogue keepers.

Open access is a revolution (albeit a journey not an event, in RCUK’s cliché). It has placed many burdens on to librarians—not least the nightmare of tracking and paying APCs. But they are up for it. They got together at UKSG to plot how to convince academics to adopt new systems like Orcid, how to help their universities track publishing more closely, and how to deposit their papers into repositories in order to comply with funder policies. On this point, Robert Kiley, head of digital services at the Wellcome Trust, lamented that half of the papers reporting Wellcome-funded research and published in The New England Journal of Medicine had not been deposited into Europe PubMed Central, as the trust mandates.

Librarians are energetic players in this game, and there was a feeling from the UKSG that it was the academics who are letting the side down.