Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Day After


On Sunday, the Open Access petition to the White House reached the critical number of 25,000 signatures: President Obama will take a stand on the issue. Yesterday was Open Access Monday, a time to celebrate an important milestone. Today is a time for libraries to reflect on their new role in a post-site-licensed world.

Imagine success beyond all expectations: The President endorses Open Access. There is bipartisan support in Congress. Open Access to government-sponsored research is enacted. The proposal seeks only Green Open Access: the deposit in an open repository of scholarly articles that are also conventionally published. With similar legislation being enacted world-wide, imagine all scholarly publishers deciding that the best way forward for them is to convert all journals to the Gold Open Access model. In this model, authors or their institutions pay publishing costs up front to publish scholarly articles under an open license.

Virtually overnight, universal Open Access is a reality.

9:00am

When converting to Gold Open Access, publishers replace site-license revenue with author-paid page charges. They use data from the old business model to estimate revenue-neutral page charges. The estimate is a bit rough, but as long as scholars keep publishing at the same rate and in the same journals as before, the initial revenue from page charges should be comparable to that from site licenses. Eventually, the market will settle around a price point influenced by the real costs of open-access publishing, by publishing behavior of scholars who must pay to get published, and by publishers deciding to get in or get out of the scholarly-information market.

10:00am

Universities re-allocate the libraries' site-license budgets and create accounts to pay for author page charges. Most universities assign the management of these accounts to academic departments, which are in the best position to monitor expenses charged by faculty.

11:00am

Publishers make redundant their sales teams catering to libraries. They cancel vendor exhibits at library conferences. They terminate all agreements with journal aggregators and other intermediaries between libraries and publishers.

12:00pm

Libraries eliminate electronic resource management, which includes everything involved in the acquisition and maintenance of site licenses. No more tracking of site licenses. No more OpenURL servers. No more proxy servers. No more cataloging electronic journals. No more maintaining databases of journals licensed by the library.

1:00pm

For publishers, the editorial boards and the authors they attract are more important than ever. These scholars have always created the core product from which publishers derived their revenue streams. Now, these same scholars, not intermediaries like libraries and journal aggregators, are the direct source of the revenue. Publishers expand the marketing teams that target faculty and students. They also strengthen the teams that develop editorial boards.

2:00pm

Publishers' research portals like Elsevier's Scopus start incorporating full-text scholarly output from all of their competitors.

Scholarly societies provide specialized digital libraries for every niche imaginable.

Some researchers develop research tools that data mine the open scholarly literature. They create startup ventures and commercialize these tools.

Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic Search each announce comprehensive academic search engines that have indexed the full text of the available open scholarly literature.

3:00pm

While some journal aggregators go out of business, others retool and develop researcher-oriented products.

ISI's World of Knowledge, EBSCO,  OCLC, and others create research portals catering to individual researchers. Of course, these new portals incorporate full-text papers, not just abstracts or catalog records.

Overnight, full-text scholarly search turned into a competitive market. Developing viable business models proves difficult, because juggernauts Google and MicroSoft are able to provide excellent search services for free. Strategic alliances are formed.

4:00pm

No longer tied to their institutions' libraries by site licenses, researchers use whichever is the best research portal for each particular purpose. Web sites of academic libraries experience a steep drop-off in usage. The number of interlibrary loan requests tumbles: only requests for nondigital archival works remain.

5:00pm

Libraries lose funding for those institutional repositories that duplicate scholarly research available through Gold Open Access. Faculty are no longer interested in contributing to these repositories, and university administrators do not want to pay for this duplication.

Moral

By just about any measure, this outcome would be far superior to the current state of scholarly publishing. Scholars, researchers, professionals in any discipline, students, businesses, and the general population would benefit from access to original scholarship unfettered by pay walls. The economic benefit of commercializing research faster would be immense. Tuition increases may not be as steep because of savings in the library budget.

If librarians fear a steadily diminishing role for academic libraries (and they should), they must make a compelling value proposition for the post-site-licensed world now. The only choice available is to be disruptive or to be disrupted. The no-disruption option is not available. Libraries can learn from Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen, who has analyzed scores of disrupted industries. They can learn from the edX project or Udacity, major initiatives of large-scale online teaching. These projects are designed to disrupt the business model of the very institutions that incubated them. But if they succeed, they will be the disrupting force. Those on the sidelines will be the disrupted victims.

Libraries have organized or participated in Open Access discussions, meetings, negotiations, petitions, boycotts... Voluntary submission to institutional repositories has been proven insufficient. Enforced open-access mandates are a significant improvement. Yet, open-access mandates are not a destination. They are, at most, a strategy for creating change. The current scholarly communication system, even if complemented with open repositories that cover 100% of the scholarly literature, is hopelessly out of step with current technology and society.

In the words of Andy Grove, former chairman and chief executive officer of Intel: “To understand a company’s strategy, look at what they actually do rather than what they say they will do.” Ultimately, only actions that involve significant budget reallocations are truly credible. As long as pay walls are the dominant item in library budgets, libraries retain the organizational structure appropriate for a site-licensed world. As long as pay-wall management dominates the libraries' day-to-day operations, libraries hire, develop, and promote talent for a site-licensed world. This is a recipe for success for only one scenario: the status-quo.