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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2014


OA Article Charges: Good Business, Bad Business, or Just More Business?

Scott Warren
Interim Associate Dean for Research and Scholarship
Syracuse University Libraries
Syracuse, New York

What seems clear from reading the important new research by Anne Rauh and Jeremy Cusker in this issue is that STEM authors do not wish to pay OA article-level charges themselves. But do they want someone else to pay? That still seems vague. If authors want to participate in OA, but do not want to pay, whom do they expect to pay? Is this any different than whom they believe should pay? Interested faculty sometimes seem to fall along a spectrum from hoping to waiting to assuming that some external party, be it a library or an office of research or some other agency, will pay those nettlesome fees, before making any real commitment themselves. Rauh and Cusker, though, do not show any evidence of significant external pressure from faculty on libraries to pay OA charges. Rather, most initiatives to cover costs start within libraries. Perhaps librarians have a sense of obligation to put "our money where our mouths are." From my vantage point as an administrator charged with oversight for Syracuse University Libraries" collections budget, I have to ask if it is cost-effective for my library to pay OA article charges. Unfortunately, the answer I repeatedly come up with is no.

My reasons have nothing to do with believing whether open access is good or not -- rather they arise from efficacy and the desire for prudent stewardship. Open access was born as a reaction to the rising cost of serials subscriptions in the 1990s, a practice deemed unsustainable. But now some libraries seem comfortable paying three- and even four-figure fees to publish an individual article! Charges that journal package deals have eroded the budgets for monographs and hence are bad are also part of the lore. Yet OA charges also come at the cost of procuring one-time content. This concerns me because while our missions have expanded and become more complicated, no other unit besides the library is charged with supplying academic content for the entire campus, even though other actors do have the ability, if not the wherewithal, to pay APCs for individual faculty.

Make no mistake, if libraries choose to begin regularly and consistently paying for article publication en masse, neither authors nor research offices nor any other campus group holding funds will ever try to assume that financial responsibility in the future. They will permanently eschew any ownership stake in the matter. And why shouldn't they? As long as someone [read: the library] picks up the tab, that's a rational decision. What that will mean for libraries is that alongside journal packages and repositories will sit a permanent new cost -- paying for individual articles authored on their campus to be published open access (here I"m hedging a bet that article charges will not, at least anytime soon, supplant subscriptions, particularly packages, as the primary means of securing journal content). Rather than eliminating or even mitigating the high expenses of licensing toll journals, OA charges will simply become a supplementary cost to be borne on top of it.

To me, that's bad business, both in the short and long term: it assumes that any form of OA is worth paying whatever a publisher asks for. A much more prudent approach for libraries might be to support OA initiatives at an institutional or consortium level. For example, SU Libraries are a member of Biomed Central, Knowledge Unlatched, and the Library Publishing Coalition, among others, and in the past has paid its share for arXiv. Those stakes cost about the same as publishing one or two OA articles in many journals. We also support an institutional repository which provides authors with the opportunity to deposit a pre- or post-print at essentially no charge. Encouraging deposition into a repository via author's rights education makes far better business sense than beginning to take on the burden of paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for single articles while not shedding any of our historic responsibility of providing our campuses with resources. All of these methods put the library back in the driver's seat for OA, rather than becoming a blank check for an additional revenue stream. Far better yet would be a situation where all major funders follow the path of the Gates Foundation. As announced in ScienceInsider on 11/21/14, beginning in January 2017, it will require articles resulting from research it sponsors to be published immediately OA, and is going to pay the fees required by many journals to make that outcome happen.

It is also curious to me that in past years STEM researchers were more than capable of paying their own page charges and did so, albeit grudgingly. Libraries were not expected to pick up that tab -- why would they? That was simply part of being published and researchers understood it. Yet OA charges, which supposedly relate to covering the costs of producing a finished article, apparently are resisted as unjust by many faculty, based on reading Rauh and Cusker. They are simply averse to the costs. Why aren't librarians? Does the fact that an article becomes open trump whatever fiscal prudence librarians otherwise wish to exhibit when dealing with licensed content? What has changed and why? Is this the result of OA advocacy on the part of librarians? Do researchers not want to pay because OA is still seen as a "library thing?" Or because they hope librarians will? And do librarians similarly believe that it follows that paying for OA at the article level is our responsibility because of our advocacy? Or is it because we already are the ones doing business with the companies involved (and make no mistake -- paying OA charges is doing business)? All questions I'd love to see further research on.

We should also ask what paying those fees implies not only for libraries and researchers, but offices of research (or their equivalent). Government sequestration has resulted in much tighter grant funding at both the institutional and researcher level. Fewer faculty receiving federal funds has led institutions to make up the difference for select researchers, cutting into money that might have otherwise have been available to pay OA charges. Researchers have seen whatever dollars they can secure grow tighter and consequently are likely viewing OA charges as a low priority. Maybe that explains some of the aversion noted by Rauh and Cusker, who conducted their research in fall 2013.

It would be particularly interesting to see how faculty members perceive paying OA charges in light of whether they have experienced steady, increasing, or decreasing grant funded research support. Not to mention comparing this to fields outside STEM that never were dependent on external funding in the first place (no grants to use for OA costs). And surveying research offices to see how administrators, not just researchers, view the importance and likelihood of paying OA charges would be valuable because it could shed light on the possibility of institutional solutions outside the library. Do they see it as good or bad business to "invest" in publishing at the article level by paying OA charges? Why or why not? Whom do they see as having responsibility for OA? Rauh and Cusker have illuminated faculty perceptions and I hope their strong work encourages others to seek further insights into how other campus stakeholders view the OA landscape.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ISTL, the Science and Technology Section, or the American Library Association.

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