Irish Libraries and the Crisis in Scholarly Publishing: What’s the Big Deal?

Posted on 30 March 2013

It’s a rare thing indeed that a parliamentary question gets asked about academic library subscriptions but that’s exactly what happened in Dáil Éireann [principal house of the Irish parliament] on 3rd March 2013. Peter Mathews TD asked the Minister for Education and Skills to make a statement ‘…regarding electronic subscriptions for academic journals . What follows are some personal observations.

The backdrop to this is of course Ireland’s five years of austerity and fiscal adjustment. Ireland’s university sector is almost entirely state funded and therefore subject to the same regime of cuts imposed throughout the public service. In previous years, university libraries had benefited from increased state investment into research allowing for an expansion of library resources to accommodate the developing ‘knowledge economy’. The state’s chief funding agency for scientific research, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), was a major beneficiary of this €20 billion decade long public investment. This national spend on R&D was mostly sustained in the two years following the crash of 2008 but began to fall back from 2010. From 2005 SFI invested €35 million in university libraries to guarantee access to the corpus of research literature. The libraries had formed a consortium, IReL, to negotiate a national licence with academic publishers for all seven Irish universities.

Mise en scène

Part of any librarian’s mission is to build collections to support the research activities of their home institutions. The first disruption to this core function arrived when scholarly communications for the sciences were transformed by the huge investment of public funding that arrived into universities after World War II. The accompanying demand to publish would see the development of an almost completely privatised scholarly press. Press baron Robert Maxwell would exploit the potential in German academic publishing at war’s end to help establish Pergamon Press (now an Elsevier imprint). Collection development still involved close co-operation with researchers to service the demand for the latest communications but now there was so much more of it. For researchers, progress in an academic career became even more wedded to publication. Thus publish or perish began to stoke the serials crisis.

The second disruption began with the shift from print to digital during the 1990s. Publishers were able to bypass the library and deliver content directly to the desktops of their readers while the academic journal became more fragmented as individual papers could now be electronically transmitted and shared. The journal no longer had to occupy a physical space on the library shelf and collection development became an exercise in negotiating licenced access to remotely held content. Academic publishing had embarked on a frantic period of mergers and acquisitions allowing for the bundling of multiple electronic journals into subscription packages. If this consolidation allowed for an exponential increase in the availability of titles it also saw library spending sky-rocket. While libraries reduced the number of their subscriptions by 6% between 1986 and 1999 they spent 170% more on titles. Bundling effectively killed off the quality control aspect of collections development.

Culling the Big Deal

This is the publishing environment Irish libraries now engage with. By negotiating access licences on a national level, the IReL consortium has allowed smaller Irish university libraries to have a range of electronic resources that match those of the larger institutions. It’s a common model that allow libraries to support core research priorities by providing substantial access to the literature. Licences can be negotiated with publishers on a national level through library consortia or by individual institutions. All straightforward enough but what happens when budgets are constrained and cuts to resources on the agenda?

Any decisions around what to cull are complicated by the bundling of multiple titles from a particular publisher. In the same way you can’t unravel your cable TV package and choose just the channels you wish to watch, so it is with electronic journal bundling.

The more substantive challenge is how to assess what parts of literature constitute essential resources. The crudest measure would be examine what resources are the most heavily accessed via access logs or download counts. This can be refined by data from services such as the COUNTER initiative which gathers usage statistics on online databases and journals. IReL is a library consortia member. (While I hope that all available efforts were made to gather full data on usage, I wonder why I’m unaware of services such as the SUSHI harvester, developed on common library protocols and COUNTER compliant, being deployed in an Irish context).

Usage statistics should form one part of the picture but assessing quality by journal remains challenging. Despite fragmentation, publishers remain very protective of journal brand identity. The Journal Impact Factoris probably the best known metric used to assess journal quality and has been widely endorsed by publishers. Despite being downplayed by agencies tasked with designing national research assessment exercises such as Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, it is still commonly used as a yardstick of quality.

In 2008, University of California libraries adopted a new strategy for journal value assessment designed by the California Digital Library.

A key aspect of this new methodology is the use of a Weighted Value Algorithm to assess multiple vectors of value for each journal title under review.  Value is assessed in three overall categories:  Utility, Quality, and Cost Effectiveness.  For example, usage statistics contribute to a journal’s Utility score, impact factor contributes to its Quality score, while both cost per use and cost per impact factor contribute to its Cost Effectiveness score.  A composite score is then assigned to each journal to assess its overall value in comparison to other journals in the same broad subject category.  In addition to the weighted value algorithm, many other metrics are compiled and provided to campus librarians by CDL to ensure the richest possible set of information with which to make important selection decisions. 

The CDL approach appears to provide a well engineered solution to quality assessment but doesn’t mention data relevant to where institutional authors choose to publish. When an Irish library consortium takes the decision to drop a journal subscription should it not also consider if that journal contains contributions from Irish academic authors and if not renewed, how access to those Irish research papers are guaranteed?

Open Access: the third disruption

It is worth remembering that academic publishing is dominated by a handful of multinational enterprises. Academic authors write, review and edit for no direct remuneration. They also compromise their rights as authors through copyright transfer agreements or exclusive licencing arrangements. The libraries in their home institutions buy access to their outputs via journal subscriptions. Most of these activities and the research they underpin are funded through the public purse.

With the shift to digital, the disbinding of the journal has accelerated, affording a rethink of the entire academic publishing process. Scholarly networks can in theory deliver those essential activities of review and dissemination while bypassing the publisher middle man. One obvious benefit would be the removal of tolled-access barriers to impact. Academic publishing can respond to this new reality or find themselves touting a service platform that is surplus to requirements.

Some publishers have begun to reconstitute the journal to allow for open dissemination and licencing in ways which recalibrate or circumvent the subscription based business model. Most have agreed a line of compromise whereby research institutions can collect and openly disseminate a version of the published paper by allowing the deposit of the author’s final draft manuscript, post peer-review, into an institutional or subject based repository.

The UK has adopted an even more radical approach. From 1stApril 2013, Research Councils UK will directly fund a proportion of the publications generated through their research grants to be made Open Access in the journal of publication. Many UK research libraries now manage a publication fund as well as an institutional repository. Both approaches (institutional or subject repository deposit and journal-side Open Access) are endorsed by research funder mandates and in some cases institutional publication policies similar to Trinity College Dublin’s.

Champions of the current RCUK preference for paid journal-side Open Access over repository deposit can claim that this will eventually lead to the dismantling of the library subscription model and the ‘big deal’ bundle. Yet even the most optimistic admit that the current UK approach simply supports a ‘period of transition’. This is reflected in the policy through support for a hybrid publishing model. Library subscriptions will continue while, subject to the availability of funding, the journal will offer authors a paid option for journal side Open Access. Institutions will pay twice as some publishers transform their journals to a business model sustained by direct publication payments. Critics point out that this ‘double dipping’ by publishers provides no guarantee that it will affect a universal transition away from the subscription model. UK authors may have access to limited publication funding but their international colleagues and research collaborators may not. The economic evidence suggests that a far more effective way to achieve an Open Access tipping point is to support repository deposit. Either way, the Open Access publication fund is here to stay.  

Irish researchers, particularly those working in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) disciplines, will be familiar with author pays, journal side Open Access. In the life sciences, publishers such as PLoSBioMed Central and Frontiers provide important publishing platforms for Irish research. Those in receipt of research funding from agencies such as the Wellcome Trust will be aware of mission critical Open Access policies that underwrite publication costs as part of the research project spend. For those without publication funding, strong policies supporting repository deposit as a route to Open Access exist across STEM publishing.

Irish research libraries have created a network of institutional repositories reinforced by funding agency policies which require deposit as a research grant condition. While full compliance remains a challenge, authors do have an option that guarantees access to a peer-reviewed version of their published paper even if subscription to the journal of publication is discontinued.

The IReL selection

It is unclear what criteria informed the IReL decision and why titles from one publisher in particular were selected. Taylor and Francis are well known as a big AHSS (Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) publisher. The dropped subscriptions are largely titles with a STEM focus. This may appear an arbitrary selection but it is not without precedent. In 2011 University of Virginia Library decided not to renew subscriptions for 1,169 Taylor and Francis titles. Many of these journals are found on the IReL list.

Whatever the reasons, I hope IReL respond to the parliamentary question and are transparent about their assessment methods. More importantly, I hope Irish research libraries recognise that future collection development and management must be fully integrated with the existing repository infrastructure. Irish research deserves nothing less.

Further Reading

Derek J. deSolla Price,  _General theory of bibliometric and other cumulative advantage processes_ Journal of the American Society for Information Science 27 (5-6): 292-306 1976. PDF [ ]

Carolyn E. Lipscomb, _Mergers in the publishing industry_ Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 89 (3): 307-308 2001 PubMed Central [ ]

Glenn S. McGuigan, _The Business of Academic Publishing: A Strategic Analysis of the Academic Journal Publishing Industry and its Impact on the Future of Scholarly Publishing_ Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship 9 (3): 2008 [ ]

Deborah D. Blecic, Stephen E. Wiberley, Joan Fiscella, Sara Bahnmaier-Blaszczak, and Rebecca Lowery _Deal or No Deal? : Evaluating Big Deals and Their Journals_ College & Research Libraries Accepted Manuscript 2011 [ ]

 Jacqueline Wilson, _Journal Value Metrics Assessment_ California Digital Library, 2011 [ ]

_Report of the Research Prioritisation Steering Group_ [ Ireland ], March 2012 [,8958,en.php ]

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.