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Sketching a direction of travel: An update from Work Package 2

Having now completed 3 stakeholder workshops, an update on the latest thinking within Work Package 2, and what this implies for the development of a model or platform able to address the question 'how can open access book publishers better collaborate with scholarly libraries'

Published onOct 22, 2020
Sketching a direction of travel: An update from Work Package 2
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Work Package 2 is invested in addressing a key question: how can open access book publishers better collaborate with scholarly libraries? This is the question that we have explored over a series of project workshops – all online due to Covid – which have involved representatives from scholarly libraries in both the UK and the US. These workshops have been incredibly valuable for us, and we would like to take the opportunity to thank all those who have participated.

We have already highlighted how the two US workshops — one in May, one in July — shed light on a range of topics, including issues of the discoverability of open access content in library catalogues, concerns about the sustainability of open access publishing, how important it is for open access initiatives to both involve stakeholders in their development and to clearly articulate their values and for these to align with those of their stakeholders, and the need to reimagine the system of scholarly communication to be more diverse and inclusive.

The UK workshop in June very much echoed these themes, and drew insights from colleagues working in the Southern Universities Purchasing Consortium, University of York, University of Cambridge, University of Sussex, University of Salford, Maynooth University, Birkbeck, University of London, Loughborough University, as well as other institutional representatives who have chosen to remain anonymous in project outputs.

Instrumentalisation in Higher Education

As in the UK, those working in libraries are in general strongly supportive of the aims and ambitions of the move towards a wider embrace of open access, coupled with some concerns about their ability to offer the degree of support to open access initiatives that many would want to be able to. Other more UK-specific issues also emerged: the funding landscape in the UK seems, if anything, more constrained than in the US. While many of our US participants made clear that they were working in constrained circumstances, particularly so in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, there exists a more stark dichotomy in the US between large, often ivy-league universities whose libraries have considerable independence and sometimes generous budgets at their disposal, and smaller institutions for whom this is not necessarily the case. In the UK, at least amongst participants in our sample, there were very few institutions with either the financial or institutional flexibility to be able to support open access initiatives to the extent that they would ideally wish to. Many suggested these pressures were only likely to increase as the Covid dust settles.

For those of us working in UK higher education, this is not a surprise. Marketisation has taken hold in the UK to a considerable extent. The effect of this on scholarly libraries is that they often find themselves having to articulate the value of funding outlays to their institutions in instrumental and often narrowly focused ways – in direct relation to the anticipated benefits that might flow to staff, to institutional strategy, to research foci, for example. In this respect, the practices of those working in scholarly libraries in the UK mirror those of their colleagues in smaller US institutions. The obvious risk, in both national contexts, is of squeezing out the benefits to the broader scholarly community from being able to support open access in ways not clearly and demonstrably tied to direct, institutionally relevant outcomes. As I have argued, it remains the case that universities have still largely not answered the fundamental question of how to contribute towards a future in which scholarship is more open, equitable, and inclusive.

What this means for us as a project, however, is that our answer to the question ‘how can open access books be better integrated into libraries?’ has to perform a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, it has to be mindful of this context and the uncomfortable practices of instrumentalism which many of our stakeholders find themselves having to engage in. On the other hand, it is vital for us that we avoid ourselves succumbing to instrumentalism ourselves. The lure of instrumentalism in open access, alongside parallel values of monopolisation and marketisation, can be strong, as project members have written about in relation to other open access initiatives.

Our direction of travel

That being the case, I thought it might be helpful to sketch the direction of travel that we are pursuing as we look to develop a platform and/or content delivery model that will be able to shift the trajectory of the relationship between open access book publishers and libraries. I draw on insights from our three workshops as well as a range of other conversations which I and my colleagues have been having over recent months. This includes interviews conducted by Elli Gerakopoulou.

The platform/model should be guaranteed as non-profit and operate transparently

Many of the library workers and librarians we spoke to have experienced being let down by open access initiatives in the past that have initially been not-for-profit, with this only to change down the line. It is vital that this cannot come to pass with the solution(s) we develop. Our institutional structure has to guarantee in as strong a way as is possible to achieve that our platform/model is not and can never been shifted towards a for-profit approach. We are also as a project strongly committed towards the transparency of the outputs we generate. We expect this to inform our communication about our outputs as they develop and how the platforms/models we develop operate. This includes being absolutely transparent about financial flows and the responsibilities of different individuals and organisations.

The platform/model should not be focused on individual titles

In our workshop, we explored some models in which libraries are, or could be, able to select, in quite granular ways, which title to support, from a range of publishers. This is already the model built into Knowledge Unlatched’s KU Select offering to libraries, and also at the heart of an interesting model developed by Jack Hyland, Alexander Kouker, and Dmitri Zaitsev, in their proposal for an ‘Open Access eXchange’ (OAeX). While the model proposed by Hyland and colleagues is in many way an inspiring one, we expect our own platform to pursue a different path. Feedback from librarians suggested that many did not want that degree of granular control. From our own side, we are keen to develop a solution which explores the potential of collectivisation as a way of moving away from the notion that open access content providers are in competition with one another (the real competition, from the perspectives of many of the publishers involved in COPIM, lies in the far larger for-profit publishers that dominate the landscape of scholarly communication).

The platform/model should be simple for librarians (& publishers?) to use

Given the pressures that libraries are under, it is essential to make supporting open access less work-intensive for libraries. One of our participants jokingly expressed a desire for an ‘open access button’, which could be pressed to initiate support for open access broadly, without having to engage with a sometimes dizzying array of initiatives. Whilst this degree of streamlining is unlikely in the immediate future, usability is absolutely key for us. In this respect, we are very pleased to be working with Cast Iron Coding in developing our platform, who are leaders in the field of designing solutions that work in the space of scholarly communications.

The platform/model would benefit from support from local trusted partners

In the US and UK many libraries depend and trust in third parties such as LYRASIS and Jisc to assist them with their content development and engagement with other organisations. It is clear that there is scope for our project to build on these existing relationships, as a way of avoiding adding unnecessary further complexity to the scholarly communications landscape.

The governance of the platform/model should involve collaborations between scholars, librarians, publishers

From the very start of this project, we have recognised how essential questions of governance are for the success (or failure) of open access initiatives and in Work Package 2 we are working closely with insights emerging from the ‘Community Governance’ Work Package, led by Janneke Adema (Coventry University) and Sherri Barnes (UCSB Library). Our workshops showed how important this was to our stakeholders too. Across our three workshops, participants noted how often open access initiatives include members of the scholarly and/or library communities in governmental mechanisms – a board, for instance – but without this involvement resulting in meaningful dialogue. Addressing the problem of integrating open access books into libraries therefore exists alongside a parallel challenge: how to rethink the relationships between scholars, libraries, open access publishers, and the intermediaries that act between these. We see the three workshops as a first step towards more meaningful stakeholder engagement and governance. This will continue as we develop our model, with repeated opportunities for the scholarly community to offer feedback both on what we build and, ultimately, on the governance practices which will inform its ongoing use.

Stay tuned…

As should be clear from the above, our work and our thinking on these issues is emergent. We are working on some concrete proposals that seek to address these and other related issues, however they are currently in a form that is too delicate to be shared publicly, although we have already begun to discuss these with our stakeholders. I very much look forward to being able to share this work more widely soon. Until then, please stay tuned.


Header image by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

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