Last Updated on May 13, 2020, 10:53 am ET
In mid-December, rumors of a US executive order requiring that the results of federally funded scientific research be made available for publication immediately, with zero embargo, blew up a corner of the scholarly web. What would this mean for publishers, authors, societies, libraries, and, crucially, the public?
We have been here before. In 2012, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) solicited public comments on what is now governing policy—the Holdren memo. Open access (OA) advocates, including libraries, heralded the policy, which would provide public access to publicly funded research. Publishers—from large commercial companies to nonprofit societies—warned that the subsequent loss of subscription revenue would be catastrophic for scientific publishing. Scholarly societies who depend on subscriptions to subsidize a range of non-publishing activities worried this would put their missions at risk. OA activist members in some of those societies publicly criticized them for their conservative thinking.
Now, in December 2019, when rumors of a new OSTP policy went viral, a remarkably similar, if more intense, public conversation followed. Publisher advocates suggested the executive order, if the rumors were true, would be “apocalyptic.” SPARC, ARL and others in the library community reiterated their support for full, immediate access to publicly funded research, and many societies signed letters opposing a zero-embargo policy. Reflecting a greater awareness of OA than existed in the research community in 2012, more scholars publicly pushed back against their societies. Then, university librarian and vice provost for libraries at the University of North Carolina Elaine Westbrooks, said the following on Twitter, and effectively changed the conversation:
About a month earlier, Westbrooks and other members of ARL’s Scholars and Scholarship Committee met with leaders and publishing directors from a half dozen, prominent, scientific societies in DC to explore how libraries and societies can work together to advance a more open and equitable, scholarly communication ecosystem. Research libraries and scientific societies have much more of a common agenda than they are at odds over the price of journals. And by working together, libraries and societies could figure out a way to (a) articulate their distinct contributions to advancing scholarship, and (b) envision a sustainable way to support the dissemination of scholarship and the essential, ancillary services of “promoting the discipline.”
One change that would advance our understanding of these complex relationships and the need to ensure the sustainability of our scholarly communications system is better data. We can only speculate, for example, about the percentage of scholarly publishing that is federally funded. What revenue is necessary for a society to continue its non-publishing-related work of convening, organizing, and promoting the disciplines? We don’t know, and we should have the courage to find out.
As allies in support of a robust, equitable, and open scholarly ecosystem, libraries and societies could commit to examine and refactor—in partnership with university research administrators—the current, complex flow of funding from a federal grant to an investigator, through a university, with a portion back to a society through its publications. That society portion is routed through the mechanism of the university’s own library’s subscription budget, as well as the personnel required to support acquisition, licensing, cataloging, link-resolving, and all the other functions librarians perform to improve access and discovery. Like societies, libraries have operationalized many of our business functions around paywalls and subscriptions, a situation which contributes to the system’s inertia. Doesn’t it make sense for universities, libraries, and societies to work together to design, or enable the system that will replace it, while advancing the reach and impact of the scholarship we all support? Much of the discipline-organizing work of scholarly societies—for example, the American Geophysical Union has sponsored FAIR data workshops and anti-harassment in STEM training—directly benefits universities.
ARL applauds the direction of public policy makers globally and private funders in the Open Research Funders Group, cOAlition S, and individual research institutions toward full, immediate, open access to research. The research library community is ready to work with scholarly societies where we make our greatest impact—at the intersection of public policy, institutional policy, and the research and learning community—on increasing the openness, equity, and sustainability of scholarship.
Judy Ruttenberg is senior director of program strategy at ARL.