On why we should Love Open Access Books; a UK Librarian’s Perspective.

Libraries and Open Access Oct 28, 2016

Many librarians in the UK (and as a profession, librarians have a long standing tradition of Open Access advocacy) find it galling that the term ‘ Open Access’ is increasingly met with either a stifled yawn or a rant about the inequities of article processing charges, publisher profits and the bureaucratic hoops that academic staff are expected to jump through to meet funder mandates.  This response is also true of some librarians.

This is perhaps the inevitable consequence of viewing Open Access through the lens of HEFCE policy, and the funder dictates introduced as a consequence of the recommendations of the Finch Group in 2012. Although these policies have the laudable aim of enabling free and immediate publication of peer reviewed research, at the same time they have led an increase in publisher revenue streams and an additional administrative burden for both academic and library staff.  This has seen the diversion of many library staff to support Open Access compliance  (often in newly established ‘Scholarly Communications’ departments) with the associated pressure on library budgets. Whilst Open Access can be seen to have come in from the cold (I am writing as someone who arranged an OA seminar in Cambridge in 2007 which the publisher refused to repeat due to lack of interest) and whilst this should be something to be celebrated, it is now suffering as a consequence of its relatively newly found establishment positioning.

The aim of the Open Access movement  (to paraphrase the Budapest Open Access Initiative which set out the guiding principles of Open Access) is  ‘to make material freely available on the public internet… with the only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited’. Admittedly this was written primarily in the context of peer reviewed research but it is clearly a worthwhile objective, applicable not only to journal articles but to books. However unlike journal articles and the funding of Article Processing Charges by the UK Research Councils to meet their Open Access requirements, an equivalent mechanism does not exist for monographic works (although potentially an author could include the cost of publishing an OA book in a grant application to RCUK).

I have yet to meet an author who is happy to pay to self publish an academic work. It is a universally acknowledged fact that most academic texts are not likely to enable their authors to retire on the proceeds: their purpose is to publish research material and to encourage readership of this.

As librarians we want to enable our users to have access to information with as few barriers as possible and to encourage the widest use of the resources that we make available, this should make us natural Open Access allies and perfectly align with the objectives of most authors.

Our library budgets are under ever more pressure; the vast majority of mine  (over 95%) as a science librarian is spent on journal subscriptions. The space that we have available for books is also gradually being eroded: library shelves are already full and very few institutions are willing to invest in new library rolling stacks. We also find that we have pressure on specific titles at certain times of the year, so the purchase of multiple copies is often essential, but for many of us not practical.

Many academic libraries are being ‘downsized’ and/ or are implementing an ‘ e-preferred’ monograph policy, mirroring the move many have already made to the stewardship of their journal collections in this respect.  Advocates of this policy claim eBooks offer administrative and cost savings (including collection management costs), superior ways of tracking use (‘collection analytics’) and varying ownership options.

However, we have found that some eBooks are poorly constructed versions of the print and have such restrictive digital rights management software installed that they really are not an attractive option (yes, I’ve had to handle the complaints from the person who was rudely ‘thrown out’ of reading their book when someone else tried to access it, it was not pleasant!).  Cost is another issue: eBooks tend to be priced to make up any perceived shortfall in publisher revenue streams that may arise.  I and many other librarians are also loathe to merely ‘rent’ books from publishers, we want to avoid the mistakes that we made with our ownership of journal material from the early 1990s onward, where we can only retain access to some titles from some publishers on the payment of an ever increasing annual subscription.

Discovery of eBooks is crucial. Although stating the obvious, I have found out to my (literal) cost that subscribing to eBooks is absolutely no use unless these are accompanied by records which allow the book to be found in the library catalogue. No-one is going to go to a dedicated publisher website to find the title they are looking for, much as many publishers would like to hope otherwise.

Medium is also important. In a survey of use of 30,000 books that we conducted here in Cambridge (at the Central Science Library) during 2014 we found that most users preferred to have the option of both print and electronic books: with a slight preference for print.  This is one of the reasons the Open Book Publisher offering is so attractive; it does enable the purchase of reasonably priced print books for libraries and individuals.

We need more publishers to engage in this way and it appears that Open Access book availability is gaining momentum (in the last week we have seen an announcement from JSTOR who are now using their platform publish selected Open Access titles).  Open Access books can only be a positive development for both the community of readers and librarians, as well as those seeking to disseminate their research.

Yvonne Nobis

Yvonne Nobis is the Head Of Science Information Services at Betty & Gordon Moore Library, University of Cambridge