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Research Without Borders At Columbia University. Effecting Change in Scholarly Communication: Opportunities and Costs

Abstract: Columbia University Libraries hosted a Research Without Borders Event November 21. The event focused around scholarly publishing. The speakers spoke about alternatives to traditional methods of publishing and alternatives to open source with a focus on the economy of publishing. A running theme during the event was re imagining traditional methods to publishing and open source and how authors can gain an upper hand on large publishing stakeholders.

Columbia University Librarian Interim Associate librarian for Collections and Services Barbara Rockenbach began the talk by introducing the event and panel. Barbara continued by talking about the scholarly communications at the Columbia Libraries, referencing Columbia’s scholarly commons which is an institutional repository that now houses over 20,000 items. Barbara went on to mention a collaborative scholarly communication experiment Columbia Libraries are engaging in. In partnership with the Modern Languages Association (MLA) Columbia is building “Humanities Core” a repository for digital work in the humanities with help from a newly secured grant from National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The Humanities Core project is testing the notion that scholars feel more connected to depositing working within their discipline rather than with their institution.

The first speaker was Mackenzie Smith the University Librarian from UC Davis, whose expertise include digital libraries, archives, online information and knowledge management. Smith presented a project she worked on at UC Davis which tries to re envision the way scholars are published in journals and how they are compensated.

Smith started her presentation by talking about journal subscription prices have gone up faster than inflation, at a rate of about 5 to 8 percent a year with library budgets staying flat or declining, leading libraries to make a choice whether to invest in journals or in non journal materials. She then moved into talking about how this relates to open access. In North America, faculty and authors usually give a preprint of an article to the library, making those available to the public, but the article still goes through the normal process of peer review thus leaving the current system of publishing undisrupted. Smith calls North America’s model the green model. In Europe, authors typically use the gold model pay a processing fee to the publisher which then makes the article, in the actual journal freely available. Both models have their strengths and weaknesses but they can’t coexist for much longer. So Smith did a study asking the question, “what would happen if everyone in the world published with a processing fee in order to make it openly accessible”. Smith did a one year study partnership with Ohio State, Harvard, University of British Columbia, and Columbia to look at what libraries are currently spending on journals, publication patterns of over a five year period their grant funding, and how much article processing charges are across multiple disciplines.

They found that the cost to publish on the author varies dramatically depending on a wide range of factors that have little to nothing to do with the product. Costs range depending on publisher’s location, staff, connection to reviewers and if the publishers has to compensate. The results yielded a poor metric with a range of $500-$4000. Smith then tried to predict what publishers charge per article if they followed the gold model, and how much it would cost each institution that partnered with the study if their authors had to pay those charges. To predict they used a metric which took into account small market and big market published and how much they charge per article based on perceived impact on the community. UC Davis’s faculty published around 3,600 articles in a year around 1,000 of which were published without grant funding. If the library had to pay those processing charges it would cost the library over $7M far exceeded their $4M budget. But if the library only paid for the articles without grant funding it would could $2M. In her fictional scenario larger institutions that publish more may lose more money than others if they had to pay per article. On the other hand smaller institutes that don’t publish as much a that per year  would be winners as their budget would greatly exceed the the cost the publish even in more well known journals that will charge more. Smith concludes by saying with grants applied the gold system could work for institutes big and small unless APCs inflate like subscription fees have.

Smith then moved on to the qualitative data in her study. She found that authors most important factor when choosing where to publish was importance and prestige of the publication and least important was open access. Authors also answered differently when it came to how much they were willing to pay to publish depending on where that money was coming from. Her assertion is that authors should become consumers of journals if they have to pay to publish, meaning they should choose a publisher that fits best with the budget that the author has and force the publishers to compete to offer lower costs and or better services. Under ideal condition APCs would come down because publishers will have to compete for authors leveling the playing field. This gives authors more power over where they choose to publish and it could lead to authors having power over money they use to publish and conduct research. If this happens publishers will have to take that into account that authors will choose to publish based on a fixed budget.

Smith’s talk was interesting, but the biggest takeaway was that authors have the power to pressure on publishers, but not in our current North American system. Her study is significant because it tried to reshape and re envision our current models and that’s the first step to finding a solution to the problem.

Kevin Hawkins, Assistant Dean for Scholarly Communication, University of North Texas Libraries was the next speaker. Hawkins spoke about his involvement in Project Meerkat which is an alliance that develops guidelines and standards for digital scholarly monograph usage data and to construct a neutral organizational apparatus for the ongoing collection and aggregation of data about these scholarly publications. He opened by discussing the ways that retail and publishing analytics are similar and that they are often proprietary and not shared. This puts small libraries and institutes at a disadvantage because gathering analytics is difficult and costly. So the insight gleaned by the analytics are kept within the publishers and libraries are left in the dark about what are the most read, and circulated publications. This vision proposed by Hawkins is still in its beginning stages and he and his collaborators are focusing on monograph publishing. He ended his talk by asking for collaborators and anyone who can volunteer time to help get this project off the ground.

Both Hawkins and Smith’s talks tap into the concern within the scholarly community that large publishers should take a hard look at author compensation and the journal subscription prices crisis. Libraries will eventually have to divest in journal holdings for other parts of the library. Institutional repositories may be the only affordable place to access an article if prices for subscriptions keep rising. The talk highlighted that libraries will be preserving and allowing access to these scholarly works anyway because it’s part of what a library is, therefore libraries have a vested interest in bring the publishers back on their side.

A link to the archived video of this event can be seen here.

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