One of the most significant differences between traditional journal publishing and open access publishing is that it turns the way that content is funded on its head. Instead of putting content behind the paywall of a subscription, open access journals make the research they publish available to anyone. Open access publishing itself comes in two flavours. ‘Green’ open access is self-archiving and works by researchers submitting their content to an open access repository, which is free to the author. The other model is ‘gold’ open access, which requires a payment – usually called an Article Processing Fee (APC) – to be made before an article can be published. Gold open access is funded either by subsidy or support from an academic institution (e.g. a university or government body) or authors paying what are called for their contributions to be published.
The model of asking authors to pay APCs has been the source of continuing debate within the scholarly publishing industry, but it is widely accepted that while many authors do pay these charges themselves a large proportion of these costs are borne by funders. These can be the bodies that fund research, they can be the institution where the author works, or they can be libraries themselves. The last is an interesting case. Where libraries provide APC funding, does this mean that budget that might otherwise go towards growing or maintaining library collections is being gradually re-apportioned to other purposes?
Our sister company PCG’s Open Access Library Survey covered exactly this topic when it questioned librarians in more than 30 countries about how APCs in their institution were funded, and whether these formed part of their library budgets. The headline findings of this survey seemed to downplay the importance of institutional support in funding the publication of research in open access journals. Almost half (47%) of librarians said that researchers covered the costs of APCs. 38% of librarians said that these costs were met by outside grant funding, and 24% by institutions themselves. Nevertheless, nearly a quarter (23%) of librarians said that libraries themselves were meeting the costs of APCs out of their own budgets.
When PCG took a closer look at where libraries obtained the funds to meet APCs, it found that 70% of these charges were taken from their existing library materials budget. Only 24% of librarians said that their institutions had found or made available a new source of funding to cover these charges.
The same sample of librarians did stated that open access content accounted for a very small proportion (1-5%) of their collections, so APCs won’t yet be a sizeable drag on collections budgets. But it does mean that almost a quarter of the library professionals surveyed now take responsibility for funding the publication of research, as well as buying and cataloguing it. This could represent the start of an interesting shift as to what libraries do. It certainly raises some interesting existential questions about the purpose of a library. Does it exist purely to collect, filter and catalogue scholarly research? Or will the library of the future play a different, arguably less impartial role, where it dedicates part of its budget to publishing the scholarship produced by researchers who study and work at their institution?
If libraries are set to take a financial stake in the publication of research by paying APCs out of their own budgets, this also begs the question how will they select the journals they support. As we saw in our previous blog post, while 63% of librarians said their institution had clear selection criteria for which content to catalogue (although 21% did not), it appears that institutions have much less well-developed policies when it comes to selecting which journals to which they will pay APCs. According to PCG’s research, only a third (33%) of librarians said their institution had clear selection criteria, while 39% did they did not.
As we have discussed, librarians seem to be agreed in saying that open access and content and APCs do not currently account for a large part of their collection budgets. Yet they do also say that it’s a fairly common practice for libraries to fund the publication of open access research. While there are robust criteria in place to determine how open access content is collected in most libraries, the same cannot be said for the criteria used to select which APCs library budgets will cover. Whether this represents a gap that will soon be filled, or the start of a permanent shift in the mission of scholarly libraries only time will tell.