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Shifting Power Relations between Journal Publishers and University Libraries as Open Access Models Take Hold

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New Library Under Construction, Virginia, USA, August 22, 2014 | © Courtesy of VCU Libraries.

Scientific journals switching to Open Access that seek to diminish the impact of traditional publishers on access to knowledge incidentally make libraries and foundations more central to the publication workflow.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.


As Open Access becomes an increasingly central requirement with which large journal publishers are met with in their dealings with university libraries, academic societies and individual scholars, some of these, such as Springer, express readiness to accommodate it in their business practices, e.g., by making archived journal issues freely accessible after specified grace periods. At the same time, these practices also empower journal editors and research libraries to seek a more central role in the emergent journal publishing ecology based on Open Access, as has been the case with the section editors and editorial board of Lingua, a linguistics journal published by Elsevier, that have decided to launch Glossa, a rival Open Access journal, in 2015 with the support of the LingOA initiative and the Open Library of Humanities (OLH), a charitable organization seeking to promote Open Access publishing without charging author-facing article processing charges (APCs).

Though last two decades have seen a number of journals being re-launched in Open Access, for publishers this process hardly represents a paradigm shift in terms of how their extant journals are run, notwithstanding their limited integration of Open Access options, since their existing business models continue to ensure the quality of subscription-based journals. Additionally, in many cases, even after competing Open Access journals are launched, existing journals continue to maintain their positioning in their respective academic fields. However, initiatives, such as the OLH, that explicitly seek to change the manner in which funds circulate between libraries, publishers and researchers based on Open Access can potentially reduce the hold of publishers on copyright, journal management and revenue streams, while making libraries more directly involved in editorial processes, publication workflow and business models that form the basis of academic journals’ sustainability.

This shift can be driven by the estimated 3-fold increase in library subscription costs of American research libraries between 1986 and 2015, after controlling for inflation, which indicates that in absolute terms these subscription fees have climbed higher than this estimate during the last thirty years. Similar dynamics has been observed in other countries, such as the Netherlands in which university journal subscription fees have topped 43 million Euros in 2015. This provides impetus to academic journal flipping efforts, which refers to making a transition to Open Access. This is illustrated by Glossa’s embrace of Open Access.

At the same time, it also indicates that journal flipping, while not necessarily damaging large publishers, also makes external foundations and libraries increasingly influential in the journal publishing sector, as APCs paid by university funds, governmental grants or non-profit organizations, such as LingOA, in many cases complement other forms of funding that Open Access journals receive, to ensure their long-term operation. This leaves university libraries as infrastructure providers and sources of financial support of last resort for Open Access journals, should their short-term funding run out or existing APCs prove insufficient to cover operating costs.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: New Library Under Construction, Virginia, USA, August 22, 2014 | © Courtesy of VCU Libraries.

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