An Open Access thought experiment

Imagine a scenario where suddenly over night all toll access publishing suddenly converts to Open Access. You go to bed and your average academic library spends millions of dollars on serials. You wake up, and the subscription bill is zero.

Now, that doesn't mean that suddenly scholarly publishing doesn't cost anything to support. It just means that the money to support that publishing is coming from somewhere other than library budgets. I would generally assume that an entirely open access publishing ecosystem would be significantly less expensive overall than the current mixed publishing ecosystem with all the profit, duplication and waste built in but that's not really important for the purposes of this thought experiment. I'm assuming that one day we all wake up and library budgets have been completely freed of the need to support scholarly journal publishing, that somehow somebody else picks up the institutional support and/or author fees and/or funder support and/or whatever else comes under OA business models.

(Alternatively, we could imagine something like the proposed arXiv business model somehow becoming universal. While not completely wiping out library serials budgets, this would represent a huge savings.)

What I'm interested in is asking, "What you would spend all that money on?"

How much would you reinvest in other library personnel, collections, spaces or services? What kinds of library personnel, collections, spaces or services would you invest in?

How much would you return to the central institutional budget? And what would you do with that money?

I imagine different constituencies would have different ideas of what we could spend that money on, and I'd certainly like to hear ideas from some of the following:

  • Librarians of all stripes
  • Library administrators
  • Faculty
  • University administrators
  • General public

And of course, any other constituency that cares to chime in.

Let's all have at it in the comments!

(Two main inspirations for this post: first of all, I'm reading Peter Suber's excellent new book, Open Access and it's really got me thinking deeply about the implications of OA. Secondly, I've had this Scholarly Kitchen post concerned with the "diminution of science librarians" on my mind since it came out and have been searching for a way to respond. I may still devote a separate post to it.)

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The first thing you need to do is quantify precisely what you mean by "all that money". As a taxpayer, I've noticed that people who use that phrase generally over-estimate the amount that would become available, at least until they're forced to sit down with a pencil and paper.

And, I'm a little unsure about your list of what the money would be spent on. It would appear that the "savings" would all accrue to current users of library services (plus potential new users, such as conspiracy theorists looking for real science that they can expropriate). It seems reasonable to assume that these people would come to value library services less than they do now, so it follows that they would be very unlikely to spend the money on ANY of the things you list.

Unless I've missed something.

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 29 Aug 2012 #permalink

Ian, yeah, I acknowledge I'm fudging a bit on the "all that money" part but I think for the purposes of the thought experiment it makes things a bit simpler. As for guessing that none of the savings would be spent on library related things, that's a perfectly legitimate response. And for guessing that the loss of the library's role as subscription wallet would weaken the library's role in other areas, that's a legitimate response too.

From this multi-striped librarian and library administrator: a digital media production lab and the staff that goes with it, including someone who can teach coding; some sort of de-stress area.... I find thought experiments like this incredibly useful. Now I'm thinking about how to make these things happen on the cheap.

By Jacob Berg (not verified) on 29 Aug 2012 #permalink

Thanks, Jacob. Good luck!

Let us be clear that I badly want librarians to remain gainfully employed, and even prosperous.

Ok, so e-books (including textbooks), articles, reports, ... all of this is available for free on the Net. What happens next?

Though this will sound very harsh, I would simply dismiss the local librarians.

There is no more need to have local librarians than there is need to have local email systems or local electricity generators.

That does not mean that we no longer need (science) librarians, in principle. The problem though is that a lot of what librarians have been doing is being eaten up by Google Scholar. The latest version of Google Scholar offers me high quality personalized recommendations based on what I published before. No librarian ever offered such a great service to me. And it is free! Other services are offered (often badly) by the publishers.

So I think that librarians should move on to more difficult tasks. For example, we badly need help with what I would call "meta-science". For example, we have collections of papers that refer back to data sets. These data sets are typically poorly hosted, partially replicated, and so on. We badly need to clean up this mess. We need data object identifiers. We need help tracking data sets, their transformation and so on.

In effect, I would push librarians into data science. That's the next frontier.

But meta-science goes beyond this. For example, I'm always puzzled that librarians are not more active in research. A lot of useful work can be done just by combining, tracking and surveying results. Though it requires domain knowledge, the actual domain knowledge require can often be relatively light. E.g., anyone with a science degree can read 80% of life science papers. In science, we badly need help from people who's main goal is not to contribute new quanta, but rather keep track of what is happening.

Who should fund this? Funding agencies, such as the government.

Now, I've been talking from a researcher's point of view. From a teacher's point of view, librarians, including local librarians could do a *lot*. Students are awful at managing documents, citing them, finding relevant work, and so on. I think that a lot of librarians already help, but we might need what I would call "teaching librarians".

I have yet to see a librarian on a Ph.D. committee in science, but I think it could be a good idea.

By Daniel Lemire (not verified) on 29 Aug 2012 #permalink

Thanks, Daniel. There's not a lot that I disagree with in your comments. Certainly the challenge for the library and librarians in this kind of post-collections/post-stuff world is to make the case that the people are what's important, not dusty old buildings full of stuff. And definitely, the dust old buildings should be not-so-dusty and full of students instead of stuff, students studying, creating, making, learning and socializing.

All that money? Hmmm...I would spend it on getting people back into libraries, be that through beautification, art exhibits, offering coffee and special events, and through hiring more qualified librarians to help people face-to-face. People need to appreciate libraries: I love libraries, I just love going to the library and spending time there. It's the only institution that is dedicated to total learning (schools don't do that anymore).

Our science libraries have been consolidated on this campus because the head of libraries has a notably anti-library agenda. I was told by a librarian recently that the head of libraries just doesn't believe that scientists actually use libraries anymore. That's ridiculous. Now most of the science and math books that I love to browse are in what is basically a basement: it's not very comfortable.

By Joel J. Adamson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2012 #permalink

Thanks for your comment, Joel. It's very true that we are in a kind of transitional period where we want to fully embrace the future but we find that our legacy still has a lot of value to large parts of our constituency. It's a delicate balance and every library will struggle to find its own way.

Maybe we should put you and Daniel Lemire in a room together and see what you come up with between you. I'm sure your combined advice would be very valuable. ;-)

Grumpy old man Sez: What would WE spend it on? You must be joking. While I'm sure that there ARE could be significant savings associated with an all OA model, I don't think that in very many cases the library would be the one that got to spend that money. More likely to be spent on a new athletic center than on the library.

What I would like to see the money spent on is recruiting better qualified librarians, but also providing exploring better ways of doing things and really addressing the needs of the people who use libraries. I mean not just looking at the easy services we could provide, but really spending the time to transform the physical space into a no boundaries learning space. I completely agree with Jacob about the need for more spaces like a digital media studio, but maybe take it further than that- what about a partnering with other departments and creating workshops that address the needs of what those in the University need? Maybe partnering with different departments to help with projects or getting more involved with curriculum committees. Or even working with the purchasing department to help find the best price on a product? I think our roles could be expanded to include anything that involves the finding, evaluating and creating of information.

This assumes that the library would actually have control over use of the savings, which is highly unlikely to be the case. If the board of trustees has anything to do with it, at most Div. 1 universities the savings would go to paying a higher salary for the football coach!

By Sandy Thatcher (not verified) on 18 Sep 2012 #permalink