Will Self-Archiving Cause Libraries to Cancel Journal Subscriptions?

There has been a great deal of discussion of late about the impact of self-archiving on library journal subscriptions. Obviously, this is of great interest to journal publishers who do not want to wake up one morning, rub the sleep from their eyes, and find out over their first cup of coffee at work that libraries have en masse canceled subscriptions because a "tipping point" has been reached. Likewise, open access advocates do not want journal publishers to panic at the prospect of cancellations and try to turn back the clock on liberal self-archiving policies. So, this is not a scenario that any one wants, except those who would like to simply scrap the existing journal publishing system and start over with a digital tabula rosa.

So, deep breath: Is the end near?

This question hinges on another: Will libraries accept any substitute for a journal that does not provide access to the full, edited, and peer-reviewed contents of that journal?

If the answer is "yes," publishers better get out their survival kits and hunker down for the digital nuclear winter or else change business practices to embrace the new reality. Attempts to fight back by rolling back the clock may just make the situation worse: the genie is out of the bottle.

If the answer is "no," preprints pose no threat, but postprints may under some difficult to attain circumstances.

It is unlikely that a critical mass of author created postprints (i.e., author makes the preprint look like the postprint) will ever emerge. Authors would have to be extremely motivated to have this occur. If you don’t believe me, take a Word file that you submitted to a publisher and make it look exactly like the published article (don’t forget the pagination because that might be a sticking point for libraries). That leaves publisher postprints (generally PDF files).

For the worst to happen, every author of every paper published in a journal would have to self-archive the final publisher PDF file (or the publishers themselves would have to do it for the authors under mandates).

But would that be enough? Wouldn’t the permanence and stability of the digital repositories housing these postprints be of significant concern to libraries? If such repositories could not be trusted, then libraries would have to attempt to archive the postprints in question themselves; however, since postprints are not by default under copyright terms that would allow this to happen (e.g., they are not under Creative Commons Licenses), libraries may be barred from doing so. There are other issues as well: journal and issue browsing capabilities, the value-added services of indexing and abstracting services, and so on. For now, let’s wave our hands briskly and say that these are all tractable issues.

If the above problems were overcome, a significant one remains: publishers add value in many ways to scholarly articles. Would libraries let the existing system of journal publishing collapse because of self-archiving without a viable substitute for these value-added functions being in place?

There have been proposals for and experiments with overlay journals for some time, as well other ideas for new quality control strategies, but, to date, none have caught fire. Old-fashioned peer review, copy editing and fact checking, and publisher-based journal design and production still reign, even among the vast majority of e-journals that are not published by conventional publishers. In the Internet age, nothing technological stops tens of thousands of new e-journals using open source journal management software from blooming, but they haven’t so far, have they? Rather, if you use a liberal definition of open access, there are about 2,500 OA journals—a significant achievement; however, there are questions about the longevity of such journals if they are published by small non-conventional publishers such as groups of scholars (e.g., see "Free Electronic Refereed Journals: Getting Past the Arc of Enthusiasm"). Let’s face it—producing a journal is a lot of work, even a small journal that only publishes less than a hundred papers a year.

Bottom line: a perfect storm is not impossible, but it is unlikely.

8 thoughts on “Will Self-Archiving Cause Libraries to Cancel Journal Subscriptions?”

  1. If such repositories could not be trusted, then libraries would have to attempt to archive the postprints in question themselves; however, since postprints are not by default under copyright terms that would allow this to happen (e.g., they are not under Creative Commons Licenses)

    I don’t get this. If the articles in a given repository are OA, why can’t they be copied to another archive? (And if they’re not, what was the point of repositing them there?)

  2. Legal deposit can only be made with the permission of the copyright holder unless a work’s copyright statement says otherwise. Just because a work is freely available doesn’t mean it is free of copyright restrictions. Nor does it mean that the copyright holder is the author, who may have deposited the work under the terms of the publisher’s copyright transfer agreement.

  3. Just because a work is freely available doesn’t mean it is free of copyright restrictions.

    Sure, I can retain all rights but those which allow you freely to *read* the article in question. But then I wouldn’t claim to be making the article available via OA, given how I understand the BBB declarations. For instance, Bethesda and Berlin say:

    For a work to be OA, the copyright holder must consent in advance to let users “copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship

    So I still don’t understand how postprints, or anything else, in an OA archive can be off-limits for copying.

  4. Just because e-prints are in an OA archive does not mean that they are free of copyright restrictions. The BOAI and other declarations have no legal force; copyright law does. Each e-print has its own copyright status, and it may be under the terms and conditions of a publisher copyright assignment agreement if the copyright has been transferred to the publisher. While deposit in a digital repository grants the right to read the e-print, it does not grant other rights unless they are explicitly stated in a license or copyright statement.

  5. Just because e-prints are in an OA archive does not mean that they are free of copyright restrictions

    OK, finally I understand the point you are making. (Thanks for being patient.)

    But, but — given what the BBB declarations *do* say, isn’t this situation rather counter to the spirit of OA? Is there any move afoot to have repositories provide blanket licensing for all their content, so that one does not have to search article-by-article to find out what is and is not permitted?

  6. I think that there is more awareness of the issue, but I don’t think that it will be resolved anytime soon. It is a big step for publishers compared to maintaining traditional copyright arrangements and just granting back to the author limited self-archiving rights. Moreover, some key OA advocates feel it is far more important to get as many as possible e-prints available under any terms than it is to fight this issue. Prior to the BOAI going public, I brought up this concern and engaged in mini-debate about it to no avail.

  7. some key OA advocates feel it is far more important to get as many as possible e-prints available under any terms than it is to fight this issue

    Yes, I wrote about this — it was quite a revelation for me — and one such advocate left a comment on my entry.

  8. There is no permissions problem or barrier at all for self-archived full-texts deposited by their authors in their institutional repositories, free for all. All the rest of the legitimate uses come with the territory: harvesting, indexing, linking, finding, downloading, reading, storing, data-crunching, printing-off (own use). Nothing else is needed. Course packs can list URLs. And no one ever said OA referred to anything but the online draft: distributing multiple printed copies would be a whole ‘nother matter. So would “republishing” (though I can’t think why anyone would want to, once it’s already OA. (See the “Free Access vs. Open Access thread, began Aug 2003).

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