Transitions in scholarly communications

Added by Michael Jubb on 10 March 2010 17:13

Many readers will know that the RIN is currently embarking, in concert with JISC and a range of other bodies in the library, publishing and research funding communities, on a portfolio of projects under the heading of transitions in scholarly communications.

Our overall aim is to see if we can build a shared understanding of the incentives as well as the constraints, the costs as well as the benefits, that are associated with moving towards the shared goal of widening access to research outputs. There?s some information about the projects, and the bodies involved, on the RIN?s as well as the other organisations? websites.

The first of the projects, which looks at the dynamics of improving access to research papers, is now getting under way. Its aim is to look at how transitions ? in terms of changes in practice, in business models and organisational cultures ? might work; and at the costs, benefits, opportunities and risks involved in such transitions. It is being undertaken by Cambridge Economic Policy Associates in association with Mark Ware Consulting.

The consortium will shortly be commissioning two further projects. The first is on gaps in access, which will investigate the extent to which journal articles and other research outputs are available, or not, to different parts of the research and other communities which could make use of them; and to identify priorities in seeking to ?ll gaps in access, barriers to ?lling them, and actions that might be taken to that end. The second is on transitions to e-only publication, which will investigate the barriers ? from the perspectives of libraries, publishers and users ? to moving to e-only publishing of scholarly journals, and ways in which those barriers might be overcome.

Not the least part of the value of this portfolio of projects is that they are being jointly specified, commissioned and managed by organisations from different parts of the scholarly communications landscape ? from publishers, libraries, universities and funders who have not in the past found it easy to work together or to define common ground. Reaching the point where we have now commissioned the first project, and are about to commission two more, has involved several months of difficult and sometimes tortuous discussions.

Despite the difficulties, I remain convinced that it?s worthwhile to try to get the different players to work together on these projects. It may be relatively easy for all the players to sign up to the goal of improving access; and that may, of course, invite the retort that we are all in favour of motherhood and apple pie. But moving from current models and arrangements to new ones that are both sustainable and more effective in meeting the needs of researchers will not be straightforward. So trying to develop a shared base of evidence about where we are now, as well as possible transition paths and the issues to which they will give rise, seems to me a useful exercise.

I do not, of course, believe that all the difficulties and tensions we have encountered over the past year will miraculously disappear now that projects are getting under way; managing those tensions is going to be a key task for the RIN over the next few months. Openness and transparency will be watchwords for all the organisations involved in the projects, and we shall need to take account of other work as it emerges.

One of the latest contributions to the debates about changes to the scholarly communications system was published a couple of weeks ago by JISC. The report on Modelling Scholarly Communications Options: Costs and Benefits for Universities is based on data which Alma Swan of Key Perspectives gathered from four universities. She then used the model developed in last year?s Houghton report to try to achieve two objectives:

  • to provide information to institutional managers about the costs and benefits of changing scholarly communication practices, with a special focus on Open Access to research papers; and
  • to develop a methodology using case studies based on different types of higher education institution in the UK and employing real data and contextual information provided by these institutions.

The report is accompanied by two briefing papers: Publishing research papers: Which policy will deliver best value for your university? and How to build a case for university policies and practices in support of Open Access. Advocacy is the central intention here, and no problem with that.

But I have a number of reservations about aspects of the Houghton model, and about the assumptions built into some of his calculations. And it seems to me that the data from the four universities, and many of the assumptions that have now been used in the calculations presented in the Key Perspectives report  - for example as to the costs of repositories and overlay journals, or the efficiency savings to be made as a result of changes in researchers? behaviour in a world that is as yet very far from wholly open access - are questionable and/or unrealistic. So I am not altogether convinced by the findings and the claims that are made as to the impact on individual universities.

The timing here is perhaps a bit unfortunate. I hope that we shall be able by working together in the course of the next few months to develop some robust and authoritative evidence that will help to clarify what changes can and should be made, and how; and what are the implications for all the players in the scholarly communications system.

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