Saturday, January 17, 2009

Scholarly Publishers recognize the usefulness of Institutional Repositories

The International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM) has openly released a BRIEFING DOCUMENT (FOR PUBLISHING EXECUTIVES) ON INSTITUTIONAL REPOSITORIES AND MANDATED DEPOSIT POLICIES. Thanks to STM and Michael Mabe for making this report openly accessible.

While there are certainly details in this document that I would take issue with, first I would like to reflect on the significance of one of the key points of the document: STM is recognizing the usefulness of the institutional repository, for public access! Following is the first paragraph, with footnotes inserted in square brackets and italics.

Scholarly publishers recognize that Institutional Repositories (“IRs”)[Defined broadly as repositories set up and maintained by universities and research institutions to post, for public access, information and data about research projects coordinated by their faculty and employees, which sometimes include versions of scholarly papers] serve a number of useful purposes for universities and research institutions. If properly conceived and executed, they can help disseminate knowledge and promote institutions to funding agencies and recruits. IRs can usefully highlight and capture the research output of the institution, identify and post theses, dissertations, research data, historical images and illustrations from institutional archives, and serve as vehicles for electronic course-packs. [It should be noted that most publishers already authorize institutions, directly or through copyright clearance/rights organizations like the CCC or the CLA, to post online course-packs].

Comment: this strikes me as significant, for two reasons. First, STM is agreeing that institutional repositories for public access are useful for disseminating knowledge and other purposes important to universities. This is an important philosophical point and milestone for open access, similar to publisher acceptance of OA per se as a philosophical ideal. Second, STM has indicated a willingness to participate in open discussion by posting this document. Language later in the document does not clearly support the arguments of this first paragraph; this suggests either some confusion, or a lack of consensus. Agreeing to post this openly may be an indication of a willingness to discuss the issues in a more open manner, a discussion that would be most welcome.

The point about coursepacks illustrates the value of further discussion. The emphasis on coursepacks here seems out of place, an answer to a question that has not been asked. That is, the focus of the open access movement is not coursepacks at all; if an item is publicly accessible through an IR, there isn't really a need to have another copy in a coursepack; all that is needed is a URL on a reading list. When publishers make items available for coursepacks through copyright clearance centres, this is paid, toll access, and so this is not relevant to a discussion of items publicly accessible in IRs. Also, many publishers do NOT allow online course-packs, even for subscribing libraries.

It seems likely that the reason coursepacks are brought up is financial in nature. Here, once again, it seems to me that open access is being mixed up (conflated) with the online environment per se. That reading list link can just as easily be to an article in an online subscription journal, as to an open access version in a repository.

It is a healthy thing to be talking about the economics of scholarly publishing, of course, but why talk about these economics as a whole? STM members who wish to raise concerns about the economics of scholarly publishing, should be honest and bring up their own bottom line - some of the members of STM enjoy profit margins of 30% or more, for example. If the goal is to ensure the health of scholarly publishing into the future, at a time of fiscal restraint, should we not be talking about dropping print and its associated costs? I discuss these kinds of issues in my series, Essential Efficiencies.

As for more detailed comments, I agree with what Peter Suber and Stevan Harnad have already said on this topic, and highly recommend reading their comments.