The Ongoing Journey to Open

Letter from the Executive Director, September 2022

Trends in open access have been advancing consistently for nearly two decades now, and the advance took a further step forward last month with the release of new guidance from the US White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on the open release of outputs from federally funded research. Reactions from the community have ranged from very positive to muted to reservedly opposed, which is a considerable step back from the fierce opposition such moves had previously seen as recently as 2019. Although there is some debate as to the extent of the potential impact on business models for scholarly publishers, there has been a consistent path toward ever-greater levels of content being published openly. How publishers will manage their business model transition, how this affects domains such as the humanities, and whether this will have any second order consequences are all important questions being debated. As I did in a recent Scholarly Kitchen group post, I’d like to linger on the practical details of this memo and the infrastructure that supports it.

Let’s start with the process of paying for the publication costs. An entire ecosystem of order and payment processing has been established over the past century to facilitate how libraries and customers order content from publishers. This includes everything from distributors and supply chain logistics, to data interchange formats and EDI order processing, to identifiers and management systems that support discovery and delivery. While some of this infrastructure has already been rendered obsolete in the movement from print to online access, in the movement from a subscription-based to an author-pays model, much of it will need to be transformed and retooled. Proponents of open access have often proclaimed that the costs of content distribution will go down, which is possible in some respects and likely overall. However, some of those costs in the near term will go up—and for some could rise significantly—as costs are redistributed and because the tools don't yet exist to make this process more efficient. 

Attention will need to be paid to, and investments made in, order processing systems, which are growing ever more complicated. For example, the Nelson memo (as it’s now being referred to) describes this mandate as applying to all authors, not simply corresponding authors. This will require a more complicated accounting of who is participating in a project and whether those participants received federal funds to support the work being described. In an environment where papers have increasingly more authors involved in writing papers, ensuring compliance will be a growing challenge. Identifiers and metadata exchange systems will certainly help, and I’ve noted the prominent place these systems play in the memo. However, as I outline in my contribution to the Scholarly Kitchen piece, these systems are not noted as needing additional financial support.  

Similarly, the processes of managing this new open access content will need to be continually tweaked. More robust systems of deal management (such as read and publish agreements) will be required in a network of institutions partnering on reduced/streamlined author fees, on  both the publisher and institutional sides of the transaction. Lest we fall deeper down the pit of expectations that Google will address all of our search needs, improvements to discovery systems will need to be advanced in order to easily manage navigating the network of open content. Metadata will help here, but the systems are more complex than that to ensure awareness of trusted and vetted scholarly materials that are distinguishable from any content posted to the web. Assessment and conformance monitoring will also need to be significantly improved to ensure that researchers are doing what they are supposed to do with the resources that they are given. Again, the Nelson memo highlights some of these issues and the need to address them. HOW they will be addressed is left vague for the moment. Hopefully, these won’t be more areas of forgotten or neglected infrastructure.

On a separate thread, over the years, I have had many opportunities to engage with brilliant and passionate people in our profession. The most wondrous thing about our community is the people who inhabit it. We feel diminished when they move on—for whatever reason. It is even more poignant when one leaves our world entirely. News came late in August of the passing of Deanna Marcum. Deanna’s passion for information services was wide ranging, and her impact was profound. She led the Council for Library and Information Resources (CLIR) through its formation and merger with the Commission on Preservation and Access before moving to the Library of Congress, where she served as Associate Librarian for Library Services.  She was also dedicated to the information community as a whole, serving on the boards of many important community organizations, including NISO, NFAIS, ITHAKA Harbors, the Cosmos Club, and the Japan-US Friendship Commission, among many others. After she moved to Ithaka S+R in 2012, she led a variety of important initiatives, including research on preservation, the impact of digital transitions on libraries, and the education of library professionals. Her colleagues at Ithaka posted a moving tribute in her honor. Most recently, she co-authored a book about the digitization work of Google with Roger Schonfeld. Deanna served as president of NFAIS, and was a leader in the transition of the organization that led to its eventual merger with NISO in 2019. She was an amazing, dedicated, and thoughtful person who will be sorely missed by all who knew her. Her impact on the organizations she led and helped to guide—such as NISO—will be felt long after her passing. Our sincerest condolences go out to her family, friends, and colleagues who worked with her over the years.  

Perhaps it is most fitting to think of Deanna as we consider the vast array of projects where she blazed an important trail, when it comes to libraries, digital content, library systems, and the work of providing content to the current and future generations of library users through preservation.


Todd Carpenter