A recent announcement by Knowledge Exchange appeared on Yale’s liblicense mailgroup. It describes an innovative collaborative project by which universities and governmental sponsors work together in purchasing formally published material in order to reduce costs and improve access to scholars of the member communities. Way back in 2005 I posted a proposal, also to liblicense, on forming consortia for informally published material, the kinds of things that increasingly find their way into institutional repositories (IRs). (IRs also include copies of formally published work.) I called this proposal Almost Open Access and sketched a means by which the consortial repository could be made, if not entirely sustainable, at least far less expensive than some of the IR plans now in operation.
I have dusted off that proposal and reproduce it here, with a bit of editing for context-building. An interesting (to me) aspect of the original post was that it garnered a fair number of offline inquiries, all from commercial publishers. This was despite the fact that the post clearly stated that there was nothing in the proposal for commercial ventures. I interpret this response to indicate that publishers are studying all new business models for academic materials and are determined to come to the dance even when they are not invited.
Almost Open Access begins with institutional repositories, which align themselves, understandably, with their parent institutions. Since most institutions at least in part serve undergraduates, for whom the goal of creating “the well-rounded person” has not been entirely abandoned, IRs set out to cover everything–to put the universe into the university. Let’s call this the vertical axis: the self-contained institution, with the IR that reflects the institution’s goals and constituencies. Researchers, on the other hand, tend to align themselves with other researchers in their fields. The expert on the use of microalgae for CO2 mitigation happens to reside at Tulane, but his or her intellectual colleagues may sit at the University of Hawaii or in Tokyo. Research thus is horizontal, straddling multiple institutions. This is the world of professional societies and academic fields (which are reflected in journals publishing). There is a tension here: libraries and IRs are being asked to face in two directions, vertically and horizontally, straining resources.
Not surprisingly, the actual use of IRs is less than many had hoped for, and much of the use is for such things as students’ papers. Nothing wrong with that, but it is not in keeping with the often-declared goal of “capturing the intellectual output of the university.” What I propose is that in addition to IRs (which ultimately are simply going to be extensions of course-management systems, so why not just hand off this function to Blackboard and be done with it?), libraries organize disciplinary repositories or DRs. These would be horizontal, not vertical, and reflect the actual research activities of the global intellectual community.
These DRs can be assembled on a consortial basis, with institutions sharing access to DRs and each institution taking charge–exclusive charge, so as to avoid redundancy–of a certain number of topics. How to assign who does what will not be easy, but it simply makes no sense for there to be competing DRs for some segment of nanotechnology or Keats research. One would expect that Harvard and the University of Chicago would do more than Middlesex Community College or an emerging institution in the developing world, but there is a case to be made for every institution to do something. Universities can save a great deal of money by recognizing that in some cases, there is no need to be universal.
How would this work? Progressively, I would hope. The larger institutions would take over the curation of more disciplines, but even the smallest would have to contribute something in order to get access to all the rest. The definitive DR on stem-cell research may be curated at John Hopkins and the history of Silicon Valley at San Jose State–not really comparable, to be sure–but Hopkins and SJS would each have access to the other’s DR. To each according to his means. To join the consortium, an institution would have to propose to the governing board what DRs the prospective member plans to sponsor and curate. The stern gaze of the board would prevent free riders or “cheap riders”: Carry your weight in curation or be an outcast.
As for independent scholars without institutional affiliation, I propose that they would gain access by doing the equivalent of purchasing a library card from a member institution. For $50 you get everything.
This plan solves a number of problems. It aligns repositories with the research community–horizontally, in DRs. It saves money by negating the need for institutions to try to cover everything, a pointless and unnecessary endeavor in the world of the Internet. For those uncomfortable with commercial organizations operating within the academic community, it provides a purely consortial arrangement among similar not-for-profits. It is progressive, enabling the participation of Third World scholars on the same level of access as their lucky counterparts in Oxford and Palo Alto. It provides a good ROI for major institutions, and a fabulous ROI for small ones. It eliminates the free-rider problem by mandating some level of curation, however small (but scaled to an institution’s resources), and thus provides an incentive for all institutions to get involved. And it captures the output of academic institutions in such a way as to provide significant incentives for researchers to participate (which is the problem with IRs: little researcher participation).
Open Access purists will note that this plan falls short of full OA. That is correct: this is Almost Open Access, as it requires institutional affiliation (which you can get for the cost of a library card). The virtue of AOA as opposed to OA is that AOA is sufficiently suasive to ensure economic commitment and participation. Traditional publishers (for whom there is absolutely nothing in this plan) will remark that AOA is what they have advocated all along. That is also correct. But publishers will never grow comfortable with pure OA, as their business training will not permit them to expend 100% of their effort to satisfy 1% of demand.
But they are not needed for this plan, so their comfort is besides the point.