Scholarly Open-Access Publishing and the Future of Academic Library Acquisition Departments

Public domain photo from the Library of Congress.

Open Access will save on more than just journal subscription costs.

“The research communications system is in a period of transition towards open access.” [1]

“Gold OA could account for 50 percent of the scholarly journal articles sometime between 2017 and 2021, and 90 percent of articles as soon as 2020 and more conservatively by 2025.” [2]

These two statements have major implications for the future of acquisitions departments in academic libraries. These departments are responsible for purchasing and licensing proprietary scholarly content and making it available to their libraries’ patrons.

However, as more and more scholarly content becomes available online and open access, the need for academic library acquisitions departments will decrease dramatically.

This change will have an added benefit for libraries, for in addition to saving money on subscription costs, they will also reap savings from no longer having to bear the salary costs of those involved in collection development, ordering, and licensing library materials.

In most academic libraries, collection development and acquisitions departments are still organized in much the same way they were in the print era.

Typically, in college and university libraries, bibliographers (or collection management librarians) have the role of selecting and de-selecting materials from the library collections. They generally forward their decisions either directly to book vendors or indirectly through their libraries’ acquisition departments.

When the ordered material arrives, it is checked in and cataloged.

For electronic items, the procedure works pretty much the same way. Bibliographers decide what ebooks, databases, or e-journals to license, and the licenses for these get ordered either directly or via the acquisitions staff.

Libraries purchase books, but they license electronic resources — for limited time periods. And negotiating licenses with vendors is expensive because it’s a time-consuming process, and it involves top-level acquisitions staff and often involves university counsel. With open-access, all this work disappears.

While library acquisitions will not completely go away, another factor that will lessen the need for acquisitions staff is library vendors and publishers’ growing practice of selling or licensing titles in batches rather than one by one. This lessens work by creating an economy of scale.

Monographic acquisitions will decrease also, favoring open access ebooks. The Directory of Open Access Books just started up, signaling the beginning of a trend away from proprietary books.

University presses are closing down. Books with small print runs are rarely profitable anymore, so fewer and fewer print books will be available for libraries to purchase.

This transition will open up new opportunities for libraries. Building library collections was a way of adding value to information, but because access to scholarly information will become almost universal, the need to build collections will disappear.

Instead, libraries will add value to information by validating it or by enabling its discovery. That is to say, libraries will increasingly function as “recommender systems” for their users, filtering out works published by predatory publishers and pointing only to the highest quality research.

As research output increases, scholars will rely on library-based recommender systems to screen out the unworthy research and limit discovery to only the highest quality research, a task that academic libraries are well-positioned to fulfill.

[1]. Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings (2012). Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications. [London?: s.n.]

[2]. Lewis, David W. (2012). “The inevitability of open access.” College & Research Libraries 73.5:493-506.

One Response to Scholarly Open-Access Publishing and the Future of Academic Library Acquisition Departments

  1. When you look at what “university presses are closing down,” you will realize that they are almost without exception among the smallest presses like SMU and Rice. Efforts to close medium-size presses like LSU and Missouri have so far been unsuccessful, and no large press has yet been threatened with closure. Thus it is very unlikely that the output of university presses overall will change much anytime soon. As for open-access ebooks, they yet constitute a very tiny minority of books published by university presses, and the vast majority of those are backlist rather than frontlist titles. The new trend is for university presses to offer their ebooks through aggregations like Project Muse and JSTOR, which are subscription-based products. I would venture to say that it will be a very long time before open access makes much of a dent in the publication of scholarly monographs.

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