Free Access and Free Riders: The Emerging Problem
Column Editor: Rick Anderson (Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources & Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah; Phone: 801-721-1687)
A growing number of new publishing initiatives are designed to make scholarship — and especially scholarly monographs — freely available to readers. Some of these are based on an explicitly open access model (meaning that access to the content is free both for reading and for reuse under a Creative Commons “Attribution” license or its functional equivalent), while others are based on a public access model (which makes the content publicly available for reading and reuse within Fair Use boundaries, but allows the author to restrict some kinds of reuse).
Several of these emerging initiatives rely on contributions from third-party organizations, especially libraries. In some cases these contributions take the form of a membership fee, and in others they take the form of project-specific contributions (kind of like the Kickstarter model).
For example, consider the Open Library of Humanities (OLH), a recently-established open access publishing platform for the humanities. OLH solicits membership fees from libraries ranging between $500 and $1,000 (depending on FTE) in support of overall program costs and smaller project-based contributions toward the publication costs of scholarly articles and books.
Knowledge Unlatched is a somewhat different example, one that focuses on the support of scholarly monographs. Libraries can join up for $500, and then pledge contributions to the up-front cost of producing individual scholarly books (which are then “unlatched” and made freely available online). The more libraries sign on to support a given book, the lower the per-library contribution.
The University of California Press has recently announced a new monograph publishing program called Luminos, which libraries can join for a membership fee of $1,000.
Most ambitious of all is the Open Access Network, which proposes to make large swaths of currently toll-access journal scholarship in the humanities and social sciences available on an OA basis. This would be funded by voluntary contributions from colleges and universities — many of them in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars (the amount being pegged to enrollment).
In all of these cases, the funding model is something like the one that all listeners to National Public Radio will recognize: those who benefit from the free service are encouraged to contribute voluntarily to its support, in return for which they generally get little or no direct and concrete benefit. On the plus side, this model spreads costs widely, and therefore thinly; it also makes freely available to the public content that would otherwise be available only to paying customers. The problem, of course, is that for any individual institution (as for any individual NPR listener), the temptation to be a free rider is very strong, and there’s very little likelihood that any individual institution’s failure to pay will result in a collapse of the program.
The free-rider problem compounds as the number of programs built on this model continues to grow, and all indications are that it will do so. A library may be relatively likely to pony up $1,000 for a crowd-funded OA publishing program if it’s the only such program in the marketplace — but when it’s one of ten or twenty, the library starts having to make difficult decisions about how to allocate its resources. And when a program like the Open Access Network emerges — one that relies on institutions of higher education voluntarily contributing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on an annual basis — those decisions become more difficult still. As the number of programs grows, the determining question quickly shifts from “Is this a worthy program in which to invest $1,000?” to “What criteria will we use to decide which of these worthy programs to support?”
Here’s another question that becomes more and more urgent as these programs proliferate: what is the proper balance between investing institutional funds in products and services that directly benefit the institution’s clientele and investing those funds in programs that seek to make the larger world of scholarship a better place, without providing much in the way of significant, direct, and targeted local benefits?
One response might be to point out that although supporting such programs may provide only indirect benefits to any particular library, those benefits are nevertheless real — that making the world of scholarly communication better helps everyone, certainly including the stakeholders of every academic library.
Another response might be to appeal to the librarian’s sense of moral obligation: “How can you continue to support a scholarly communication system that is characterized by [insert your least-favorite properties of the current system here]?”
Another might be to argue that the proper role of libraries needs to expand in the radically different information environment in which we all now find ourselves. It’s not just about buying stuff for our patrons anymore (this argument might go) but about helping to make sure that when they’re no longer our patrons, they’ll still have access to high-quality information.
And yet another might take a more explicitly political tone: libraries exist not only to help their local constituencies accomplish scholarly tasks, but also to advance the cause of social justice by promoting the broadest-possible access to information.
About two-and-a-half years ago, in the Scholarly Kitchen, I discussed a couple of early projects along these lines (the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the arXiv, both of which had adopted NPR-style funding models) and predicted that this kind of crowdsourced approach was unlikely to “becom(e) a major player in the landscape anytime soon.” Like so many of my prognostications, this one is starting to look like it may have been wrong. But I think the jury is still out — setting up a program and getting it going on seed grants and temporary institutional subvention is one thing; keeping it going in the long run is another. The number of these programs is certainly growing, but with the exception of the arXiv and the SEP, all of the programs mentioned above (and others not included in that list) are still in various stages of incubation. As more and more of them emerge and approach libraries for voluntary support, it will become less and less possible for any individual program to get a slice of any particular library’s budget pie — and librarians will feel more and more urgently the need to figure out not just whether they will participate, but (if so) the criteria by which they’ll choose between them.
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.