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Since the early 19th century, libraries have been growing increasingly open. They’ve stopped charging for individual book check-outs, and academic libraries have moved to having open stacks and implemented no-charge interlibrary loans. Because of this historical precedent, says Irene Herold, one of the nation’s leaders in the Open Access movement, this has become a sustainable movement in today’s academic libraries.

“When I think about OA in journals today, I think we’re at the tipping point where we’re able to continue the natural progression and the evolving information landscape and to move barriers,” she says. “We’re changing to a more open and free system of information exchange.”

Herold is the university librarian at the University of Hawaii Manoa and president of the Association of College and Research Libraries. In her eyes, OA is a question of library responsibility; sustainability is merely a question of how.

Sustainability and responsibility

Both librarians and government organizations have already taken big steps to increase the sustainability of OA, but there are still questions to be answered.

Herold says the reason OA is becoming a sustainable movement is because the government mandates that government-funded research be put in institutional repositories. The National Institutes of Health started this with PubMed, but now all federal agencies are in the process of creating repositories. Public-access policies and support from the federal government have turned the tide on OA sustainability.

One issue that touches both sustainability and responsibility, though, is that OA should not result in increasing any barriers to the openness of research. Herold says that article-processing charges can decrease the sustainability of OA in the long run by creating a barrier for researchers who may not be able to afford the cost.

“We have to be cognizant and careful about creating the haves and have nots,” says Herold. “If we’re making it free on the user end, we don’t want to create barriers on the deposit end.”

When working within a gold OA framework, this could mean having librarians work to lower and help pay article processing charges, although smaller institutions might not be able to do this.

Leading the way with institutional repositories

Fundamentally, though, she says that institutional repositories (IRs) are – alongside government initiatives – one of the two most important developments which make OA sustainable. IRs, which operate under the Green funding model, are now run by both academic institutions and government entities. IRs can be used to host academic journals and run publications, and they’re free for both users and depositors.

Many larger universities have huge amounts of storage space for OA data and research to be deposited. Choosing the right technology to maintain and improve an IR over the long term can be an issue in keeping these sustainable. Smaller institutions might not have this capacity, though, and that’s why some larger universities, like UHM, offer collection space to their sister institutions. This ensures that researchers from any institution can make their research available for publishing.

Herold says that the other major factor in OA sustainability is simply constant nurturing. The movement can be a sustainable one, but it goes against deeply ingrained traditions and requires librarians to rethink their role in academia. To keep the movement going forward, librarians should be dedicated to raising awareness and helping others understand the changing role of today’s library.

“Our shift in our collective identity is away from the traditional focus of merely acquiring information for our users and is effecting change in the scholarly communication landscape,” says Herold. “It’s becoming less about purchasing access to information, and more about investing in ways to make information openly accessible.”