Free as a Free Kitten: What is the Price of Open?

“In the Internet era information will be free, the only question remaining is who pays for that freedom.”  —  Kalev Leetaru

A faculty colleague recently suggested that Middlebury join the Open Library of the Humanities, an open access project that publishes over 20 journals in the humanities.  It would cost us $681 per year to support this effort — a pittance, really — but this is still money that it is not strictly necessary to spend in order to use these journals (since they are “open”), and which could, in theory, be spent on another resource for which paid access is the only option.

This request prompted me to consider some challenging questions about how to sustain the Open Access movement, and specifically Middlebury’s relationship to this movement.  For example:

  • How do we identify and support the most promising efforts in the area of open access?
  • Can we simply reallocate funds currently spent on non-open journals to support open journals?
  • As more and more faculty publish in open journals with Article Processing Charges, where do funds to pay these charges come from?
  • How do we integrate support for promising efforts to build towards open access into our collection development policies?
  • How do we collect use statistics on open resources, when anyone in our community can access them without having to go through our formal control systems?  (We can link to the journals in the Open Library of the Humanities in our system, for example, but, since they are “open,” anyone can read these articles without having to login via system.)

At a time when our materials budget cannot keep pace with the usurious annual increases from the major academic publishers, can we really afford to invest in efforts such as the Open Library of the Humanities?  But, on the other hand, given that the current trajectory of price increases is clearly unsustainable, can we afford not to take action now to redefine the system on our own terms? What influence can our small individual actions have on the broader changes underway within this sector?  It may seem like paying for things that are ostensibly free is not a prudent way to spend our money, but, on the other hand, our small acts may collectively help flip the system towards being more open, and, with that flip, help solve the problem of sustainability.

I’ve been working with colleagues from other libraries across the country to explore these hard but important questions. Our project began as a challenge from David Lewis, the dean of libraries at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI), who wondered what would happen if every academic library in the country invested 2.5% of its budget in the building out of an open scholarly commons.  By Lewis’ calculation, that would result in over $150 million per year.  Would that level of investment cause the system of scholarly communication to flip to an entirely open system?  (You can learn more about that effort at )

What is clear to me at this point is that this not a exclusively a library challenge. The solution will require all of us to re-think how we spend our precious budget dollars, where we choose to publish our articles, the standards by which we gauge the importance of our scholarship,  and the types of technology choices we make.  Having collectively outsourced most of the major components of the system of scholarly communication to the big commercial publishers over the last 30 years, it will not be an easy task to reclaim control over the means of production.  It seems likely that there will be a period of transition, where we will need to continue to support both the traditional subscription model to some degree, while simultaneously promoting and supporting the most promising open ventures, much as we currently continue to purchase both printed books and e-books.  It is a risky venture we have set out upon, and no doubt there will be bumps along the way.  But the alternative — waiting for someone else to solve this problem for us — seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.  My colleague from Amherst College, Bryn Geffert, nicely sums up this challenge in his essay “A Librarian’s Defense of Despair,” where he writes: “Might despair provide the excuse we need to spend money on ventures that—however risky—are less certain to fail than the system that bedevils us now?  Perhaps it is precisely because resources are diminishing that we must spend those diminished resources on new initiatives. Hopelessness provides the impetus we need to make impossible choices.”