Academic libraries in a mixed open access & paywall world — Can we substitute open access for paywalled articles?

Aaron Tay
Aaron Tay
Jun 26, 2017 · 11 min read

In 2014, I wrote about “How academic libraries may change when Open Access becomes the norm” which attempts to forecast how academic libraries will change when “50%-80% or more of the annual output of new papers will be open access in some form”.

I’ve come to realize a more interesting and critical question for libraries would be on what to do during the transition period, when open access becomes a significant but not yet majority pool of articles, say 25%-40% range. In other words, while not fully dominant enough for large scale disruptions but at a stage where it is too big to ignore.

A TLDR summary of this post is, as open access levels rises and our tools begin to properly work with open access items to provide better coverage, more reliable linking and more data on open access, librarians may face many interesting choices that didn’t used to exist as we move towards a mixed open access and paywall environment.

In this post, I focus more on the possibility of substituting Green OA versions with paywalled version of record articles, rather than other issues around supporting Gold OA.

Note that the implicit assumption in this piece is that open access (OA) will inevitably stabilize at some high level (say 75%+) , but of course there is no reason why this will definitely occur (see book/ebook transition for example)

Open Access too big to ignore now?

As I argued recently in Getting serious about open access discovery — Is open access getting too big to ignore?, we may already be near or at this lesser point.

To recap the article, what signs are there we are at this point? Basically, the recent proliferation of services and tools (some by commercial interests) to help users find open access alternates to paywall alternatives possibly signal a shift. Tools and services such as (and as I write this Clarivate has announced a partnership with oadoi), unpaywall, Canaryhaz together with greater focus on completeness and reliability of open access linking of library discovery tools ,link resolvers and interlibrary loan will help create a virtuous cycle to encourage researchers to support open access particularly in the case of Green open access.

I’m also cheered by developments by international organizations such as COAR , Crossref, Niso’s ODI (Open discovery initative) which are setting up the framework on which open access can operate.

But what can individual libraries and librarians do during this transition period? Can we do anything to hasten the transition to open access? Should we?

Substituting subscriptions with Open access versions?

Ryan Regier, a government librarian in Canada , recently blogged a thought provoking piece entitled “The problem with using cost-per use analysis to justify journal subscriptions”.

Ryan Regier’s blog — I highly recommend it

He makes many great points on why usage statistics for journal articles (typically in COUNTER) may not actually show “real” demand. For instance he points out, that many researchers have poor file management practices and that it is often faster to search for a specific article in Google Scholar and download it than searching your own hard-disk for the article. As such,many researchers end up downloading the same article many times in a JIT (just in time) way, hence inflating the counts. But I think a more intriguing critique of usage statistics is this

“When there is an option between an open access version and subscribed publisher version, our search tools usually default to the publisher version. Those 3000 downloads of a journal that justified you re-subscribing to it? Likely a large chunk of those downloads came from accessing articles that have green open access versions online. You’re paying for something that is already online for free.” — Ryan Regier

This is perhaps true and getting more relevant as more Green Open access articles become available, particularly with the rise of new preprint servers.

He then has this recommendation for librarians

“Tinker with your search tools as much as you can so they link to open access versions first. That way your usage stats will be a better representation of what content you actually need to pay for. Encourage use of open access versions over pay-walled versions. Promote open access full-text finders like Unpaywall or the OA Button. Look at building open access full-text finders right into your search or discovery tools.” — — Ryan Regier

When talking about linking to open access version first, Ryan is presumably talking mostly about linking to Green OA versions here, since Gold OA doesn’t have pay-walled versions to link against first.

That said he could possibly also talking about increasing the pool of Gold and Green OA articles findable in discovery tools, so that a user might decide to use a OA article (either Green or Gold OA) in place of a different pay-walled article. But that’s fairly uncontroversial.

Things are progressing quickly.

When Ryan wrote this he was probably aware our library discovery tools and link resolvers were not the best at discovering and linking reliably to open access articles, in particular green open access articles in institutional repositories. and our tools generally lacked the functionality to do the things he suggested.

In general even if open access sources could be activated in discovery indexes, they tend to have unreliably linking (including the tendency to link to content that isn’t open access), and are often treated as second class citizens compared to subscribed content in terms of trouble shooting.

Still as I have written before, things are slowly changing. Some of what he recommends is indeed happening, for example (the service Unpaywall relies on partly and is good at surfacing green OA material that is usually hard to find in discovery indexes) is now included in SFX link resolvers and 360 Link supports both oaDOI and open access button. These are two major and leading link resolvers in the academic library market and have no doubt the others will follow suit.

But let’s look closer at the implementation of and open access button in Proquests 360link resolver.

How it works is that when a user tries to access an article in the discovery service or via a link resolver and the article is not available via the institution’s subscription, the system will check and openaccess button for free versions and display a link if a free item is found.

Still, this doesn’t quite fit what Ryan recommends which is to “Encourage use of open access versions over pay-walled versions” as open access versions here are the last resort. Still I assume it would be a fairly easy fix to change this so that sources like, openaccess button and others can be treated like other traditional paywalled sources and ranked say as the first choice over other sources.

But if this was available should we librarians do it?

Can we substitute open access articles for paywalled articles?

When I read Ryan’s post, my first thought was a obvious one, Green OA articles exist in many different states, it can be a preprint (before submission for peer review), a post print (passed peer review but before final editing and copywriting) or even a final published version (with paging numbers if the journal allows it but this is less common). They are not exact substitutes to the subscribed version or are they? This obviously also cuts to a old open access debate about how much value journal publishers add to the process past peer review acceptance.

Let’s assume for the moment, sources like, openaccess button can reliably via API tell you the version of open access you can get (in practice they typically can’t due to lack of support of standards). What would you do?

Ryan decided to do a poll on Twitter (see below).

As I write this, in this purely unscientific poll, out of 42 votes, slightly over half chose to display the subscribed published (final version of record) article.

As a librarian, I admitted to be a bit surprised at the results (though we can’t be sure only librarians answered the poll). My first thought is that, some if not most faculty would rebel when they realized they were no longer getting nicely formatted pdfs with paging numbers from the publishers when they used to in the past, so most librarians would vote for the subscribed versions overwhelmingly to avoid this problem.

As another librarian notes, not doing so alsoimplicitly breaks the unwritten contract we have with users if we claim to have subscriptions for Journal X from Y to Z years and then serve them the post print version.

But then again, this is an assumption, I have read surveys that say researchers definitely prefer the version of record over post-prints but I’m unsure if in a time crunch they will make do with post-prints in a pinch.

I also notice it is common practice when processing Document delivery or interlibrary loan requests to first check for free versions, presumably by searching Google Scholar or Google books and I assume often the free version found and delivered via such a method may not be the final published version.

How often do requesters refuse to accept such versions & insist the library buy or loan what they requested? I’m unsure if a study with data on this exists.

But of course there is this pesky thing about page numbers that postprints lack, but I can imagine for the sake of convenience , some researchers would just look up the actual page numbers and cite the post print like the version of record (assuming they don’t need to cite specific sections). This has led some open access activists to advocate reform for citing practices though I’m not sure if anyone is taking this seriously.

Favoring open access versions over subscribed versions will also lead to lowered usage of the latter and one can also imagine objections by electronic resource librarians and subject librarians who have made the conscious decision to decide to subscribe to a resource and feel pressure to show use of said resource, typically in terms of COUNTER compliant statistics.

Guide to COUNTER (Counting Online Usage of Networked Electronic Resources) — the standard measure for usage of e-journals/books

Interestingly, I do see a certain dilemma emerge with subscriptions where librarians worry if use of a certain resource they subscribed falls too low (showing they had poor judgement in subscribing to that resource) and yet equally, worrying if usage of a resource is too high (probably leading to calls by vendors for increased prices (beyond the usual) next subscription periods)

Should libraries promote long term open access interests over short term researcher wants?

As Ryan has tweeted where you stand on this question lies on where you priorities lie.

A interesting take on this is Rick Anderson’s view of librarians as either “Soldiers” or “ Revolutionaries”. According to him, the soldier view would tend to among other things

  • focus on solving problems that are local, tangible and immediate
  • see the library primarily as an agent of its sponsoring institution
  • focus on responding to patrons’ demonstrated behavior and desires

Such a view would probably focus on providing only green OA as a last resort and direct users there only if there were no subscribed articles and would never send them to open access versions if subscribed versions exist.

A revolutionary mindset would instead try to focus on the greater good of speeding up the transition to open access by directing people to open access versions first.

I’m not 100% sure this analogy holds, because in times of limited budget, it may actually be the “Soldier” thing to prioritize subscription of titles that have very little open access material available over those that are mostly available via open access (see later).

Of course non-librarian open access advocates have tended to rake librarians over the coals for the former and hope that we become the latter and some even go further asking librarians to cancel all subscriptions!

Using data on open access to decide and act on subscriptions

If you think that pushing Green OA to users when you already subscribed to nicely formatted articles available is too radical consider this instead.

Say you are deciding to renew or cancel a journal title (or even a package of journal titles) and thanks to services such as 1Science’s OAfigr, combined with link resolver statistics you can tell exactly in general what percentage of the articles in the journal title are available in Green OA, and even historically what % of articles your users wanted were actually available via OA.

Would you cancel a journal title subscription because historically your statistics told you 90% of what your users wanted could be satisfied via OA?

Isn’t this choice pretty much the same as the one above except delayed?

Similarly integrating your interlibrary loan service to find open access articles via OA button pretty much has the same effect, you are trying to substitute Green OA with subscribed versions so you don’t need to go ILL/DDS the final version.

In actuality, I think for most academic libraries, the people making the decisions on collection policy typically aren’t the ones who typically think of Open Access, so maybe this won’t happen. But things may be changing…..

Measuring the embargo effect?

Incidentally we might actually soon be able to settle the long standing debate in open access circles on whether publisher embargos will affect subscriptions or lead to cancellations of journals.

As I noted on twitter, I don’t think embargos or lack of them affects librarians decisions to cancel or subscribe to journals much currently because generally we lack the information to decide anyway.

But this may change in the future when

  • green OA levels are generally higher
  • we are able to reliably measure OA levels at the journal level globally and how this maps to what our users want. (HINT use openrefine and OADOI api or R library with oadoi)
  • we can reliably discover and link to those open access articles.


As levels of open access , in particular Green OA rises , we librarians will be face with interesting choices.

While I understand the mindset that Green OA doesn’t threaten subscriptions because librarians would not want to cancel a journal as long as there isn’t 100% coverage, it’s unclear to me if this argument comes more from the lack of data on OA coverage to even decide than reality.

Sure you probably won’t cancel a 100% core title but what about a none top 10 journal title? It’s hard to believe availability of open access alternatives will not have any consideration at all eventually.

Even more radical would be to direct users to open access versions (even “inferior” post prints) rather than available subscribed versions. This would lower usage of the latter and lead to cancellation or a bargain chip for negotiating …..

So at the very least a transition to Open access will lead to interesting decisions on how to handle discovery service, ILL/DDS and subscriptions.

How will it all play out when we are no longer talking hypotheticals and things start to get real?

Academic librarians and open access

Thoughts on open access, focusing on discovery, delivery…