Aaron Tay
Aaron Tay
Nov 12, 2017 · 11 min read

In honor of this year’s Open Access Week, here’s a personal reflection of my engagement with open access over the 10 years of my career in academic libraries. I also consider the question “”Can you be a librarian without being an open access advocate”.

Many of you may find my personal reflection of my journey in open access to be of little interest, so please feel free to jump ahead to my discussion of “Can you be a librarian without being an open access advocate?”


I was having a twitter conversation with someone recently, and this fairly new librarian mentioned to me that while in library school I was described as a “hard core OA advocate” based on my blog posts.

This gave me pause. I’m not sure if I would consider myself an Open access advocate though I have written more and more on it since 2013.

A lot of it is descriptive though (e.g.trying to explain why institutional repositories are struggling or commenting on the state of open access discovery) or trying to predict how a fully or mostly open access world be like for libraries .

Still, I guess it’s easy to assume that if someone writes a lot and studies open access, he must be a hard core OA advocate. But am I an Open Access advocate? Can you even be a librarian without being a open access advocate as I provocatively asked on Twitter?

A “brief” history of my personal engagement with open access as a librarian

I’ve just celebrated my 10 years as an academic librarian recently. How many of those years do you think I spent engaged with open access?

In fact, for my first 5 years in librarianship, I pretty much ignored open access and went my way learning about other aspects of academic librarianship. From 2007 to roughly 2012, open access was not on my radar though towards the later part of this period, I was beginning to see it get mentioned more.

Towards the end of that period, my institution at the time started a institutional repository and like most IRs, it was difficult to get any traction and even though I knew other librarians in the US etc were discussing open access excitedly, I didn’t quite see the point.

I of course read about the serials crisis and some academic librarians were telling stories of having budgets slashed by half and how Open Access would be the savior.

But I was unmoved, my view was “well we seem pretty okay with the budget, we are not pulling our hairs out deciding on what to cancel so I don’t see the need to really push that hard for Open Access”.

The devastating response from a poster at LSW (I think it was Walt Crawford?) was well if Havard the richest library in the world is declaring to the world they have a problem, what makes you think you will be immune?

To be fair, at the time, open access wasn’t as big a thing as it is now locally. Most university libraries in Singapore at the time didn’t have much of a “scholarly communication” function. Part of it was also , I remember speaking to a very senior librarian at the time, and this librarian expressed doubts that open access would ever take off, so as a new librarian with quite a lot of new areas to explore, I promptly ignored it and went to study other more certain areas.

Learning and thinking about open access (2013–2014)

Still spurred on by the comment on Havard and the fact that one of my library contacts Walt Crawford who is an expert on Open Access and had just written a book “Open Access: What You Need to Know Now”, I eventually decided to go study it seriously.

I compared it with the Peter Suber’s book in my very first blog post on open access in 2013.

At the time, it seemed to me, deep knowledge of open access and scholarly communication wasn’t common at least locally and by reading both books, I had a good leg up compared to many (even librarians) in this topic.

This has changed a lot today of course, knowledge of open access is more widespread and there are many scholarly communication librarians who know far more than a generalist like me.

Still I wonder. Are there still many academic librarians who do their jobs with minimal understanding of open access? Taking Crawford’s book as a standard, how much of what is in the book is known to your catalogers? your ERM librarians? How many academic librarians still make the mistake of thinking Gold Open Access definitely means charging APCs? Is there a minimum threshold to know to be a librarian?

As I argue later, the coming years will be when practically no job in the librarian will be exempt from knowing about open access.

Perhaps Open access is coming and we should prepare? (2014–2016)

But around 2014 , I started noticing studies on the “state of Open Access” began to show surprisingly high proportions of free to read articles. The Science Metrix reported commissioned by EU in 2013 was one that I remember vividly because for the first time, a large scale study showed that close to 50% of papers were free to read.

It was also around the time, that studies started to observe that the SCNs (Social Collaboration Networks) like ResearchGate and Academia.edu were starting to accumulate lots of papers. Sharing by researchers seem to start catching on! While this was often illegally done, it seemed to me very promising that researchers were now into sharing their papers.

This is the context in which I wrote one of my most popular posts on Open access, How academic libraries may change when Open Access becomes the norm in 2014. When I wrote this, I was still unsure if Open Access would take hold (say >80% open access). I put it at 50–50 I believe for the next 20 years.

But at the time, I believed it was certainly worth thinking about and preparing for if libraries particularly academic libraries were to survive the transition from a role where academic libraries handled paywall subscriptions.

Open Access is inevitable (2016-

Today, I think Open Access is inevitable, though the form it might take is still unclear. Will we be in a world where there is near universal access but no cost savings because publishers have recaptured all subscription fees in APCs? Or will we be in a world where Green OA plays a significant role (perhaps supported by strong global repository network of subject/institutional/preprint servers as envisioned by Confederation of Open Access Repositories ) or perhaps something totally different?

I know many open access advocates reading this might be thinking, “this guy is really dim, he’s took forever to come to the obvious conclusion about open access”

But I think one must be careful to distinguish between wanting something and reality. There’s also another reason why I’m relatively slow to accept this as you will see later. Also to be fair, I think I know of at least one other person who is more knowledgeable than me in Open access who thinks I’m too optimistic!

In any case, one of the reasons I think open access is inevitable is a certain signal I was waiting for recently appeared.

What was the signal? It is the rise of a new breed of products and services built around the growth of Open Access. I don’t just mean OA publishers but also tools like Unpaywall, Open Access Button and the commercial Kopernio (formerly Canaryhaz) that only make sense if the proportion of open access is above a certain level. (Something I predicted in 2014)

Open Access articles (or rather free to read articles) have risen to last an extent that it now makes sense to always check for free copies if your institution doesn’t have it. As I wrote in “Getting serious about open access discovery — Is open access getting too big to ignore? “ , we seem to be at the tipping point or passed the threshold where it’s second nature to wonder if there is a free version and be likely to be right half the time.

The result in the earlier study I mentioned in 2013, has now being confirmed with more recent studies on users of Unpaywall where 50% of what people search for are free to read and similarly for users of Lazy Scholar, where 49–54% of items with doi can be found.

A world where 50% of articles researchers are looking for is likely to be free, is a much different world than one where only 10% are free.

As such, Libraries like those in the UK are now experimenting with intergrating open access discovery into discovery systems and ILL systems.

Most importantly it’s the moves of the traditional publishers in particular Elsevier that convince me that Open Access is inevitable (I’m not blind to the irony here). It’s no secret that Elsevier is preparing seriously for a OA world, whether it is by launching APC journals (they are the 2nd largest OA publisher in the world), acquiring subject and institutional repositories networks like SSRN and Bepress, or just shifting to a services/analytics based company by getting into the researcher’s workflow.

Don’t believe me? “Elsevier is a global information analytics business that helps institutions and professionals progress science, advance healthcare and improve performance”.

Think this is just a meaningless slogan? See this analysis on the acquisitions made by Elsevier and how this lines up with the plan to embed themselves into all phases of the workflow.

Elsevier who I have the greatest respect for business savvy and ability to squeeze blood out of stone seem to act like a open access world is inevitable and they plan for it to come , albeit on their terms to the dismay of open access advocates who seem to be regretting past decisions and moves. I suspect Elsevier and co may want to drag it out to milk the subscriptions longer, but they are fully prepared for open access world to come.

Can you be a librarian without being an open access advocate?

So we circle back to the question I asked at the start. Can you be a librarian without being an open access advocate?

If you read through the thread, you can see quite a few opinions by librarians and non-librarians.

As expected the more pro open access people were more verbal, but I did get a few people who said you can be a librarian without being an OA advocate.

There were many insightful and interesting replies but this I think hit the nail on the head.

Personally, I think I am not as gungho about open access as I should be, because I’m acutely aware that it’s coming while likely to be an overall good will lead to winners and losers and I’m worried academic librarianship might be one of the losers.

At best, it will heavily disrupt academic libraries leading to a lot of pain due to adjustments in job roles before stabilizing, at worst it will greatly reduce the need for librarians and lead to decline of libraries, I confess to being afraid for myself and what it means for academic librarianship.

For decades a lot of our value to faculty as been on the role of a purchaser. In a open access world, we will need to scramble to show value in other ways and to our credit as a profession we are preparing now.

Still I tend to put a brave face on this when I blog and only hint a little about my concerns and I even feel a little anxious and maybe ashamed blogging this.

Part of it is because librarians are often held up to be so selfless and so altruistic for our users that it feels petty to worry about ourselves. The other reason is my perception that librarians are often seen as scapegoats for the failure of open access, and I think there’s a lot of “if you are not with me, you are against me” rhetoric running around (from librarians and non-librarians alike) in the open access movement, so it’s dangerous to say anything that isn’t 100% for open access.

Are my concerns valid?

Honestly, I don’t know. Many much more senior and smarter librarians hasten to remind me the library has survived other transitions such as automation in the 60s, the rise of the world wide web in the late 90s and it will survive a transition to a open access world.

Still ,the way the last big disruption was handled in particular doesn’t fill me with much confidence, but to our credit, I think we are responding much better this time around (problems with institutional repositories not withstanding), but transitions are tricky and you never know.

I do think we need a serious discussion about it. What jobs will disappear when open access becomes dominant? What type of new librarian roles and jobs will emerge in their place? And by discussing I don’t mean just saying “they won’t do X, but they can do Y” but also trying to estimate FTEs required.

I know it’s not easy given how it’s unclear how open access will eventually shake out (e.g. FTE for handing article deposits for institutional repositories might be not needed in some scenarios , though they could instead by handing APCs, or data repositories.) and it may well prove too early…

Anyway, I’m sure I’m not the first librarian to wonder about this, and many are thinking about it privately.

I think it’s a tribute to how amazing my librarians colleagues are when I discuss this and some privately admit that it may well be the coming of open access might greatly reduce the size of the library industry (though always maintaining that there are other roles of course — but what’s the chance that those roles will exactly require the same amount of work force?), but if so it’s a price they are willing to pay if it leads to a greater good and the cynic in me thinks many of them probably would have retired by then. :)

The future of Open access and librarianship

In any case, my thinking currently is open access is inevitable now, so arguing whether you are an advocate or not is pointless. As a librarian we need to prepare now for it’s coming and influence it in a way that leads to the maximum benefits for our users and maybe even with a little bit of consideration for ourselves.

In fact, I don’t really think there are librarians who are anti-Open access (leaving aside a few famous examples who shall remain nameless).

My guess is there are actually there are 3 types of librarians when it comes to open access. First there are the hard core Open access advocates. They are the ones leading the charge for all the amazing things, they are the stars. Many are holding scholarly communication positions, some are not.

The second group are the new librarians. My limited exposure seems to indicate that the newer librarians all tend to be pro open access and think it’s a exciting new area. Still there’s a different between saying you are “for open access” and actually knowing enough to make an impact, open access is a really complicated beast that sometimes I wonder if I will ever totally figure it out.

Then there are the much larger silent majority of current librarians who just do their jobs and barely care about open access, because it rarely affects them now.

Still things can change very fast. A couple of years ago you could happily be a electronic resource librarian without knowing much about open access. Today, with more and more Open Access resources coming in so you need to know how it might affect your usage of subscribed resources, it might actually make sense to use tools to make decisions on subscriptions based on amount of open access available. Handle the discovery service? Better know how open access resources work in your central index.

Heck, MIT Libraries even moved collections under scholarly communications.


Time to wake up and learn more.

So if you are a librarian you should definitely know open access. Start by reading Peter Suber’s Open access book (it’s open access).

Your reasons could be purely altruistic — in that you believe a world where all knowledge is free access is a better world. Failing that you could be simply selfish, and want to ensure you have a job.

Either way, ignoring open access is dangerous…..

Note: This was reproduced from Musings about Librarianship Blog

Academic librarians and open access

Thoughts on open access, focusing on discovery, delivery from the academic librarian’s point of view.

Aaron Tay

Written by

Aaron Tay

A Librarian from Singapore Management University. Into social media, bibliometrics, library technology and above all libraries.

Academic librarians and open access

Thoughts on open access, focusing on discovery, delivery from the academic librarian’s point of view.

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