The team is joined by Guest Kats Rosie Burbidge, Stephen Jones, Mathilde Pavis, and Eibhlin Vardy, and by InternKats Verónica Rodríguez Arguijo, Hayleigh Bosher, Tian Lu and Cecilia Sbrolli.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Does BePress Have a Better Subscription Model?

Being one of those IP types who tends to straddle practice and (at least) quasi-academic endeavours, this Kat has for several years been receiving periodic notice of various publications from the Berkeley Electronic Press. For one reason or another, I never actually pursued the issue of how one obtains access to articles published under the auspices of this Press until several weeks ago 0-- when a title seemed so spot-on to a matter of current interest that I just had to obtain a copy.

And so I did--following a short, idiosyncratic process by which I identified my institutional affiliation and agreed that the Press could inform the instutition's library of my interest in the article and, by extension, in the journal. This was followed up by an automatically generated email message.

As a result of this process, and having reflected on it, I took some time out to read in greater depth the rationale and aims of the Press's "guess access policy", which puts the reader in the middle of the potential subscription process between the press and its authors, on the one hand, and the libraries, which is the ultimate channel for distribution of the journal, via subscription, on the other. I have taken the liberty to set out the guest access policy in full below, together with several comments.

"Guest access policy
The Berkeley Electronic Press has pioneered an innovative guest access policy for scholarly journals. This policy offers a middle ground between the existing poles of free open access and fee-based subscription access.

Guest access balances the need for cost recovery against authors' and editors' desire for maximum readership and distribution. Those without subscriptions can access any article by filling out a short form that allows us to inform their library of their interest in reading our journals. When libraries are convinced of sufficient interest in the journal, they subscribe. Afterwards, access for all faculty, staff, and students at that institution is immediate and there are no more forms to fill out.

Why do libraries subscribe to Berkeley Electronic Press journals? One simple reason is that if one's community uses the journals, paying for them is the right thing to do. Beyond these moral obligations, our data indicate that readers completing the guest access forms represent somewhere between one-tenth and one-quarter of an institution’s likely readership. They are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to institutional interest.

This means that by subscribing, a library will provide its community with 4 to 10 times the usage-value that it would have from guest access alone. Additionally, subscribing guarantees ongoing access. A library is therefore not just buying this year's downloads and next year’s downloads, but downloads forever.

In part, the system depends upon the good faith of librarians. Putting our own faith in the good faith of librarians has been a favorable gamble for us. We have worked this way since 2001 with positive results. We hope to continue guest access forever and will continue this policy as long as librarians respond to interest on their campus with subscriptions. This model is similar to the National Public Radio model in the United States, where listeners foot the bill with contributions, but must suffer periodic "Pledge Breaks" where the stations ask for contributions. In our case, however, the Pledge Breaks constitute a short web form and only those who don't contribute suffer them.

We are not fanatical about our guest access policy. It is one model among many. We see both virtues and drawbacks in other models. For example, fully open access such as the Public Library of Science avoids the inconvenience of our web forms but requires cost recovery from authors and foundation support. The Berkeley Electronic Press strikes a balance between maximizing distribution and finding an equitable way to cover costs among those who benefit."

I have several observations:
1. The appeal to the so-called moral aspects of the relationship between the library
and the press with respect to subscriptions is not clear. After all, the library is at most a passive purveyor of the journal, should it wish to take out a subscription. The library has no moral obligation if the Press continues to offer me the option to access articles in exchange for providing information to my library about my use of the journal's contents.

2. If there is a moral issue here, it is between the Press and myself. But why put me, as a reader, in a potential moral dilemma. It is better that there simply be a policy that, after a small fixed number of downloads without my library subscribing to the journal, my guest access is terminated unless the library takes out a subsciption. Indeed, in the absence of such a policy, the arrangement is not really playing to my sense of morality as much as playing to my sense of guilt.

3. The reference to the "good faith" of the librarians is also somewhat puzzling. Here, as well, they are not a party to the agreement between the Press and me. I assume that librarians, as professionals (my wife is a librarian), will make the decision about whether to subsribe to a journal on the basis of various factors, including interest expressed by the faculty. Putative "good faith" owed to the publisher of a prospective journal subscription seems misplaced.

4. The analogy between the National Public Radio model in the United States and the guest access policy is not clear to me. Anyway, it is my impression that National Public Radio gets its contributions from individual listeners.

5. If so, maybe the better analogy to National Public Radio is for it offer individual users a subscription (say $50 for two years) in exchange for full access to the journals published by the Press. I already pay a subscription fee for access to certain podcast resources. Maybe the problem is that we academics tend to view ourselves as largely fee-exempt consumers of library-supported resources.

6. As someone who follows the various attempts to find workable subscription/ distrbution models of content, I was intrigued by the comment at the end that the Press is "not fanatical about our guest access policy." Does that mean that the policy has been tweaked over the years? If so, in what ways? That would be an interesting coda to the access policy statement.

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